Elizabeth Kavanagh was nearing one year in her role as PCSG’s HR Head and Senior People and Change Consultant when she faced an unexpected challenge – maintaining the wellbeing of a large team during a lockdown.

 Here, she talks about happiness and high-performance in unsettling times, collaboration – and why rhubarb and custard cake rules.

 Q: COVID19 – An unexpected and pretty significant HR challenge?

A: Thankfully, our setup as a business, where many of the team already work from home regularly and have the technology in place to do that, meant it has worked smoothly. The team have forged ahead with supporting their projects and providing the best level of service to our clients.

The bigger challenge from an HR perspective has been supporting people with the blurring of the home / work boundaries that lockdown has created. Managing home schooling alongside work, for example, is a really tough one.

My real emphasis has been on creating a feeling of togetherness and belonging despite us all being physically dispersed. We’ve got some great measures in place but I’m constantly looking for new ways of building and nurturing that sense of ‘team’.

Q: Will this period lead to enduring changes in how we work? Twitter, for example, has announced that all of its staff can work from home permanently.

A: We will consider carefully what is working about what we are doing and talk to staff about it.

It is important to remember that the pandemic and lockdown has been a different experience for people depending on their differing home circumstances. We are currently talking to our team to find out how they are adapting. Many are finding home working enjoyable but not without challenges.

 Q. How has lockdown been for you personally?

A: At my house it’s myself, my lovely husband Tristan who is an architect and Walter, my black cat. We miss our steady stream of visitors but we quickly got ourselves into a new routine. For me, it includes our daily PCSG update call at 8:30 and a walk round the village at the end of the working day followed by yoga as a way to switch off. We have seen so much more of spring emerging on these walks and it is nice to be amongst nature regularly.

What has kept me motivated is the opportunity to support people in some really difficult times in a way that helps them to be successful.

Q: Has lockdown life taught you anything about how you work / different ways of doing things?

A: I don’t mind doing video calls – I think they are a great alternative to a face-to-face meeting given that we all need to cut our carbon footprint.

I would like to see society generally rethink our ways of working and question what works to find ways forward that could enhance our lifestyles at the same time as contributing to mitigating the climate crisis. I am eager to blend home working into our standard approach and be more selective about the need to travel.

The discovery we are making is how equalising the virtual environment can be both geographically and seniority-wise and how it can help more introverted team members feel able to speak out. We need to capitalise on those benefits as we re-establish our ways of working.

Q: More broadly, what are employees of today’s digital age looking for in a company culture? What do they most value? 

A: A sense of belonging, a great wi-fi connection and decent coffee. The chance to socialise with others of like mind also never grows old (whether face-to-face or virtually).

Working with people at the top of their game, who are operating at the leading edge on the most prestigious projects is also exciting and motivating for all of us.

We are also looking for a sense of psychological safety – knowing we are trusted for example, to take on the meaty challenges. With all of this in place, we can flourish and be our best selves for our employer.

 Q: A key part of your role is helping organisations to build high-performing teams with collaboration at their core. Understanding people and their motivations is critical. Is this something you were naturally inclined towards?

A: As a big sister, I always tried to work out which things my brothers would enjoy and I noticed what they are good at which was helpful when they were making choices about their futures e.g. universities. I have always been interested in listening to people and understanding what they are good at, so it was natural that I take up a coaching role as I love to support people to become their best selves.

At school I had a great psychology teacher and we had some excellent debates. She had a really engaging learning style and we wrestled with questions which are one of the cornerstones of the coaching philosophy.

 Q: Your first posting was with Airbus?

A: Yes, I did a placement with their HR team between my 2nd and 3rd years at uni – a project based on an evaluation of the UK based 360-degree feedback process as part of the leadership development program and whether it was suitable for the organisation to deploy in France.

The best part of this was the ice cream sundaes we ate on a square in Toulouse when I went to Euresas to explore the issues face to face.

Q:After graduating, you joined Stride Treglown – the architectural practice – where you spent over 15 years and were instrumental to some significant changes. Tell us about that?

A. I  joined with a very open remit – there was no HR team at that time so I set it up based on a consultant’s report and the internal phone list.

When I started, the company didn’t talk openly about our finances and the team ethos was in its infancy.

We gradually moved ourselves forwards to the point where we had really good open-ness on finances and decision making and this set us in good stead to become employee-owned. This decision to become employee-owned was about giving something back to the team and also engaging further with the teams.

The team ethos was strong and we used team coaching as a part of this. I found coaching by trying something I thought would benefit the team – it certainly did but what I didn’t know then was how much it would also teach me.

I Introduced strength based team coaching for each of the teams in our eight regional offices. This built individual self-awareness of others’ strengths and cohered teams together.

A telling compliment was that the team ethos was the “best I have experienced outside the armed forces”.

Q: Efforts to embed collaborative ways of working in the construction and infrastructure sectors stretch back a long way.  Are clients within the AEC sector- and beyond – genuinely “getting” the importance of high performing teams and collaboration now?

A: The clients we are working with to support the development of high-performing teams and collaborative working are convinced in a very short time period of implementing it that they don’t want to go back. A team we are currently working with have said “Why don’t we work like this all the time?” and it is great to hear they are feeling the benefits.

Q: Which collaborative measures have the most impact in your experience?

A: The things we implement culturally to increase openness and manage trust are the big ones. Using team coaching techniques we agree, introduce and reinforce the behaviours which are desirable.

Q: You founded an industry group to promote collaboration within the construction and infrastructure sectors?

A: Yes, Behaviours for Collaboration was born out of an observation that in order to create collaboration we needed to guide people and show them what good collaboration looks like when it is happening.

Other industries seeking to make change have successfully introduced tools and techniques in order to influence behaviour change.

To facilitate this change we first conducted research to describe the behaviours of collaboration. Our second step was to publicise this information and share it widely through conferences, a YouTube video and 28 articles.

We have now built-up a community of practise interested in generating a wider sector-based change to our behaviours and our next step is to offer guidance to clients regarding how to successfully establish and maintain successful collaborations.

We’re doing this alongside groups such as constructing excellence Clients group, the UK BIM alliance and others.

Q: In 2017, while at Strides you worked part-time for two years with the Digital Built Britain programme. What was it like to work as part of this trail-blazing group? Did you feel like you were part of something revolutionary?

A: It was a great team, and there is something magical about envisioning a future with others and exploring what it could be. It was a great time and very focused!

Q: What lured you to PCSG?

A: The chance to work on industry leading programmes with a really smart group of people. In addition, the flexibility to manage where you work and how you approach it – and the supportive culture.

Q: How is your free time spent?

A: I am slightly addicted to the self-help and coaching genre of books so I read continuously and learn from what I read. This learning and reflection helps me to find what works and then help others as a result.

I also do a fair bit of charity work. It gives me massive satisfaction as an opportunity to contribute and continue to challenge myself. There is no doubt charity work helps you feel good about yourself.

In four questions:

 Best business book?

Strengthsfinder 2.0 – Knowing your strengths helps you to navigate.

 Exercise/wellness regime?

Yes. Walking after work, yoga and lunchtime hugs from my lovely husband.

Big achievement?

I did a skydive – not really bravery, so much as feeling compelled. My friend with stage 4 cancer was doing it and I wanted to help in some way. Raised £1800 mind you!! Not bad. I didn’t die but won’t do it twice.

Favourite cake

I like to think I’m very open minded about cake but I do have to have gluten free these days. I just made a rhubarb and custard cake that turned out really nicely but I am hankering after a gluten  free chocolate orange cake currently – all recipe suggestions welcome.

PCSG is a leading built-environment consultancy which works with clients in the UK and internationally to add value to their organisations and improve business outcomes. In addition to our wide-range of services in the digital, pre-construction and project delivery arenas, we support clients in delivering transformation programmes through alternative approaches which frequently involve changes in mindsets, cultures and behaviours. For more information about our work in this field please contact katherine.bew@pcsg.co.uk.