Westpac : Paving the way to agile working with neuroscience

When Westpac began a transition of over 12,000 people to activity-based working, they sought the expertise of the Learning Quest team to create a program to help leaders successfully manage the transition.

When Westpac’s Head of HR & Workplace Change Kristen Miller embarked on an international study tour of London, Singapore, Amsterdam and Australia to research activity-based working, she discovered that many of the prominent businesses she visited had underinvested on the people and cultural side of this change.

Kristen recognised that Westpac’s new agile WorkSMART way of working required a fundamental shift in thinking and behaviours for both leaders and team members.

“None of the organisations I visited had created sustainable cultural and behavioural change with their activity-based working programs in terms of effectively dealing with shifting mindset and behaviour from an emotional perspective,” says Kristen. “This is really important for increasing people’s wellbeing, productivity and efficiency in the long-term.”

Activity-based working (or Agile working which is Westpac’s terminology) aims to introduce greater flexibility in the way people work. Employees no longer have a fixed desk but rather are allocated to a work area, which is called a neighbourhood and includes a variety of work settings designed for different activities (e.g. learning, focusing, collaborating, socialising etc.). According to some recent research, one in three Australia organisations is implementing – or planning to implement – flexible work practices, such as activity-based working.

Kristen sought the expertise of the Learning Quest team, which had successfully implemented Westpac’s Managing the Tough Stuff program for business areas transitioning to offshoring, to create a program to help leaders successfully manage this transition and any perceptions of loss both on a personal level and within their teams.

She says one of the first myths that had to be debunked was that time spent in the office – ‘presenteeism’ – equated to success and productivity.

“Westpac had over 12,000 people transitioning to activity-based working in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane over the past three years, so it was vital that we got this change right,” says Kristen. “We engaged Learning Quest to develop a program for both leaders and team members aimed at supporting the mindset and behavioural shifts needed to transition to this new flexible way of working.

“The program was initially trialled in 2012 with 80 people in Melbourne, and the feedback from the pilot was phenomenal. So we rolled out the training for all our locations. And while attendance wasn’t compulsory, in some locations – like Brisbane – we got close to 100 per cent participation.”

Kristen says that Learning Quest’s work with Westpac’s leaders and team members was a real differentiator for kick-starting this significant cultural and behavioural change. “We took both a top-down and bottom-up approach with the Mind Over Matter workshops and got fabulous feedback from both leaders and employees. The program played a fundamental role in the success of the change.

“Through that word of mouth, another part of the business has since invited Learning Quest to assist with a performance management project pilot. That speaks volumes about how highly regarded the team is within our business.”

Before the Melbourne pilot, the HR team had surveyed the group to base-line 15 workplace employee experience-related measures. While all of the measures had improved for the group following the transition to activity-based working, the one measure that had the most substantial gain was ‘My current work environment makes me feel proud to work for the Westpac Group’. This driver is significant because it directly maps to discretionary effort and employee engagement.

“The course content, which was based on the latest neuroscientific research, was relevant to both people’s personal and working lives and really resonated with what they were experiencing,” says Kristen. “It helped our people to understand and manage their working relationships and emotions better, increase their flexibility and collaboration, and ultimately become more innovative and productive.

“The thing that was especially powerful about the program was that Learning Quest enabled our people to explore issues using their real-time challenges.”

Kristen, who is now Executive Manager HR, Corporate Affairs and Sustainability, says following the success of the Melbourne pilot Westpac made the Mind Over Matter workshops available to more than 12,000 people transitioning to agile working on the company’s east coast operations. More than 340 workshops were held in Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney, followed up by 97 Agile leadership and coaching sessions to help embed the change.

“Connie Henson, Learning Quest’s founder, is an exceptionally talented person,” says Kristen. “She has the ability to pitch some profound neuroscientific concepts to different audiences in a way that really rings true and captures their imagination.

“Learning Quest has been a catalyst in helping our leaders to transition to an agile way of thinking and create an environment of trust within their teams that is essential for successful activity-based working and empowering people to be the best they can be. The Mind Over Matter workshops was our secret ingredient for achieving this change.”

Kristen says she has personally benefited from the workshop learnings both in her professional and personal life.

“As a leader of this program, I thought that I role-modelled flexibility pretty well,” says Kristen. “With Connie’s guidance and practical tips, I’ve taken that capability to a new level within my own team.”

“I’ve sat in on a few of Learning Quest’s workshops, and each time I have taken away something new. Aside from the many work benefits, the insights and strategies have also helped me in my personal life to understand the behaviours of my daughters and how to respond.”