Enabling flexible and agile working at the royal ballet school

Enabling flexible and agile working at The Royal Ballet School

The way we all collaborate has changed so much in the past two years. As an organisation that prioritises continuous evolution and creating community, we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how we share knowledge and build upon our research both internally and with other organisations within and beyond dance. This means building flexibility into our work in a way that we hadn’t before. Our Head of HR, Christian Gallagher, recently spoke at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) Annual Conference for a session titled Revolutionising the employee experience – enabling flexible and agile working.

Can you tell us a little bit about what you brought to the session from the experience of the staff at the School? What makes the employee experience here special?

I talked about how traditionally we were all in all the time because we’re a school and we’re people-facing. But then COVID lockdowns allowed us to realise that we have the technology and the ability to work from home, and we did it successfully in many roles.

Now we’ve come back out of that – we’re a school so we have to be open and certain roles are pupil-facing which means to be effective you have to be in the studio, you have to be in the classroom with them. In academics, that means if the School’s open, Front of House has to be there. You need people on reception, and the cleaners to come in and make sure the studio is clean and ready for them. So, it means a lot of us do have to come in.

But there are a lot of us in more support roles in different functions such as communications or marketing, finance, or HR, we have the ability now – very kindly through investment from the School with laptops and with IT working hard to get us all online with Teams and the shared network – we’re able to offer quite flexible and agile working. We’ve got people in certain roles who can choose to work from White Lodge, Upper School, or from home, and can be effective in all three.

We did get a question about how we can say we have flexible working for the people who absolutely have to be in because they’re pupil-facing. The answer is that at The Royal Ballet School we try to build in as much flexibility as we can. People can start early and finish early. They can start late and finish late. We have a ballet teacher at White Lodge who takes her children to school before she comes into School, and it’s great if we can offer that flexibility. There are always ways around [people’s circumstances], so we just try to listen as much as possible.

Did any questions come up during the session that you hadn’t considered before? 

The questions from the audience were quite practical. People were asking us how we do it, and what the implications are. What do you need to have in place to make it effective? We’re quite lucky at The Royal Ballet School because we have leaders who are behind it, who understand it and support it. There’s no point in writing a policy that says, ‘hey! You can work from home’ if all the leaders will turn around and say ‘no you can’t.’

And at an HR conference, you also have to talk about some of the technical, practical stuff. So I talked about some of the contracts and policies, and the psychological contract to make sure you look after people.

It’s important to remember that it’s a human thing. As HR professionals we have to talk to people. It’s no good saying, ‘right! You can all work from home, go home!’ For some people that may not work.

There were times in lockdown when I’d have a chat with someone where I’d see their laundry hanging up because that’s the only space they have and they have to work from bed. Some people may not want to work from home that much. They may want to come in because it’s more sociable, and you can learn from other people. There are all sorts of reasons someone may want to stay home. You just want to offer that flexibility.

What would you like to see other organisations like ours do to support people’s individual preferences and needs?

Organisations need to listen. A company could say, ‘we’re going to get rid of our central London office because it’s so expensive and we can save a fortune.’ And then close the office and say, ‘great, you can all work from home, don’t worry.’ But it’s those blanket approaches that don’t work. You need to have an approach that actually listens to and respects the needs of individuals.

It’s great for us that we can be more inclusive of people with disabilities, it might be easier for them to work from home, but we can’t make that assumption. Some people might really want to come in.

For young people, it can be really important that they learn from being around people. Yes, you can ‘Teams’ someone and ask a question, but you pick up a lot just by listening to how people interact with each other and how they interact with the parents on the phone. There are opportunities missed when being fully at home.
I just hope other organisations listen to their employees.

A big part of the employee experience is listening to people and understanding what’s best for them. How do you build that into a culture?

It’s all down to leadership. You have to have those conversations and have them regularly. Our Executive Leadership Team is good. They reflect, listen, and understand. They take it on board. It means that then it goes out throughout the rest of the organisation.

But it’s easier when people model it. When the Commercial Director is at home once a week, it means that her team are all happy to work hybrid. She’s doing what she says it’s OK to do. If she was in five days a week, people would feel awkward about asking.

There’s a weird new thing about some companies providing unlimited annual leave, which can make people nervous because they don’t know what the boundaries are. Do I take more? Do I take less? What’s acceptable? You can have too much uncertainty and too much choice.

What do you think, if anything, would surprise people about working at the School?

I think everyone I’ve met this week said, ‘Oh my God, you work there? That must be the most amazing place,’ which it is, and then they say, ‘you must not have any problems there, ever’ and of course you do.

It is a nice place to work. I’ve worked in a lot of different places and a lot of different industries. There is something very magical about walking around a building that has piano music playing, and you see the students who have this incredible level of dance.

People expect that. The unexpected thing is that we’re all very friendly, on first-name terms, very informal and that it’s a supportive hierarchy. 

But we do have all of the issues that every other organisation has. I was speaking with people from all different types of organisations. We’re all worried about the same issues. We’re all worried about the cost of living and mental well-being, we’re all worried about avoiding staff burnout and recruiting effective people. It’s the same for all of us.