Article: Amid all the unrest, employees turn to organisations for strength: Wolters Kluwer's CHRO Bill Baker


Amid all the unrest, employees turn to organisations for strength: Wolters Kluwer's CHRO Bill Baker

In an exclusive chat, Bill Baker, CHRO, Wolters Kluwer shares insights on his journey to building a business that has the capability to weather any storm.
Amid all the unrest, employees turn to organisations for strength: Wolters Kluwer's CHRO Bill Baker

The world goes through upheavals in each generation but the last three years have been particularly tumultuous. The world of work has undergone a seismic transformation in the wake of the pandemic prompting a widespread reassessment of priorities. Amid geopolitical unrest, widespread layoffs, economic downturns, and the ongoing challenge of attracting and retaining top talent, businesses are confronting an unprecedented array of challenges. The call for workers to return to the office has added a new layer of complexity, forcing organisations to navigate unfamiliar terrain and adapt to the shifting norms of the post-COVID world.

For Bill Baker, the HR chief of the Dutch information services company Wolters Kluwer, the focus has always been on building bridges to better connect and engage with employees, providing insights into the needs of a multigenerational workforce that seeks purpose and impact from their employer. With a legacy of over 186 years, the company has evolved from publishing to digital and software, building a resilient model with a compelling story to tell. Bill’s got a hold on the pulse of the multigenerational workforce, who he believes ‘don’t really want uniquely different things’ but are pursuing the notion of why a certain company exists and the good it is doing in the world.

With a firm belief in the philosophy that ‘If you don’t veer away from what’s fundamentally important and the principles you believe in, you can weather any storm,’ each of his answers reflect this state of mind. In this exclusive chat, find out what he thinks about the mass layoffs and tech companies reactionary approach to it, the changing perspectives of candidates towards what constitutes rewards, and more.

Excerpts from the interview:

A key competitive differentiator for an organisation today is its ability to attract, engage and retain its talent. According to 2022 statistics, the employee engagement rate at Wolters Kluwer was 73%. We are keen to understand  the strategies that helped you sustain it amid the upheavals and the rise of trends such as quiet quitting and moonlighting? 

While there is a lot of debate around the idea of engagement during these times, I feel that if leaders and organisations weren’t doing it before, they will have trouble with it now. At Wolters Kluwer, we have always valued diversity with people bringing different perspectives that’s been driving innovation. It’s been our priority and is reflected in our gender diversity ratio. But these numbers didn’t happen overnight or since the pandemic. We have been focusing on engagement and the concept of belonging for a long time. There’s a human element to it - it feels good to do good deeds. 

For us, we’ve been measuring engagement annually since 2014 and there has been improvement year on year. And that’s been possible because we have a discipline of picking up two or three priorities every year from the feedback forms shared by our employees.  

Since we have that piece of the puzzle, we have the opportunity to continue to build career development and skill development opportunities. We’ve incrementally tried to do activities and take actions every year where people know what they are for and why we are doing it. 

These frameworks have been there for so many years that in these turbulent times, we are seeing the payoff of working so hard at building the foundations right.  

You have previously mentioned how remote and flexible work was something that was already happening in your firm way before the pandemic. Did that help you during the transition period?

When the pandemic hit, we were in a position where we had what we needed for our people to be able to WFH within two weeks. That was all possible because of the work we’ve been doing on making the employee experience better. It’s where the focus has been and that’s also going to be the key differentiator for us going forward.

While the first year of the pandemic was a shock to the entire world, the second year was one of our strongest years as employees knew what to do and we had a precedent on how to work flexibly. Now that the talk is about bringing people back to work, I believe choice and flexibility are essential but so is building that community among colleagues. Finding that balance is what we intend to do. 

In this day and time, amid so much volatility, it is vital for people to have that flexibility as they have so many demands in their personal and professional life. 

Wolters Kluwer has received various awards in the recent past for diversity, gender equality, sustainability, innovation, etc. What makes it one of the ‘great places to work’ for a multigenerational workforce?

I don’t think people uniquely want different things, but things are emphasised differently at different stages in our lives. Initially, when you are starting out, you are looking for a company that will help you build your skills and career. When you get to senior roles in the organisation, you know how to grow your career and you become savvy with how the organisation works. 

To the question of appealing to a multigenerational workforce, the biggest thing we try to do is listen because engagement, belonging and diversity - it’s all woven together. Our goal is to listen to what people value and what they need and do our best as an organisation to deliver what we can based on what they tell us. 

I think there are things that organisations need to do in continuum - ensuring that people know that the workplace is flexible, making efforts to elevate careers, driving innovation so people continue to learn and helping them understand what good the company is doing in the world. 

Employees want to work for organisations that are doing good besides making money. Don’t get me wrong, making money is essential, but doing good at the same time is what we all want. In the end, make sure that people understand what it is that your company does, why they exist, and how they can connect to it - that’s what is increasingly important to the workforce now. 

Can you share some of the programs that have been designed to strengthen diversity, inclusion, equity, and belonging at Wolters Kluwer? 

Gender diversity, inclusion, equity and equality have been built into the DNA of our organisation. This was actually the first year with a very formal approach to DEIB at Wolters Kluwer. We’ve been doing work around community outreach through our hiring processes, where we have collaborated with local universities in India and even partnered with a few recruiting firms that specialise in helping us connect to diverse pools of talent. 

As an organisation, we have always wanted to be reflected in the community that we live and work in, with special emphasis on understanding the availability of talent in the marketplace and what we should strive to achieve. The idea of impacting the communities positively through a kids toy drive, adopting villages in India and providing electricity and sanitation there, or funding to build a science lab in a school in Pune, we have been doing these things not just for the sake of it, but because they are directly tied to what we are trying to do as a business. 

How is the company committed to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDG), which address the social, environmental, and economic challenges the world faces today?

Since 2009, we have been committed to UNSDG and in all these years, we have tried to focus on goals that we believe we can support and those that align with what we strive to do as a company. Gender equality, climate change and the environment coincide with the way that we operate as an organisation. And when it comes to sustainability, there is an internal strategy titled Engage, that’s aligned to supporting UNSDGs. 

ESG is an opportunity for us and we are looking to grow our solutions to help other companies meet their sustainability goals and aspirations. In March this year, we launched a fifth division focused on Corporate Performance & ESG. It was established to meet the growing demand from corporations and banks for integrated financial, operational, and ESG performance management and reporting solutions. So, it’s a priority in the way we conduct business and run the company. And we ensure that it is communicated well to our talent built on the idea of engagement. 

I think it is refreshing when you can be authentic about the things you are doing while using them as an opportunity to attract people to the organisations. And that’s one of the things about Wolters Kluwer that I like - the tone is set from the top, with our CEO committed to it and setting the priorities that permeate through the entire organisation. 

With the surrounding economies and wage inflation spiralling upward, how relevant do you think the total reward frameworks would be in the now and near future? With the uproar surrounding the Great Resignation, how can the reward strategies influence these trends?

I think rewards are vital because we all work for a living, and we want to ensure that we are fairly rewarded for it. As a company, we have always rewarded people fairly, but rewards are not only about money. But there was a period not too long ago when the talent market went super crazy and money took the front seat. To stay successful yet competitive in today’s turbulent times, organisations need to understand what’s happening in the talent market and ensure that they are at least responsive to it, preferably on the front end. 

For us, rewards include the experience of what it's like to work at Wolters Kluwer - the benefits we offer, the social, financial, physical, and emotional wellbeing of our people, ensuring responsiveness to the needs of different generations, and thinking about the wants of employees from different walks of life.

I feel companies that have philosophically decided what their people will get in exchange for their work, which includes the whole package - experience, pay, benefits, training, and development and genuinely work on it every day can figure out how to level it up or down as market conditions change without fundamentally changing what they have been doing. 

Can you share more about the journey and the philosophy that led you to focus on creating a strong foundation that can withstand market fluctuations and meet employees' needs? 

If you are driven by a philosophy that is not responsive to today or tomorrow, you really don’t need to abandon it but make the necessary adjustments. By focusing on key questions - how to treat people, the experience in the organisation, how to reward and engage people - you can adapt to shifting conditions. For example, rather than simply throwing money at talent shortages, we built an outreach programme to establish connections and show excitement about new hires. As we return to the office, the companies that will stand out are those that can re-establish meaningful connections with employees in flexible ways.

Reactive approaches, such as laying off people after hiring them in response to a temporary phenomenon, can lead to unhealthy actions. Instead, leaders should stay true to their framework, philosophy, and beliefs while adapting to changing conditions.

That said, layoffs may sometimes be a part of adaptation. Over the course of our own history, we have had to restructure and lay off people as we embarked on the journey of transformation as an organisation. If we had the same business model that we had 20 years ago, I don’t think we would have been here, at least not in the way we are today. But in the current recessionary environment, one thing that me and my CEO talked about and agreed on was ensuring that we are prudent in our hiring and that, unless something crazy happens, we should be in no way taking the kind of actions that we are seeing in the newspapers. 

People's expectations of rewards and their perception of what constitutes rewards have changed over the years. With new demographics entering the workforce, what have been your observations?

I believe that organisations taught people to expect something very different in the talent market of today. With mass layoffs, we now hear candidates asking HR about the stability of the company. It is amazing to see how fast it all changed, from the time when it was all about ‘I need a higher offer’ to ‘Will I have a job in the next six months’ if I join your company. 

From a talent point of view, in the tech space, skills are the critical change that’s happening. With AI and the Metaverse taking centerstage, organisations are looking for people who might not have 10 years of experience as these are emerging fields. In that case, we need to shift to re-balancing the equation of skills and experience as there are going to be certain skills that are critical for your business and that will have a certain pull in the market for rewards. You need to monitor and adapt your systems as the world changes and tech gets bigger and faster. 

While we are all adapting to the rapid changes, we need to think about the structures we have in place, not only in terms of experience but also in terms of critical skills. With that comes the responsibility of finding the right skills and how one should develop it to be a professional and productive individual in the workforce. And that brings us back to career development opportunities. 

We need to think about how we get certain skills for our business and cultivate those people to enjoy working in the organisation. That’s the evolutionary path we are on. 

As a global leader with over three decades of experience, what are the key issues that you see over the next 12 months and how are you strategising your policies to address these?

At Wolters Kluwer, our focus is on the idea of skills and if we find the skills, understanding how we can help create the experience that individuals need. In the process of talent development, we are building these experience maps to help people move within the organisation to diverse positions that will require versatile skills. We are looking at developing learning opportunities to help these individuals travel onto the experience maps. 

Another focus area will be the idea of connectedness, which was lost during the pandemic. If you had it prior to the pandemic, where people came in, put in their time and work to take home a paycheck, then it might be faster to cultivate it again but it is not automatic. The pandemic gave people the time to pause and think about what they really value in life and how they wish to spend their time henceforth. 

The pursuit of connectedness, community and belonging are all directly tied to engagement, innovation and your business results, which improves attraction and retention of talent. It’s all about understanding how to take people with the skills you need and offer them the experience they want, which is going to put you ahead in the talent market, while getting people to the door. 

As a CHRO, what is your advice for leaders, who wish to take their companies from good to great with a dispersed workforce, trying to tackle diverse challenges as it develops an employee experience with the right rewards?

For a corporation, making money is important, and one shouldn’t shy away from that fact. But over the course of the life of a corporation, there are difficult decisions one needs to make, and when that happens, if you do it authentically, and based on the belief system of the organisation thinking about the kind of company you want to be, then you can weather any storm. 

As a leader, surround yourself with the right people who can actually fill in the gaps and who don’t need to be micromanaged. They are the ones who will actually challenge you to think differently. 

Understand the ‘why of things’ with data and analytics. If you have the impulse to make a decision, pause to ensure that the data is on your side. If you know the facts and the numbers, it will help you make better decisions for your organisation. 

The old adage that people don’t leave companies, but managers, has never been truer. So, think hard about activating managers in your organisation to create that connection with people because that sense of belonging and engagement comes from the manager. In these times of unrest, people are looking for companies to be a place of strength for them, and for that, leaders need to be authentic. 

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Topics: Diversity, Culture, Learning & Development, C-Suite, Leadership, Strategic HR

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