Case study: ABN Amro takes next step

Dutch bank ABN Amro started its HR-led flexibility programme New Ways of Working in 2009. However, in 2003 implementation of the programme stopped and the bank changed its approach. Heather Greig-Smith finds out why.

flexplekken + vergaderruimtes__6960 (1)Dutch bank ABN Amro started an HR-led flexibility programme in 2009 after merging with Fortis Bank. The relocation of the bank’s headquarters from Rotterdam to Amsterdam provoked staff requests for greater flexibility and its New Ways of Working (NWOW) programme ran until 2012. However, at the start of 2013 implementation of the programme stopped and the bank changed its approach – retaining the NWOW name but making it part of daily business.

The organisation aims to be one of the best places for people to work, and sees this as one of its three key pillars – along with a meaningful corporate identity and culture of excellence.

“We should trust people to make sure they can do what they need to do,” says head of international development Derek Bruce. “It is a mature working relationship with the freedom to work where you want.” He adds that individuals are required to be in the office for key meetings. “We don’t just turn up when we want – it’s more that if you have a particular work-life balance the flexibility is there so you can work from home when you need to. As an organisation we’re not going to make sure you check in and check out.”

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Original programme

In 2009, the programme was driven by requests from employees to work more flexibly to reduce travel time. With IT and facilities teams consumed by the work involved in moving into the new HQ, it was HR that took control of the flexibility approach, explains NWOW programme manager Britta Boelrijk.

“We started the programme with behaviour. We had support from the board, set a framework and guidelines and then departments could implement it themselves.” For example, individual teams decided their policies on working from home or other locations. “They made that kind of agreement with each other on a departmental basis.”

New technology was added to support staff – they were offered the chance to bring their own mobile phone and 8,000 took the opportunity to buy a new phone. An app was also introduced to enable mobile working to which 10,000 colleagues subscribed, and laptops were rolled out throughout the whole business. “With these new technologies, colleagues told us their productivity increased by 120 minutes a week,” says Boelrijk.

By 2012, around 15,000 employees were working flexibly, with a wide variety of working patterns and degrees of flexibility. A survey conducted at the time found that 71% felt free to decide when and where to work and 84% said they had more freedom in how they achieved results. In addition, 70% said NWOW made it possible to serve customers better.

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Next stages

However, the bank felt the change was not something you can realize in a programme alone – it must be part of the wider HR strategy.  “A programme is not enough – you have to do it every day. Our HR strategy supports the ideas and this is reflected in everything we do. We try to integrate it into our DNA and daily business as much as possible.”

She adds: “When I speak to other companies we all have the same problems. You think it’s a project but you’re only at the beginning and ways of working are always changing so you have to focus on that and help people.”

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Real estate enhancement

In addition, the bank is refurbishing its headquarters, which will be refitted floor by floor over the next few years, offering a more flexible physical environment. New furniture and collaborative areas mean people will be able to work together across departments more effectively.

The latest change will not be fueled by further building closures, as property rationalisation has been completed. “We focused the first few years on closing offices and now that has been done,” says Boelrijk.

She adds that while some departments are working incredibly flexibly, there are some still working in traditional ways. An ongoing focus is helping managers to measure and manage effectively. The company’s leadership programme supports this and helps managers to focus on mutual responsibility, for example, how to give flexibility to people and how to manage remotely. The influence of individual managers on their department’s adoption of flexible practices is significant.

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Likewise technology needs to make remote collaboration easier. “We are looking at the digital possibilities to work in a better way together on a social platform or using other tools,” says Boelrijk. At the end of this year the bank will be implementing an organisation-wide collaboration platform supplied by IBM, ending the current mix of platforms and tools that mean people have around 10 separate passwords. “We will introduce one system that includes a social collaboration platform.”

The need to work flexibly is driven both by increased responsibilities outside work, such as caring, and a more flexible approach by many clients. ABN’s own flexibility means it can meet needs outside of traditional working hours. It also needs to keep attracting the right people. “Looking at the next generation of employees, they are so familiar with flexible working and using all kinds of technology. To attract, develop and retain the best people it is important to support the ability to work flexibly,” adds Boelrijk.

“People think New Ways of Working means working from home. That’s one of the solutions, but it’s more: ‘where can I best do my work’? Sometimes it’s in the office with colleagues, sometimes it’s away from the office.”

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