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Lessons from lockdown for the tech sector

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Aleksandra Babicka, head of HR for HL Tech, talks to the BPCC’s Michael Dembinski about how the tech arm of the UK’s largest online financial supermarket coped with the challenges of the pandemic – and what legacy it will leave for the firm’s future development.

What's the balance of tech staff working Hargreaves Lansdowne between Warsaw and Bristol today?

Currently HL Tech accounts for around 25% of the tech staff working for Hargreaves Lansdowne across its two locations, Bristol and Warsaw. We observe that there is a growing appetite to increase the proportion of tech staff as well as to broaden the technological capabilities in the Warsaw office. Recently, we started to build AWS (Amazon Web Services) competencies in HL, and we will be opening recruitment process in HL Tech soon. In addition to this, we are also growing our DevOps team and are working on strengthening our mobile team in the HL Tech office – that is just to mention some areas we are planning to develop.  

How is recruitment looking now – how has the pandemic affected the way HL Tech finds people – and retains them?

The pandemic only slowed down movement of people in the tech market for a moment. The initial ‘Springtime shock’ has passed, and people are again much more willing to change jobs, while employers are much more active in searching for candidates. What we see is that recruitment in certain experience segments is harder, and in some a bit easier compared to the situation before Covid. We observe an even bigger appetite for experienced professionals; it’s a consequence of remote working and the need that creates to have employees who are fully independent.  Senior engineers and tech experts receive very attractive offers; hence it’s much harder to retain and recruit those. Recruitment of senior specialists requires a much more direct search approach as well as relies even more on referral schemes.

Retention in the context of Covid is also a challenge. Our competitive advantage – the unique culture and great atmosphere – is harder to replicate in a remote world. We try hard to maintain personal contact with people, create supportive space for them, but of course it is a different experience to what we had in the office. Having said that, we see that despite the fact that many of our employees say they don’t feel comfortable in these circumstances, there’s a group that actually thrives when working remotely, and they tend to be more productive and engaged. Looking at this, we know that after Covid we will need to think about flexing our home working policy to provide a supportive environment for both groups.

Before the pandemic, HL Tech worked hard to integrate its Warsaw employees with its Bristol HQ, with onboarding, frequent subsequent visits – even training Poles to understand the Bristol accent! How have you overcome the challenges that lockdown and travel restrictions have created?

I must say that what ostensibly created more distance for people working in the HL Tech office has actually brought people across both locations much closer. HL is a very Bristol-centric organisation. Almost all the employees in Bristol work in one office building. Hargreaves Lansdowne before HL Tech has never had any office in any different city, let alone in a different country! It was very challenging to build in our Bristol colleagues an inclusiveness mindset for their Polish colleagues. Not because they had bad intentions, but because it was much harder in terms of tools (calls, Skypes) to work and communicate with people in Warsaw that it was with colleagues being in the same building. Many things were done by approaching a colleague at their desk; meetings were impossible to run across locations due to the lack of proper equipment. Often, we were not in the loop of decisions taken or information shared ‘in a corridor’.  Covid placed us all in the same situation. We all became remote workers and distance for all of us, regardless of location, suddenly became the same. We had to start using modern communication tools, meetings were moved to a virtual space. Zoom/Teams became well embedded.  This brought us closer together, gave as access to the same information and the same decision-making processes. I personally feel closer than ever before with our Bristol team. I hope that after Covid is gone, we will retain these positive practices and that the mindset that evolved will not revert to the pre-pandemic state.  

How did the sudden shift to home-office working look at HL-Tech? Some of our members are saying that productivity remained good, but creativity suffered, mainly because of the lack of those chance meetings by the coffee machine that might spark bright new ideas. What have you been doing to keep innovative thinking alive?

I fully agree with the statement that the productivity is better yet the creativity and engagement are suffering. We observed that people started working in very closed groups of their immediate team mates, and so we lost the opportunity for a broader exchange of thought and opinions, which as we know in a long term is dangerous. I have to say that we are constantly trying to bring the spirit back, to mingle people, to encourage them to be involved in more than just their standard work.

We started with working on the engagement boost through communication – as this is in my opinion the key first step. When the pandemic started, we created regular all-hands meetings, such as the ones we had before Covid-19, but these were held much less frequently and less regularly. Now we have this meeting every week on Monday. This is where we update everyone with what is happening, we encourage people to ask questions, we sometimes just simply laugh. In addition, what I think was a very positive thing is that our GM started to write personal blog entries called #Prosto z Głowy (Straight from the Head), where he shares his personal perspective, took time to appreciate people and where he addressed concerns. We had that for the first several months; now it is less needed as we are used to the situation, and # Prosto z Glowy is sent only on special occasions.

We also started to organise various cross-team projects. One of them, the FinTech Challenge, is a project focused on attracting young talent. It’s a contest for teams of external participants in which they are tasked to build applications. The best team wins, and we have pipeline of great candidates. The final was a week ago. What was unique is that people from HL Tech acted as mentors, created tasks, conducted training for the participants and they were doing this in totally different subgroups than the ones in which they usually work. It was tough but very engaging and rewarding for our employees. We also had our internal Hackathon for employees where we tested two different approach to application-building. Another example in this category is Design Thinking Workshop where we tested methods to develop creative solution to our local challenges.

Last but not least we are constantly introducing fun-time activities to our work life. We started with having time for group coffee – we opened our coffee-breaker channel on zoom where anybody can join just to chat. We had tradition in HL Tech of organising integration trips each year. The whole HL Tech team would go to a nice place for a couple of day to engage in various team building activities. This year this could not happen. But there are no limits for us… we organised a virtual integration trip, we send essential gadgets to all employees, creating a scenario that would ensure we can actively engage as a group of almost a hundred people and we made it. It was a really fun experience. We had a lot of people joining the trip and having fun. We also plan to have Christmas Party… hopefully with the same positive outcome

Looking ahead at a post-pandemic world, what did you learn from your experiences in 2020 that will permanently shape the HR function at HL Tech in the future?

We were mostly office-based but, having had the experience of Covid, we are planning to flex that to a big extent, as we see there are people who are much more productive and happier having this possibility. Now more ever than before we know how important is the organisational culture and we will invest even more in keeping it strong and healthy. We will also invest in supporting the people-managers in building the capabilities they need in the remote working environment, as those are slightly different to the basic skillset of a manager. We will continue to (over) communicate, as this helps build engagement, especially in the times of uncertainly and change.

The economy needs more IT workers than it can get; Covid-19 has hit recruitment in other sectors far harder than IT. What would you say to someone looking to re-train mid-career for a job in tech? Is it possible to become a coder/developer in one's mid-30s with no previous experience? Do you think there's an IT mindset that's firmed by the time a young person leaves school? Will AI and machine learning make it easier for non-tech people to adapt to a career in IT?

I think that only sky is the limit and it’s certainly possible to change your career and become software developer or tester later in your life. I don’t think it’s a career in which all may be successful in – but this does not depend on age, rather it’s about the preferences of people and their natural talent. Of course, changing a career path always requires a lot of work but we have in HL Tech examples of people who actually changed their careers to become developers or testers way above their twenties. There are more and more sources and ways of learning in technology which gives enormous possibilities for people – we have boot camps, tech-dedicated learning platform, there’s an enormous pool of material available online and much more. It just takes the right motivation and some time and one can become a tech specialist. We are also observing a more and more advanced framework in technology that for sure makes programming easier, and yes, at some point it might be it will be more about knowing how to operate and utilise those advanced tools than actual programming per se that a developer will do. Having said that I don’t think AI will ever fully replace developers – but it will be able to perform some elements of the software development cycle.

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