31 May 2023

Helping rural business leaders prepare for the future of work

Permanent shift

The global pandemic has changed the workplace and shifted employer-employee relations for good, and this presents challenges and opportunities for rural business leaders, writes Di Gates of Stick Theory. In response to this changing landscape, I worked with the Rural Design Centre Innovation Project, in partnership with the National Innovation Centre for Rural Enterprise (NICRE), to design a programme of workshops for North of Tyne-based business leaders, to help them evolve and compete as employers of choice within the fast-changing world of work.

Experts in field

In designing the programme, I assembled a team of HR, culture and performance experts to deliver against a list of topics inspired by my ongoing research project in this space - www.theconnectionstory.com - which explores the importance of human connection in creating and retaining happy, healthy high-performing teams.

The programme consisted of three focused workshops. The first looked at ‘Nailing your culture and communications in a hybrid workplace’ and was facilitated by Danielle Phillips, founder of internal communications consultancy, Inside Out. In this session, delegates explored what we mean by culture, how we can develop it and, importantly, how we can communicate it whether we're working in the same room or in different countries.

The second session was entitled ‘Delivering flexibility and fairness whilst improving performance’ and was delivered by Emma Collingwood of Get Purposeful Ltd. This session explored the tensions that working more flexibly can bring between employers and their people.  We discussed what ‘being flexible’ really means and what managers can do to maintain and improve performance across different ways of working. Delegates came away with a host of practical tools to help deliver fair flexible working, and plenty of examples of how this has been applied by organisations whilst still driving improvements in performance.

The final session was delivered by workplace mental health experts, Talk Works, and was entitled ‘Securing great mental health at work’. In this session, delegates were encouraged to consider their current approaches to managing mental health and creating psychological safety, and to work practically on having good conversations about mental health, and keeping stress useful.

From the first session to the end, the group of rural leaders talked openly about their own experiences, sharing tips and tools, and supporting each other to explore some potentially sensitive topics.

Some key themes emerged from delegates through the sessions, including the importance of senior leaders embracing and demonstrating company values, the need for complete transparency in internal communications, the need to give employees autonomy and agency where possible and the critical role that psychological safety plays in creating cultures that support individuals and businesses to achieve their potential.

Resources to support other rural businesses

NICRE’s ‘Future of work for rural employers’ module on its innovation portal pulls together resources from the programme to enable other rural businesses to learn and benefit from them including the presentations for, and video extracts from, each of the workshops. It also demonstrates that being a rural business is no barrier to growth and innovation through telling the story of Reheat, which is based in Alnwick, Northumberland, and operates nationally. Hear from Reheat director Neil Harrison in NICRE’s video.