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  • Writer's pictureTracey Camilleri

Building Belonging

There is much current discussion about how the pandemic and enforced work from home has irreversibly changed not only habits but attitudes. According to McKinsey’s October 2021 report The Great Attrition, while employers’ attention remains focused on improving contractual and financial conditions, they continue to miss the central point. If 40% of employees are currently considering leaving their employers, as the reports suggests, why? The real reason is that they don’t feel that they are valued or that they belong. The McKinsey analysis confirms the Gallup findings of the 2021 World Happiness Report: a sense of belonging is the single most important ingredient for employee happiness.

We recently had the good fortune to work with a progressive company thinking in truly imaginative ways about their culture and how to include everyone in building a sense of belonging. Convex Insurance, founded by Stephen Catlin and Paul Brand in 2019 was built on the foundations of strong values and a belief that every single person matters. They grew fast during the past 18 months and found themselves in the position of having recruited over half their employees during lockdown. Many of these were young people who had never met each other, their teams or clients, let alone had the chance to experience or influence the Convex culture. We worked closely with Convex to design a gathering point that would bring the whole company together in a (safe) but immersive, human, generative way. We were given few initial constraints apart from the steer that Stephen and Paul had a serious intent around shared learning, they wanted everyone from the Board to the most junior recruit to be involved, they didnt want it to feel too ‘corporate’ and they wanted it to feel joyful. Great starting blocks for us…… Thompson Harrison’s design team, together with Convex’s HR and Marketing leads, designed a one-and a half day learning event at West Horsley Place in Surrey – Convex United (to be repeated back to back so the whole company could attend). We chose the glorious Tudor house which is used as a set for the TV series ‘Ghosts’ – a place where Queen Elizabeth 1st had held a week of revels soon after her accession to the throne - for its stone halls and kitchens, gardens and listed dog kennels and precisely because there was not a whiteboard or a chrome and leather chair in sight. It was a home – though a very grand one – not a conference centre. This Building Belonging learning programme drew on the research of the co- author of our up-coming book ‘The Social Brain’, Professor Robin Dunbar, to give everyone a personal route through the programme. Informed by Science We began by making personal: We designed an upfront questionnaire based on Robin’s ‘Seven Pillars of Friendship’ research in order to discover people’s interests, preferences, skills and capabilities and therefore to be able to allocate them to the learning sessions most suited to them. In addition they would be alongside people with whom they shared common ground: a safe landing space after such a long virtual time, especially for those new to the company. For example – those who had professed a love of music might have found themselves in the barn with international conductors Peter Hanke and Victoria Ely: those who loved sport were allocated to a tent on the lawn with psychologist and sportsman Gavin Weeks. Unsafely Safe We also designed in an ’unsafely safe’ wildcard element – inviting people to step outside their usual preferences in order to learn about colleagues, themselves – and possibly even to discover a new interest. Building Common Ground On the second day, we used the research in reverse – to place people in small groups with their most ‘distant cousins’ – those with whom they had least in common, using a pack of cards specially designed around Convex values combined with the challenge to find a way to build common ground together. The best decisions are made by people with shared values and different perspectives. Fractal Learning Pods Finally, we used Robin’s research to structure the event in ‘fractals’. Rather than having gurus on stage with large audiences, we flipped the dynamic so that the learning took place in small, intimate interactive groups – round the kitchen table, in the drawing room or in a tent on the lawn where everyone could have a voice. Learning: the Hidden Fuel for Connection This was not to be training: after all some had been in the insurance business for forty years, some less than a week. No one was to feel left out or inadequately prepared. The learning should be interesting to all – whether chairman or receptionist. We were to work with world class thinkers and doers …, how to do it? Orthogonal We structured the learning sessions into 7 ‘streams’ – each one foundational to human culture and connection: language, image, movement, memory, space, sound and magic. We asked our 37 faculty (including 10 Thompson Harrison facilitators) to design their sessions to be orthogonal to insurance – always to have an angle of relevance but not to be ‘head on’. So, for example, the magician Chris Cox focused on what is hidden in plain sight, on how you read another’s behaviour (as well as teaching a few tricks!). Chief teaching curator at the Ashmolean, Jim Harris’s contention was that he was in the same business as Convex, both business models focus on what’s worth saving. What could each learn from the other? Immersive All the ninety-minute learning pods were designed to be enjoyable and to include everyone. Associate Professor at Warwick Piers Ibbotson and social scientist Lali Dangazele in the ‘Movement’ stream highlighted the dynamics of collaboration and of working as an ensemble. At one point the deputy CEO was seen balancing a bamboo pole from the top of his head to another’s, whilst moving and laughing (not easy), out in the garden. Connection… and Reconnection The word ‘Company’ comes from the latin root ‘companio’ – ‘one who eats bread with you’. We were determined that the breaks and the meals would be as important as the learning sessions themselves (also designed for lateral connection). In between times were purposefully constructed – long enough to make new friends, comfortable enough to swap stories of the day and numerous enough to reconnect with old ones. Food We worked with the super-experienced caterer Rhubarb to make the meals memorable – magical even. The dinner on the first night was in a marquee on the lawn, long Hogwarts-like tables beautifully decorated with greenery and a with a pudding designed to reflect the magical woodlands surrounding West Horsely Place. Ritual At the end of the first evening, despite the October night in the UK, we gathered round a huge bonfire with hot chocolate and toddies. Cultural Coach Owen Eastwood (coach of the England Football team, British Olympic team, NATO, royal ballet school and others) who joined us for the second day talked to us about the cultural heritage of telling stories around a fire and the research that shows stories told in the dark are remembered for longer and have more impact, especially when it is one’s own story. Hormone Levels Telling our story also has an impact on our hormonal levels, upping oxytocin and endorphins whilst lowering cortisol and stress levels. The New Zealand ‘All Black’s’ team measure hormone levels every week to maintain a balance, knowing that when stress levels are too high no one can innovate or take the risks you need to play world class rugby. Eating together, moving in synchrony, singing, sharing experiences all produce endorphins, nature’s bonding mechanism. Analogue, Human-Shaped Design Commonplace Books Although Convex is a digital disruptor, using cutting edge technology, we deliberately designed the event to be as analogue as possible so that people could be truly present with each other. Rather than an app, we created a Commonplace Book, historically consonant with the house but more importantly a two-way place both to record and to collect learning and inspiration. Every speaker produced some elements of learning collateral emerging from their sessions – a digital link – turned into a QR code sticker and also a beautifully designed takeaway postcard – with a quote, or a model, or an insight. The aim was to give the learning legs beyond the event. The Five Senses After 18 months of mediation via a screen, again we wanted to give this time together a human heft and feel. The house needed little dressing but – using colours as a navigational aid – we used flowers to signal where people should go. The Language stream was given the colour blue and so, the window-sills of the Stone Hall were covered in glass vases of delphiniums and blue hydrangeas. The ‘Space’ stream was allocated red and so the huge red drawing room was filled with autumn leaves – both the scent and the sight was transporting. We had the sound of eight professional singers (and later quite a number of unprofessional singers…) in the barn. Historian Kassia St Clair played with all five senses in the kitchen – daring people to put a sechuan pepper corn in their mouth whilst she played a certain frequency of sound that made it vibrate on the tongue. Could we have done all this online? Would it have had the same effect? Creative Conversational Convex United was a bit like putting on a play but a play designed to be two-way and primarily conversational in mode. This means in practice that all of us had to imagine how people would be feeling when they came. Our psychologist wrote individual stories for us about how a cynic, an introvert, an extrovert etc might feel about the design so that we could anticipate mismatches of tone. All of us had something at stake. We were all nervous at the start. Playful We knew things were going ok when we heard laughter coming through the ceiling of the stone hall. Some of the sessions were purposefully creative – for example with the Japanese kintsugi experts, the art of mending broken things with lines of gold but most of the creativity came through buildings bridges and connections, the act of being open to the new and through the non-hierarchical energy of learning together. Values-Driven Part of Convex’s 5 core values states they are ‘prepared to be different’, they are ‘inspired by opportunity’, ‘not complacent’ or ‘afraid to try new things’ (the peppercorn tested this last one….). At Thompson Harrison, we designed Convex United together with them in the belief that those values were more than just words on the page. We trusted that nearly 450 people would come and be prepared to learn together, to take shared responsibility for building belonging, to step forward into a future not yet built but with the confidence that everyone there would have a part in it. And as it turned out, we were right. Tracey Camilleri

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