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How the Trade Remedies Authority is supporting staff in developing new working patterns

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Steve O'Donoghue explores developing guiding principles & practices to support staff in developing new working patterns. 
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This is the second in a series of 3 interviews with managers over mindfully moving towards new patterns of working.

In this episode, Director Sarah Fraser chats with Steve O'Donoghue; Director of Corporate Services at the Trade Remedies Authority, who invites us to explore an emergent approach to developing guiding principles and practices to support staff in developing new working patterns. 

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Transcript for the interview with Steve O'Donoghue

Suria Lonsdale 0:01
Hello, and welcome to the Mayvin podcast. Over the last few months, we've been exploring with the Mayvin community how we can mindfully move towards new patterns of working. As we adapt towards a post pandemic world, organisations and individuals are attempting to make sense of the emerging context and take decisions on how to design their future working practices. Mayvin is facilitating an inquiry with our community to understand how those involved in, or influencing the design decisions can support the development of the most beneficial new working patterns.

Over the summer, we've had conversations with three colleagues from the Mayvin community to find out more about what is happening in their world right now. In this episode, we hear from Steve O'Donoghue, Director of Corporate Services at the Trade Remedies Authority, Steve shared with Sarah how they have developed six guiding principles through a consultative process, drawing in staff voices, and using this to develop a new culture around working patterns. The guidelines are about to be launched. So let's hear from Steve about how they got to this point.

Sarah Fraser 1:13
Where I think it'd be be good to start is just a briefing of your work context and your role in, in it, and potentially in shaping different ways of working as well.

Steve O'Donoghue 1:27
Lovely, so I'm, I'm the Director of Corporate Services. And the Trade Remedies Authority. We were created on the first of June this year, as part of the UK's approach to now being an independent nation from the EU. And our role at the authority is to defend UK economic interests against unfair international trade practices.

We do this by taking complaints from UK industries, if they feel imports are damaging them. And we look at whether those imports have been what's called dumped, subsidised or if there's a sudden surge of imports that could be damaging to the UK. And then we make recommendations to the Secretary of State for International Trade as to what to do about those investigations. All very new work not done in the UK for over 50 years. So we're building an organisation, building, building the skills to do the work, but also building a place to work where we want our, we want our people to come and enjoy what they're doing and feel valued for it.

Sarah Fraser 2:38
So how many people are there? How many staff?

Steve O'Donoghue 2:43
What about 110, at the moment, growing to about 150 or so. A lot of our staff, I think about 50%, have being recruited during lockdown. And in fact, I, I am one of those. So I was recruited in the virtual world and started back in February this year.

Sarah Fraser 3:03
And how, how was that? How has that been because, being recruited virtually and recruiting virtually.

Steve O'Donoghue 3:10
I found it a really enjoyable experience. And I picked this up for many other people that it seems to be more comfortable interviewing on the screen, where you're able to hide a lot of the kind of physical nerves that can come out to play in an interview.

Sarah Fraser 3:28
Yes that's true. Yeah.

And, and you can easily access notes on the screen as well. Whereas sitting in an interview with with a pile of notes often feels uncomfortable.

I hadn't thought about that. Having done quite a bit of virtual interviewing over the last, well, six months May in May there, but yes, of course.

Steve O'Donoghue 3:52
If I think back to the start of lockdown, you know, in the HR world, we were saying crikey, we're gonna have to pause all our recruitment.

Sarah Fraser 3:59

Steve O'Donoghue 4:00
Yeah, very quickly. We and other organisations got over that, because we realised we couldn't carry on function if if we stopped recruiting. So we get we just found new ways to recruit.

Sarah Fraser 4:12
And it's worked. But how has it been? Then? I presume you're in the office now. But how has it been then meeting those people and people meeting you and have you noticed anything about that process or what's happening? Well, it's felt like

Yeah, really, really strange. So the first time I came into the office, I was incredibly apprehensive because it involved a two hour commute in, on the train. This is a couple of months back now. And then coming into the office for the first time and meeting some colleagues in person for the first time. And it really surprised me how apprehensive I was about it, really on edge. What I'm pleased to say is the minute the minute I've met one of my colleagues, they smiled. They welcomed me warmly, I relaxed instantly. And from thereafter, it's just been great. So I'm in for a run this week of four days meeting in London and here in Reading. And yet thoroughly enjoyed it. But, but it's not the norm, you know, I won't be in four days every week, it's

No, no. Was it? Yeah, it's, let's get into sort of what you get from being in the office, and how's that you're thinking about that for for the rest of the staff as well, we'll get into that in a bit. That'd be great. Um, so before we get more into what you're doing, and the organisation I'm, I'm interested in what stuck with you from, maybe our previous conversations, the Mayvin conversations about new patterns and new ways of working

Steve O'Donoghue 5:52
The thing that I've carried most is keeping an open mind. And appreciating that there are many different views here. And not one right way of doing it. So listening very carefully, giving everyone a voice. And trying, you know, as a senior leader of the organisation trying not to just assert my view on this, but actually help steer the organisation to find the right course, for us as a place to work as 120 odd people. Trying to get that best balance that's going to meet everyone's individual needs, and deliver our business needs. So yeah, keeping an open mind has been the biggest message I got from those sessions.

Sarah Fraser 6:40
Have others been with you on that, or that been something you sort of had to push for a little bit, with others, with other members on the senior team?

Steve O'Donoghue 6:50
Certainly, you know, we've had some robust conversations about it. Because if we look at some of our competitor organisations in the Civil Service, no, some are following a return to the office two to three days a week, and that that way of working is being imposed top down. We've got the opportunity as a new non-departmental public body of shaping what works for us. And so that bit of independence from the Civil Service allows us to do that, yeah. And colleagues are certainly on board in using that opportunity. So that we can really give staff a voice in the probably, the biggest thing that's going to affect them in the years to come around reshaping how we all work together.

Sarah Fraser 7:38
So tell me, how have you how have you gone about it? How what are the conversations or processes that you've been working with to try and set some new patterns? What's been your approach.

Steve O'Donoghue 7:48
So we've created what we call the staff voice forum, and it's a representative group of staff from across all areas of the business. And we've empowered that group to explore with the organisation as a whole, what we want hybrid working of the future to be. I'm so impressed with what that group is doing. Because they've, they've gone out, they've looked externally at what loads of other organisations are doing. So picking up on all of that intelligence and developed thinking out there. They're translating that back into stories within the office, and then talking to all of our people about kind of what their fears are, what their hopes are, what they've enjoyed about the the experience of not being in the office, and what they've missed about it as well. And then what does all of that mean for how we move into, you know, what everyone's calling this hybrid way of working instead?

And they've developed some principles. But six or so principles and just this month, now, they they're going to have what we're calling coffee conversations, where they're paying back those principles to everyone. They're, they're getting some challenge around those principles, and then digging down into the detail of how will this work for managers and people in the team? And how can we overcome some of the tensions and perhaps different takes on those principles that will inevitably, inevitably appear? We've got a whole spectrum of people, you know, those who want to be in the office five days a week and want the buzz of the office as it was before and then the other end.? So you know, those who live all over the country, and really don't want to have to come to Reading everyday.

Sarah Fraser 8:17

Steve O'Donoghue 8:21
That's what we're trying to navigate.

Sarah Fraser 9:39
And is that the. Is it the people that you would expect to be in those different boxes? So I remember from our conversations and looking at lots of the articles, that you know, it's talking about younger people who are often house sharing don't necessarily have the most, the best workspace, those are the people that would benefit from being in an office, you know, both socially and physically, but also, you know, almost in terms of their career development and having a, having, you know, other people that they can connect with around them.

Steve O'Donoghue 10:15
Yeah, it's not it's not black and white, actually. And this has surprised me to say.

Sarah Fraser 10:19
Great. I was hoping you might say that.

Steve O'Donoghue 10:22
Yeah, real mix across all all roles, all ages, and different lengths of service as well. Certainly, we've done a lot of reading around the impact on people new into the workplace. So a lot of graduates, for example, who yes, you know, it's their first job here. So how do we make sure they, they get the development they need in a supportive, nurturing environment? That was much easier to do when we're all in the office, than in the virtual world. But that said, we put other support mechanisms in place, you know deliberate meetings, deliberate discussions that happen regularly. It's one of the things we'll now have a conversation on around the principles in the, in terms of developing our new in work staff, what sort of added value can we get by bringing people together in the office? And again, it doesn't mean every day of every week, it means talking to each other to figure out what's the best way we can get the most out of coming together in the office, rather than just coming in for the sake of it? And the principles, try and steer those discussions?

Sarah Fraser 11:38
Yeah, that's, that's very much seems to be the way that a lot of people are writing about it. It's like, as organisations we need to define what's the purpose of coming together, and getting the most value from that? How do the principles shape that, or where, where, where you got to with that,

Steve O'Donoghue 11:57
I'm just gonna, I'm just gonna change my screen, so I can call them.

Sarah Fraser 12:01

Steve O'Donoghue 12:02
Principles, and give it a bit of a flavour then. So we, we've got six. And fair around our people, our culture and our workplace. So if I give a flavour, so it says. We will choose the most suitable working environment, to deliver successful outcomes and putting team and delivering needs first. So it kind of makes it very deliberate to think about where's best for us to do this piece of work. And, of course, with our case investigations teams, and in those we've got investigators, analysts, lawyers, verification specialist, there are occasions when it's best for them to just get around the table with a whiteboard and debate the issues of the case in person.

Sarah Fraser 12:52
What is it about those moments? When you say debate the, the case together? What is it about that conversation, that means it's better for them to be around a table in a room together? So it sounds it but I think that's that feels like, that's the interesting bit, isn't it?

Steve O'Donoghue 13:07
Yeah, it is. And we've had this debate in our executive committee as well about when we want to get around the table together. Yeah, we've done it twice, I think twice, since February. And that pretty much over the last two months, really. And what we, what we found was there's, there's something almost that we can't quite describe, that we get by being together, it's, it's an interaction, a feel and a more responsive debate, then we can get through the screen because it's a bit more managed through the screen, you know, you know, raise our hand to speak, it's difficult if more than two people speak at the same time. Whereas in the room, you can, you can just get that vibe going.

Sarah Fraser 14:03
I like it. So I'm just picking up on it, it's the more, a more responsive kind of conversation or debate. And so then I'm going to, I'm sort of imagining it's like those micro moments where you can see someone's about to speak or a tiny bit of body language where you see, you know, someone's almost agitated so you can tell that they're feeling something about what's being said, and you can look to them and find it and that you, you get less of. You can't you can't monitor that in the same way when you've even when you're on video. But of course you can't be sensitive to that when you're when you're working virtually.

Steve O'Donoghue 14:42
Absolutely and there's and I've, I've found this in my own experience here you, you definitely get a little more understanding of the person, the other person when you're physically together. And I've sought to put my finger on it but but what I have identified, I hope I don't offend anyone when I say this, but I think we all look a little bit older on the screen, and we've got no sense of height either. And yet, when you're when you suddenly kind of face to face with someone for real, you get so much more of them than, than what you're able to through the screen is my sense.

Sarah Fraser 15:19
We talked about it as a Mayvin Away Day recently as, such as suddenly seeing everyone in 3D. And, and obviously, getting quite excited about, you know, seeing people's legs, people have got legs. And different heights, it's like, you know, this is very exciting and feet.

Steve O'Donoghue 15:36

Sarah Fraser 15:37
But just. Yes, you see all of the person and, and there's a different deck, then,

Steve O'Donoghue 15:44
Definitely. And I think, if we just come back to some of the principles. So we've got some around trust as well. Trust and valuing each other's perspectives and each other's needs. And really underpin it and underpinning all with with our good behaviours and values here. So again, it's kind of respecting that we're all adults, we've all got different preferences for how we work. So if we have an open conversation about when it's best for us to be together, what does that mean? What do we want to get out of it? What worries and concerns are there, because they'll they're gonna continue for as long as Covid is, is part of our way of life now. So having an open conversation about all of that, instead of the boss, just saying, and that's it, everyone you're coming in, because I want you in, we're trying to enable cultural change, as well as work place change.

Sarah Fraser 16:42
And I assume, I mean, being such a new, new organisation, you are forming culture as well. So this is part of its creation, which, you know, I think about, you know, there's a real advantage in, in that, in that you haven't, I mean, everyone's sort of got a history and knowing of ways of working pre pandemic, but well, graduates, maybe not so much. But yes, you've got an opportunity as an organisation to set, set new ways almost from the start.

Yeah. Absolutely. And, you know, there's a, there's a suggestion that we kind of need to be in the office in order to deliver results. I've read a lot about that. But I look back over the last year plus, and think of the phenomenal amount that's been achieved in terms of business results, as we've got a Shadow Authority as well. And I think actually, a lot of people are saying they found it more productive, whilst been at home and that's not consistent, because there's been a lot of distractions for for many people, understandably.

And as you touched on, not everyone has the luxury of a study, with their own desk setup, and two screens of light, you know, some people have been working on the edge of the bed or on the dressing table, because they just haven't had the space. So there's no one, there's no one approach to someone's experiences over the last year. But generally, we've still delivered phenomenal business results, both here and in other organisations I've read about.

So this sudden kind of view that coming back to the office, is the way that's going to really deliver something even better. I don't buy into, I think if we find the best mix of home and office based work, and the details where that meets people's individual needs, as well as the team. That's what's going to release the discretionary effort. The feeling valued for what you do and infecting joy into, enjoying coming to work every day.

So then how, how in this area, does it, how does that sit alongside setting you know, organisational policies around this? So the principles are, sound, sound like they're a guide. And part of the culture, sort of you know culture around ways of working, how does that sit alongside any kind of policy or procedure?

Steve O'Donoghue 19:16
Yeah, there's a there's kind of a hard side to this, which is our role as contractual role as employer, the contract with an individual, we're going to be exploring that for a bit. So we'll come up with the principles. Those are going through our executive committee for approval next month. And then depending on what we decide, we'll then pilot them for six months. And we will capture the learning as we go. So for example, we already know some of our managers are saying, hang on, what if I think it's reasonable to get the team together in the office, but I've got members of the team who don't think that's reasonable

Sarah Fraser 19:55

Steve O'Donoghue 19:55
And therefore are refusing. What, what's my right as a manager to require them

Sarah Fraser 20:00
What's the authority. Yeah,

Steve O'Donoghue 20:00
Yeah. What what we're not doing is changing anyone's contractual base, which is the office. That said, we have the chief executive of the Food Standards Agency, talk with us as part of our launch week. And she explained how at the Food Standards Agency they have looked at, at the basis of staff, and so some staff have a home base, others have an office base. I'm not ruling out that we wouldn't start to look at that. But nor is there any rush for us to look at it. I see this as quite an adaptive learning piece, over the next six months.

Sarah Fraser 20:43
Yeah, so yes, it could really be an iterative process, and seeing how that, how it develops. So at the moment, it sounds like, my sense is, there's there's quite a lot of discretion at the management level, you know, in all your all different levels of management, to work with the principals and work with the staff to negotiate what works for them and and the team. What's your sense of managers, leaders capability to to negotiate and use those principles well? Is there any concern that they need support in those roles? Because we talked about, a bit about that at the session?

Steve O'Donoghue 21:27
Yeah, definitely need support. And I think our staff will need support as well. Because when you know, when you when you've got a clear contract that says, Your office is Reading, you work 9 till 5, it almost needs no discussion, it is that. And then you put your discretionary effort in, when you've got particular peaks or whatever, and you you work longer. We're looking at changing that deal in that, you know, the contracted hours are there. But we're not saying where you've got to do it. And actually, the precise times, you've got to do it either. So we're looking to introduce that flexibility that empowers the individual more, but without risking for delivery to our business. So this absolutely needs support to work through what that looks like. At a very practical operational level.

Sarah Fraser 22:21
How are you? Yes. How? What's the planning to do that in terms of supporting managers?

Steve O'Donoghue 22:26
So already, our managers have given us a list of worries they've got about the process. So we can start to talk about those worries, what can we put in place. Some of it is kind of FAQs, guidelines, having difficult conversations, or having coaching conversations, clarity of expectations, and the like. So so we're looking to think, looking to bring into our kind of line manager, programme of support something around having these conversations, just just understanding the authority that comes with a manager role.

But not in a command and control way. In the coaching way that's going to get the team to work together best and understand it from an individual's perspective. But also, you know, ultimately, if we all, we all have situations where managers and staff sometimes have wholly opposing views, and it's difficult to find the middle ground. So we're just trying to create some tools that will help the conversation get to that middle ground. And ultimately, this is the hard reality, if if an employee refuses to come into the office, we've got a contractual arrangement that says they must come into to the office. I don't want to get any conversation really go into that point.

Sarah Fraser 23:51
No, but but that is your baseline that you've retained.

Steve O'Donoghue 23:55

Sarah Fraser 23:56
Yeah. For the time being. Yeah, yeah. It's, it's interesting, because in a sense, the, as you say that the the boundaries, the lines are blurred, the, the contract is slightly blurred now. Because we're inviting people to, to assert their needs, and their preferences and ways of working, because the opportunity is there. And yet, that makes the sort of power dynamics within that conversation quite complicated, because often those needs are personal. Not necessarily organisational, but it could differ. And so, you know, for managers, making sense of right, where do I hold the line in terms of what the business needs, but what I can hear that that individual needs, that that's quite, it's quite a tension to manage?

Steve O'Donoghue 24:49
Definitely, and in an organisation that does many different things, and has many different teams, we can't issue a diktat that says how to apply that judgement, I think it's got to come down to that individual team, the manager's knowledge of them, their collective knowledge of the business need, what needs to be done, and advocated in a way that decides when is best to come together physically?

Sarah Fraser 25:17

Steve O'Donoghue 25:18
And of course, we we're rolling this out at a period where COVID still exists. So there are still very heightened anxiousness around travelling on public transport and the like, safety in the office itself. So we've got a floor for 120 people, but we can only allow 24 in at any one time at the moment.

Sarah Fraser 25:39
Wow. Yes.

Steve O'Donoghue 25:41
So when we're not going to get to that position for a little while yet when we're all going to be able to come in, because we simply don't have the space for it.

Sarah Fraser 25:52
So even at this point. Are there patterns that you are noticing in terms of, you know, people in specific types of roles that are wanting to come in? Or, as you say, it's very different teams? And you kind of mentioned age group wise and things, but that's not that's not defining the patterns? It's, it's very, very much across the board. But yeah, what are the patterns that you're noticing? So far?

Steve O'Donoghue 26:19
Not, not huge patterns as yet. But I'd say people that live closer to Reading, tend to come into the office more than people who don't. I've seen it a team approach where some teams saying, yeah, let's get together now that we can. So tomorrow, for example, the whole of the HR teams coming in for an Away Day here, because you know the office is now the place to go for an Away Day. That's the second time they've done it this year, certainly for the past few months. So teams are finding their own patterns. And our case teams, I've heard a few case teams coming together here and finding that really valuable as well.

Sarah Fraser 27:03
Yeah. When they need to really discuss the case and see, yeah, yeah,

Steve O'Donoghue 27:08
There's no strong pattern coming through yet. And it was only last week that at our executive committee, we agreed that as a, as an executive committee team will try and be together once or twice a month and see how that goes.

Sarah Fraser 27:25
Yes, it is, with all of it as it is. Let's see how it goes. And what's, you may, I think you've said this already, but remind me, what's the? What's the kind of reporting back mechanisms so that you, you definitely notice you here as a an executive team, the patterns that are emerging? Because then I imagine there might be, there could be further policy, or maybe even guidelines that you implement or share across the board, if you see something working? So is there a mechanism?

Steve O'Donoghue 27:57
We haven't got a formal one in yet. So with an organisation of 120 people is much easier to just make that up through discussions. But funnily enough, only yesterday, I was chatting with someone, they they experienced a particular issue coming into the office about access to headsets. And they said, Yeah, yeah, we've got to have we've got to get a way, perhaps on the internet or something intranet, where people can very easily just log the issue they've experienced.

So staff looks for and can look at that again, and think, Okay, what's our organisational response to this? We know our technology in the rooms isn't sufficient yet for good hybrid working. So we're on to that to make it easier for people. The kit we have like, like the laptop here, it really good kit. So that that's not an issue. But I think little things might come out, like who's buying the milk? Who's buying the milk for the office? We'll see we need to capture it all as we go, respond to some immediately. And perhaps other aspects of learning will, we'll review at the end of the six month pilot

Sarah Fraser 29:08
Ah so, assessed as a six month pilot for it, and then and then reviewing after that point. So then you just touched on something I was curious about. So hybrid working, I think it seems to have a couple of meanings out there in the way it's being written. I don't know if you kind of notice this as well, because it's been talked about in terms of well, some working at home, some working in the office, but in technological terms, it means there are some people it's for a meeting, there are some people in the office and there are some people virtual for that meeting. And that's like it's a hybrid meeting. And as you say that there's definitely a need to get the technology to make that work. Is that Is that something that that you imagine, you're teams might do quite a lot, you know, actual hybrid working?

Steve O'Donoghue 30:04
Yes, I think it will be. So the technology we're looking at is one that should make that a better experience for both the people in the office or in the meeting and those who are elsewhere. And what we've found so far is like if I'm in the office now with a few other people here at this desk, and we were in a meeting with you. It's, it's, it doesn't quite work us talking here, hearing it through our headsets, and then hearing you as well. So, so that's going to be a technological solution to that. And that's what we're exploring currently, when one of the other issues I'm picking up on is when we recruit.

So when we go out to market, you know, how do we how do we badge the, the the positioning of the job, because we will need people to come to Reading on occasions, we don't actually know how regularly we'll need to get them to come here. It can increase the diversity of our attraction, and retention. We've got we've got people in Wales, Scotland, I heard yesterday, we've got someone in Northern Ireland as well. That's great. What a UK wide organisation employing people across the UK, brilliant.

But we've got to kind of have a fair expectation when we're recruiting as to how often we'll need them to be in Reading. Because, of course, it's a non-business expense, getting yourself to Reading to work here. So that will feature in people's thinking. Yeah, so we haven't got a clear answer to that yet. So we're open about the fact that we're developing this hybrid approach. But we're not being specific about how often people will need to be here. And so they make the decisions on that basis really

Sarah Fraser 31:51
Is yes. I wondering if, as you mentioned earlier, there is still anxiety around, around where you're working and lots of aspects of COVID. But is that do you imagine? Or are you hearing any anxiety about the sort of openness of that? Say like the contract isn't absolutely clear cut?

Steve O'Donoghue 32:14
Yeah, yes, I think that is fair to say. So there's some, you know, apprehension of do we do potentially suddenly get instructed or decide that people need to be here two to three days a week? My sense is what I'm picking up from conversations is that would be an issue to a lot of our people. And then that could have a counterproductive business impact for us. We want a motivated, happy workforce, and not one that feels is forced to come into the office at great expense for two to three days a week.

Sarah Fraser 32:50
Yeah, absolutely. It's, it's a, this is going to be a complicated process of negotiation.

Steve O'Donoghue 33:00
It is. And I think we'll make mistakes along the way. And we'll we'll learn from those mistakes. I think what we're setting up is something that's going to adapt, as you said, be iterative, really, more than for more than six months, we'll be looking at a year, a year plus depending on how long the COVID dynamic is out there.

But, but what our ex executive committee have really signed up to is the principle of this is an opportunity to radically rethink how we deliver our business. And I've talked a lot about the office, but also we go out to industry sites to do investigation, verification site visits, both across the UK and internationally. So, you know, it's not just thinking about our office, it's thinking about what are the locations we need to do our work at? And how best to bring our teams together at those locations?

Sarah Fraser 33:55
Thought? Yes, thought on how best to do it. Yeah, that really makes sense. So, I mean, I can hear that there's, there's a huge benefit to to business the realisation in you know, looking at this it with a very open mind stuff, but how would you describe the benefits of, you know, having to rethink ways of working from what from what how you see it now, that might change as you go forward. But what's it doing for, for you and for the business?

Steve O'Donoghue 34:29
I think focusing on the individual and caring about and putting individuals first. I do truly believe discretionary effort, passion, dedication, will flow and that's the way they see for us,

Sarah Fraser 34:51

Suria Lonsdale 34:52
Thank you so much for listening. And thank you once more to Steve for his contribution and insights next week, We will be posting episode number three, where Jennifer Hutton Deputy Director of Organisational Development for the Church of England, invites us to explore an emergent approach to developing guiding principles and practices to support staff in developing new working patterns.

And finally, don't forget to subscribe to our podcast to ensure you catch all future episodes. If you'd like to get involved in our Mindfullly events, our next virtual group inquiry is on Friday the 17th of September 2021 from 12pm to 1:30pm. So please get in touch to confirm your attendance. Our contact details are on our website

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