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Stories from the Field: Natalie Thompson

April 30, 2024   ·  

We’re fortunate to be joined in our mission to create healthier workplaces by many inspiring individuals on a similar journey. In Stories from the Field, we hear from valued members of the Harkn community about how they got to where they are today. 

We got to know Natalie Thompson when she worked for Schroders Personal Wealth, where she spearheaded Harkn’s successful adoption and use.  

Today, Natalie is leading all things Employee Relations at the law firm DAC Beachcroft.  

She’s an expert on employee engagement, workplace wellbeing and CSR, and a powerful advocate for employee listening. 


Early career & progression  

Lydia: So, I always like to start these interviews with the same question: What was your first ever job?  

Natalie: Wow. If you want me to be absolutely honest, my first ever job was as a Saturday girl at the hairdressers. Which is relevant I think, because it exposed me to people.  


Lydia: And did you enjoy it?  

Natalie: I didn’t enjoy the obvious parts about it, but what I really enjoyed was talking to people, listening and making conversations. It very quickly taught me that everyone is an individual and what’s right for some people isn’t right for everyone. I was very young, so it really shaped my views about being a people-orientated person.   


Lydia: That leads me nicely to my second question. Some people always know what they’re going to do in life, while others come to it in a more roundabout way. What led you to roles in the people field?  

Natalie: My first proper job when I left college was in financial services, so I’ve grown up in that arena for many years. They were customer-facing roles – being young you tend to start that way and work your way up. I think I had a natural ability to talk to people, and that was initially what led me in that direction.  

Having said that, I didn’t find it natural being a people manager at first. I found that challenging, because I had my own views on ‘how things should be done.’ So that was a bit of a conflict for me in my early career; I was a great people person, but I probably wasn’t a great manager to begin with and I had a lot of learning to do.  

That journey came with opportunities – exposure to understanding the differences in people from a diversity perspective and a wellbeing perspective.  

It was also valuable to observe how more senior people than me were managing people. The diverse approaches there helped shape my understanding of how to be a better leader myself, but also how I wanted to be managed. It got me to try to listen to people to better understand them.  


Lydia: I think a lot of people feel that way. The route to becoming a people manager is different for everyone, so you can find yourself in that position and suddenly realise it comes with a whole different set of challenges.  


The evolution of the HR profession  

Natalie Thompson, Employee Relations Lead at DAC Beachcroft

Lydia: So, let’s talk about HR.  

I know you were at Lloyds Banking Group before in a more traditional HR role, then you transitioned into wellbeing & CSR and now employee relations. 

When you first started, did you feel that HR meant something quite different to today? How has it evolved over time?  

Natalie: Definitely. It continues to evolve, is what I would say. It’s also evolving differently across different sectors.  

There was always a perception of people management and human resources... you know the, ‘oh, that’s HR’s job.’ But I think it’s moved on a lot from that – certainly in terms of the role of HR in people strategy.   

There’s greater understanding at the top that your people are your biggest asset, and involving people in business decisions right from the start and understanding the impact of them is going to lead to better results and better performance.  

But it hasn’t always been like that. A lot of things have happened in the last 5-6 years that have increased the speed at which the profession’s adapted. The concept of working from home / working from remotely... in some areas there’s still this question of: ‘Do we trust people?’ Rather than looking at it as: ‘What can we give people to make sure they’re engaged and motivated when they’re working remotely?’  

All those conversations were forced upon us four years ago, and that accelerated the evolution.  

The workplace continues to change. Some organisations are going completely remote. Some are going for the hybrid approach, because that ability to collaborate and have conversations has a massive impact on engagement, wellbeing and performance.  

I think HR now has more credibility from a business perspective because we can have that positive impact on performance.  

But in order to get there, I think it’s about understanding the role of leaders and managers in on-the-ground listening and keeping team members informed and involved. Being in touch with how your people are feeling will make the difference between a change landing and being successful and seeing a dip in morale and engagement.  

In summary, HR continues to evolve and is now being seen as not just a business cost but something that can really add value.  


Lydia: You’re so right. It’s not just that what HR does has changed, but how functions like HR and internal communications are perceived by the rest of the business has also changed a lot.  


The role of listening in leadership  

Natalie Thompson, Employee Relations Lead at DAC Beachcroft

Lydia: I love that whenever you talk about leadership the word listening tends to be in there – which is why you’re such a valued advocate for Harkn.  

Was listening seen as a leadership skill earlier on in your career?  

Natalie: No, I don’t think it was called out specificially. They were command and control environments; you know, ‘tell - do.’  

That perception of employee listening still hasn’t evolved as much in certain organisations and sectors. Especially listening beyond the annual survey and action plan level.  

I mean really listening – listening that helps people feel informed and involved and increases engagement.    

If you feel like you’re being listened to by your manager, and like they understand you, then you build trust and openness, and the employee feels committed to the organisation.  

Anybody can listen, but if that doesn’t lead to anything then what’s the point? 

It’s about showing that you’re listening and you understand, seeking out opinions and engaging in conversation about what actually matters – that's the important thing.  

So, I think there’s more awareness of it, but there’s also nervousness. 

Because if you’ve got more active voices and stronger voices in the organisation that have a big impact on the culture then that can be challenging. 

So, you’ve got to have the right champions in place to reinforce and build that listening environment and manage those who want to disrupt it – because it’s not about that, it’s about creating a great place to work where people can thrive and deliver a strong performance.  

At the end of the day, every organisation exists to deliver outcomes – whether that’s a service or product – and you can only do that if you’ve got great people who you understand.  


Lydia: Yes, and we’re obviously very familiar with that nervousness of what will happen when you unlock all these voices in your organisation. But listening is not just a policy; it's a fundamental mindset shift. Leaders have traditionally been taught to simply make a decision and communicate it to the workforce, so it takes a lot of effort to change thinking around that.  

But I imagine one of the reasons you’ve had such a successful career is how well you understand the need to see business needs as inextricably linked with these concepts like engagement and wellbeing.  

It comes back to trust, and listening needs to be really embedded in your ways of working rather than just tick-box activities.  

Natalie: And on that, Lydia, I think it needs to be not just embedded in ways of working but embedded in your character.  

I’m a naturally curious person, and in a relatively new role in a different sector. For me it’s about being curious and listening myself. Not necessarily coming up with all these ideas... because I first need to understand ‘how things are done around here.’  

And that’s important to me because if I’m going to have credibility and make an impact, I need to show an understanding of the environment I’m working in.  


Starting a movement  

Natalie Thompson, Employee Relations Lead at DAC Beachcroft, sharing her perspective on workplace wellbeing

Lydia: Now... what do you find most rewarding about your work, and what is most challenging?  

Natalie: The most rewarding part is feeling as though I’ve made some sort of connection. Feeling I’ve made a difference. If I’ve helped somebody, signposted somebody, influenced somebody into thinking differently. Overcoming challenges and coming up with solutions.  

For a long time, wellbeing had a reputation of being ‘the fluffy stuff.’ For me, it’s the fundamental foundation of an organisation. Like I said earlier, your people are your biggest asset and if their wellbeing is seen as something separate, you’re not going to have as much impact.  

So, for me, helping people to understand that it’s not something separate – it's actually all part of business performance – is really rewarding.  

The most challenging part is that, sometimes, people just aren’t interested. They don’t have a growth mindset. They’re fixed in their opinions.  

While that’s challenging, I don’t necessarily find it negative. It’s about thinking: ‘Ok, now’s not the time.’ Or ‘maybe I need to adapt my approach.’ It’s not all about getting a successful outcome immediately.  

It can also be challenging because, from some perspectives, old-fashioned approaches to things have always worked – so they don’t accept the need for change. That’s a challenge in itself, because I’m not someone that wants to be a solitary leader in that sense. For me, it’s about starting a movement and making subtle changes. So, it can be challenging when people want to stick to safer paths.   


Lydia: We can really relate to that at Harkn, and I actually think the reward and the challenge are very interlinked. When you win over someone who has a fixed mindset and get them to see change as a positive, it’s even more rewarding.  


The future of wellbeing at work  

Natalie Thompson, Employee Relations Lead at DAC Beachcroft, on employee listening

Lydia: You’ve mentioned wellbeing a few times, and it’s something that’s being talked about a great deal now.  

Particularly emergent is the view that individualistic wellbeing treatments aren’t the answer to workplace wellbeing. We all do forms of self-care to try and manage our emotions and make ourselves more resilient, but that doesn’t directly tackle the causes of poor wellbeing at work.  

Now, you have a lot of experience working on employee wellbeing, and I presume it’s still a big part of your role now. What do you think the future of workplace wellbeing looks like? What’s changing?  

Natalie: It’s interesting, because having lots of activities and resources available to employees is a good thing, but it isn’t the answer.  

When you have a highly targeted sector – for instance the one I'm in now, where you’re rewarded for results and have a long-hours culture where people don’t take breaks because they've got a deadline to meet, that’s where we need to ask: How can we create a healthier culture around this?  

I don’t need to tell you that the busier you are, and the more under pressure you are... that tendency to say: ‘Ok I’m not going to take a break because I need to get this done,’ is counterproductive. You’re going to be less productive if you don’t take a break.  

But when you’re in that state, and I know because I’ve been there myself, you don’t think like that. You think: “I’ll just do a bit more; I just need to do this...”  

That’s where senior leadership needs to lead by example and normalise it. Not just, ‘this is the initiative we’re rolling out this month,’ but actually embedding it in your culture and have people talk about how they themselves manage challenging situations.   

You get a feel for a culture by the small talk – whether that’s on a Teams call or in-person. That’s going to be the future of workplace wellbeing. Yes, have initiatives and interventions – they have their place – but really, it’s about: what does it feel like on a daily basis? It’s the implicit things that make a real difference, and C-Suite and other senior leaders have a big role to play in that. 

The organisations that create a culture where wellbeing is all part of your working environment... that’s the way forward.  


Lydia: Leading by example is so, so important when it comes to wellbeing. 

 As you say, in high pressure environments like law and financial services, it can be hard to put your wellbeing first when it might mean missing out on a project allocation, promotion or bonus. 

You look at what your peers are doing and what your boss is doing and feed off that. If wellbeing isn’t embedded in culture then your strategy quickly falls apart. 

Natalie: I’m a big advocate for storytelling as well. That’s something I’ve worked on previously, and you do get senior role models sharing their experiences and ‘walking the talk.’  

That has the biggest impact in allaying fears that looking after yourself will hinder your chances. It’s about recognising and celebrating scenarios like that.  


Lydia: And when senior leaders are brave enough to tell their own story, it goes a long way in dismantling the stigma around wellbeing issues.  

Even if there isn’t the same stigma as there was 20 years ago, there’s always still a sigma around these things. It’s difficult for people to admit they’re not coping well in professional environments.  

Natalie: That comes back to my earlier point around, what sort of leader do you want to be?  

We need to be comfortable with not always getting it right and being open to feedback. 

And it’s not just one way, leaders, managers and team members all have accountability for breaking down these barriers and making people feel safe. 

 But if you’re a manager who is not used to that – who is used to wellbeing being a HR responsibility – that's going to be challenging. But having some leaders lead by example is going to really help that.  


How listening empowers wellbeing and inclusion  

Lydia: What do you think the role of listening is in empowering a more targeted approach to employee wellbeing, rather than one-size-fits-all policies?   

Natalie: Where, like in my current organisation, you have different locations and clusters, then having role models in senior positions sharing their stories and learnings will have a massive impact.  

It can’t be a flavour of the month, though. We need to follow up with outcomes. “We listened, we heard you, and this is what we’re doing about it.” 

So, those storytelling activities are useful, but they also need to be embedded so that it becomes the norm – that's where the biggest success will be.  

It’s intersectional, too. You mentioned inclusion, and organisations that are increasing their focus in that area are seeing the benefits. Because the stigma and barriers are there and will continue to be there – they won’t be eradicated – but there are things we can do to make people feel safe and able to stick their head above the parapet.  


Lydia: I’m sure your experiences have shown that you can’t treat diversity and inclusion as distinct from wellbeing.  

Natalie: Absolutely, they’re all interlinked. Equality and diversity are in everything that we do, and we need to integrate them more.  

What’s right for one person isn’t necessarily right for another. It’s about increasing awareness of things like unconscious bias and blind spots too. Those things can have a big impact on wellbeing and inclusion in an organisation.  


Celebrating progress in law and financial services  

Lydia: We’ve touched on the fact you’ve worked across a few different sectors, including financial services and law.  

Do you feel that, when organisations are trying to make progress in these areas, there are significant differences in different sectors? 

How have you adapted to different environments, and is it possible for any sector to make meaningful progress with things like wellbeing and inclusion?  

Natalie: My answer to that last question is yes, but it’s the speed of that progress and celebrating where progress is made.  

In my current organisation, there’s different sections and clusters and specialisms. Understanding when one area has adopted something that’s working well, sharing that and encouraging other areas to get involved too makes a positive difference.  

You can’t change the fact it’s a fee-based, chargeable hours environment, but it's understanding the peaks and troughs of the workload and what support mechanisms are in place. It’s also important to empower line managers to spot the early signs of those who need support, and to empower employees to feel able to speak up when they’re struggling.  

We’re on the journey, but the speed at which progress is made is dependent on your immediate local environment. That’s where the challenge is.  

And for me, making progress comes down to engaging with the right people, understanding their styles and what their concerns are, and having those healthy and challenging conversations – and actually showing why your ideas will work. 

As you said at the beginning, changing mindsets is difficult. To add a new idea can be perceived as: “Well, that’s just given me something else to think about.”  

Actually, we should be taking a holistic view of the workplace environment, and that takes a commitment from those at the top and engagement from the workforce as a whole.  

Talking and listening are essential to making wellbeing an integral part of working life.  



Age inclusion: Embracing Gen Z  

Natalie Thompson, Employee Relations Lead at DAC Beachcroft

Lydia: What you’ve highlighted well there is that it’s not just about differences between organisations, but cohesion within one organisation – which is especially challenging in large-scale environments where you’re typically dealing with a distributed, often digital workforce.  

But whichever organisation and industry you’re in, all have got one thing in common; a whole new generation is entering the workforce, which presents a whole new set of considerations.  

What are your thoughts on that? How might organisations need to adapt to attract and retain Gen Z employees?  

Natalie: There’s a lot of information coming in about Gen Z, regarding work-life balance and potentially unfair perceptions that they are less resilient...   

...I think what this generation is bringing to the workforce, which links back to what we’ve just been talking about, is their instinct to question things and be a bit more curious. 

I haven’t mentioned values yet, but my values of integrity, respect and fairness have driven me throughout my career.  

But there are a lot of assumptions people make, and the ability to challenge those assumptions and being courageous and vulnerable makes all the difference.  

My current company just had a round of promotions, and I was looking at the age profiles and genders and was proud of what I saw.  

The culture we generate brings in employees who want to stay, because we adapt by listening to our people. We won’t always get it right, but by sharing our successes and evidencing our listening – for example asking what support people need who are returning from parental leave and acting on it – empowers employee voices.  

I think the organisations that are most successful will be actively listening to those voices.  

I don’t want to pigeon-hole Gen Z, but they are an example of a different perspective and set of experiences.  

I’m at the other end of the spectrum – we've got, what, five or six generations in the workforce right now. And I think that’s where there’s a big challenge, because you’ve got old school perspectives like staying long hours and building a reputation set against the newer emphasis on work-life balance.   

So I think we need to be looking at the full picture rather than just one generation. We need to consider how we can learn and benefit from everyone’s perspectives.  


Lydia: I agree, I think it’s a challenge but there’s also a chance to see this as an opportunity. Age is not traditionally core to the inclusion piece, but perhaps that’s something that needs to change – because if its left unchecked it can create some unpleasant workplace dynamics.  

Natalie: And again, that’s about stereotypes and perceptions. Creating an environment where you’re comfortable to challenge them – in the right way, not in an aggressive way – that’s where we need to develop the skills to have those human conversations.  

And it is a skill! Because if you’re worried about saying the wrong thing, you’re more likely to say the wrong thing. Asking questions, being curious, seeking to understand...  

There’s that saying: You need to listen to understand, rather than listen to respond.  

If you’re already preparing your response while you’re listening to someone, then you’re not really listening. But it’s human nature, so it’s really hard. That’s a skill I’ve tried really hard to develop personally.  


The age of the listening organisation  

Natalie Thompson on employee listening

Lydia: Taking the time to learn more about people, as you might do more naturally outside of work, is key to building stronger relationships.  

And that brings me to my final question, which I ask all our interviewees.  

We talk a lot about the age of the listening organisation here at Harkn. What does that term mean to you? 

Natalie: A listening organisation for me is an organisation that actively values all their employees. They’re actively going out and seeking input from individuals. Whether that’s direct, through managers, through questionnaires and polls...  

...And then coming back with how that’s going to impact things. It’s an organisation that understands culture is a moving piece and collaboration is the way forward.  

It’s about leaders being courageous and brave, and understanding that stereotypes and prejudices are always going to be there but increasing your awareness of how they might impact your judgement and decisions.  

And it’s an organisation of role models and leaders... not just senior leaders, but at every level of an organisation. From the top down and bottom up, because everyone has a contribution to make.  


Lydia: What a brilliant response. We will be sharing that one widely!  

It’s been a great interview full of interesting insights. You’re such an inspiring professional in this field, so thank you so much for taking part.  


Natalie: My pleasure!  


Watch the podcast episode with Natalie on our YouTube channel

Feeling inspired to become a change-maker in your organisation? Find out more about how Harkn supports employee listening, wellbeing, and inclusion


Lydia Blundell
Lydia Blundell

Brand & Content Manager , Connect with Lydia on LinkedIn

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