APeopleBusiness Case Study: CERN

CERN case study: Introduction

James Purvis, Head of Human Resources at CERN one of the world’s largest centres for nuclear research, recently participated in an online discussion of the problems they faced during the pandemic. He discusses how as a response to Covid-19 they rapidly reorganised their workforce by moving over 16,000 people online in a very short time-frame.  He also shows the positive impact aPeopleBusiness’s StressFactor tool had on quantifying their understanding of their own workplace stressors.

You can watch his video above. If you prefer to read, or need to translate into another language the transcript is below.  

What is CERN?

We are the birthplace of the World Wide Web, the home of the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva.

You can see the accelerator that’s 27 kilometres underground just next to the Geneva airport. So typically we’re about two and a half thousand staff, a thousand students, almost a thousand graduates and twelve thousand scientists, working on experiments in particle physics from around 100 countries. So quite a small quite a small city if you if you like right on the French Swiss border.

I’ll hand over to British PM Boris Johnson who can give a quick explanation to sum up exactly what we do here: 

I'm here in Geneva at the large hadron collider where this extraordinary gizmo is sending beams of particles at about the speed of light, at three meters a second slower than the speed of light. And they are smashing into each other and revealing the deepest secrets of the universe. But I bet what you didn't know is that a huge proportion of the funding for this operation comes from Britain, and you've got British scientists here proving that so.

A quick  summary that it’s ‘a very large and quite expensive gizmo’ as Boris calls it, but effectively it’s a particle accelerator reproducing  the big bang if you like, so that we can explore the the beginnings of the universe to effectively push forward the frontiers of humankind’s understanding.

Typically they would say between pure research and practical goals there could be a hundred years gap, but the day I think we want to say no we don’t want to carry on research I think would be a sad day if we look at coming out of this pandemic. I think certainly science and research will be the key for helping us out of this this pandemic.

CERN’s handling of Covid-19

So where does this fit in in terms of  today? and prevention versus is prevention better than cure?  If you have a look at the graph it’s very illustrative.

Since March 2020, it’s just the logging of the number of people that are on the CERN site. As I mentioned we’re a small city, often about 10,000 people on the CERN site. What happened with the breakout of the pandemic in in March last year and certainly the lockdown that came into place in France, in Switzerland, the closing of borders across Europe is we had to drop from 10,000 people to the absolute bare minimum that could just shut everything down.

We ran CERN in what we call safe mode for about a month, that’s easier said than done if you can imagine. These several thousand people are coming from twenty, thirty countries, borders are closing dramatically in Europe at the same time as people want to leave their home country. We’re saying ‘but hang on, we may need them back on site‘ at the same time as trying to have policies of do we keep people in the local region.

We’ve got  1,500 people a year that we on-board. We’ve got all our arrivals, typically 200 people have planned to arrive in in April. How do we handle our arrivals they’re coming from countries where the notion of quarantine hadn’t been introduced yet? But certainly borders were closing, travel was, closing etc. So a very, very challenging time for all of us.

I’ll go into some of the support mechanisms we put we put into place there. After the first confinement, the first lockdown there was some optimism and certainly businesses were allowed to restart. So we could actually bring people back on site that were needed back on site for their work, for the upgrades of the accelerator and experiment complex.  So you can see we’re aiming at 4,000 people on site, I think there was an optimism that the pandemic was over the worst of it and we were trying to bring more people back on site just before you see the hitting of the second wave.

We’ve now stabilised at around 4,000 people on site which is really the critical mass of those people required to enable our projects to progress. But also to allow some contact with the office so that we’re not telling people even though you you’re permanently on teleworking to at least allow some sort of connections with the office particularly for people for isolation, mental health and well-being. You can imagine you’ve just moved in a foreign country, you don’t speak the language you’re in a small flat on your own and you’re told to telework. Short-term challenging but long-term certainly other issues there. So we had to do a lot to do in order to achieve that. We were certainly as many organisations navigating blind.

Coordination of HR measures:

So from an HR perspective we first of all connected our network, we’re part of a network of international organisations here in Geneva: the UN, the WHO, ILO , so bi-weekly meetings with them at the HR level, but also at other levels, to coordinate what other labs are doing.

Coordinating with France and Switzerland because we’re in both countries and they’ve got different rules and regulations. Very useful to be part of a world-wide network: we’re part of something called Corporate Research Forum. In the early days of pandemic I remember being on Zoom calls where we’re speaking to people in China that were already bringing people back in the office a month after the pandemic, and people in Italy where it was hitting its peak. People in the uk that were still to some extent in denial, saying ‘no, contact tracing is going to be enough’. But very useful to be on this worldwide network because it’s a challenge for all of us.

Safety First: CERN & Host States:

In terms of CERN, we’ve always had pre-Covid  a motto safety first.  We’re running an infrastructure that’s at 1.7 kelvin, that’s powered by 400 kilowatt high voltage lines, so safety first is primordial. And that just extended for Covid. 

I’m in my office here, I’ve got my hand gel, I’ve got my mask for when I walk around the up office, I’ve got a proximiter device that’s allowed to us to automate the contact tracing. We’ve got a medical service on-site that manages any contact tracing. Since the year starting of the pandemic, despite having four thousand people on site, because of these safety measures we’ve had no on-site transmissions. Yes we have people that signal that they’ve they’re put subsequently positive and may have been on site, and that that way we can contact follow the contact tracing, manage the quarantine etc. But we’ve had more stringent safety measures in in place than even our host states.

So I think in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs we’re certainly making sure that we’ve covered the safety.

Information and Support

As all of you know it’s just the baseline, much more needs to be done.- we have a web of information and support services out there. We set up an HR helpline, we had a medical helpline for the medical questionnaires. We introduced a chatbot on Covid questions because as you can imagine with the diversity of our population, the number of countries they’re coming from, people’s contracts may be starting people’s contracts ending,

Can I return back to my home country? Can I come to CERN? Can I travel? What about the rules in France versus Switzerland versus CERN?So a lot of questions, a lot of resources needed to be put out there to explain the basics. But again information is one thing, we need to do more and we had to do more in terms of support mechanisms.

One of the things that was that was quite interesting that we did was that there’s a solidarity of CERN, to say ‘how can we help society?’

When we shut down CERN to the 300 people minimum running on site, we switched about 4,000 people to remote work. But there are some people whose jobs don’t allow them to telework, technicians in a workshop, etc.

So we opened up some facilities on site to produce face shields, masks, hand sanitisers that were in short supply in the health system for example. There was a spirit at CERN of collaborating, and saying ‘how can we help’.

In fact there’s just a volunteer set of volunteers on a fight against Covid task force so offering computing support, offering design of simulations for how airborne transmission helps, and even prototype ventilators.

For those that couldn’t help we set up a leave donation scheme so that people even though they couldn’t help directly could say ‘I’m going to donate some of my annual leave towards that fund’ that could be translated into contributions to helping.

There’s a real solidarity at CERN, and I think a real gathering people around a cause that certainly helped during these difficult times.

  Inside hr, like most HR’S, Covid-19 is becoming the biggest workplace transformation. Within two weeks we had to switch everything digitally, whether it was recruitment on-boarding,  re-curating content for L&D, putting new content on there: ‘how do I do remote supervision? How do I do remote management?’ Putting new resources available.

All of our HR processes went through a digital transformation that certainly if I’d wanted that and  wouldn’t have achieved with the rapidity that that a burning platform creates.

Putting in place structures for support isolation and anxiety.

We had  helplines put in place, we had a leaflet on anti-isolation measures, we collaborated with a number of services. We have an ongoing going program around work well /feel well, around well-being. So that was refocused on issues around Covid-19 and the pandemic.

And we found loads of services around the organisation were doing similar initiatives; the clubs for example, the on-site Zumba switched to off-site Zumba, and all of a sudden instead of having 20 people on site carrying out Zumba you had 150 people.

We set up virtual coffee meetings together with the clubs, etc. Things that allow people to stay in contact even if it’s still over Zoom and digitally, but least not to be isolated during these challenging times.

So a lot was put in place in terms of supporting the people. More in concern initially from the early days from you know how can they can they work, are they productive, is the cern site safe?

But what about the mental health and well well-being?

A key thing I always say is ‘you can’t manage what you don’t measure’. So having data and taking those decisions based on data. 

When we moved our 4,000 people onto teleworking last year, the first point was to send a pulse survey and check ‘ how’S it going how? Is teleworking for you?’

Can see we’ve got this gaussian distribution here, of you know for some people it was more productive, for some people it was less productive, but on average it was about the same. That data helps us prioritise those people that need to come back on site.

What hampers telework interestingly (in this graph here the on the right hand side) the highest response was non. So very assuring that for many people there were no barriers.

The second one the availability of colleagues. We saw drops in our engagement scores. Now the engagement was still very high, and when we zoomed into the causality of the drops it was the missing of the contact with peers, collaboration, the workspace, the workplace collaboration that you have on site. That is  maybe unplanned, that you don’t have so much through the zoom meetings.  So certainly for us looking at a post-Covid telework framework it’s very important that we make decisions based on data.

You hear a lot in the news about  ‘you’re going to telework from anywhere for the next couple of years etc’ the data we’re gathering at CERN says we do need site to keep the nucleus, and the DNA of the site for the collaboration and the innovation that comes out of CERN.

So maybe companies might be rethinking their work place about less as an office to work, but more a place for collaborating. 

So certainly a lot of lessons learned and a lot of information to say how can we do better during that time. There was definitely although we thought we were communicating well and a lot at the time, according to the data collected by the survey not enough.

So we switched into literally weekly actions and weekly communications that went out based on the data collected for the survey and what we understood the people want wanted, our staff wanted.

APB StressFactor survey

in addition to the CERN wide survey, in July we launched  an APB survey in the HR department, because previous surveys had shown that out of the demographics of CERN one of the areas where we’re seeing the higher numbers of stress was unfortunately in in my own department. So as leader of that department I wanted to probe deeper, and I wanted to know what is it what are the stressors that are that are causing challenges in in the department. And as Paul (Finch) mentioned it’s maybe something that stresses one person may not be the straight same stressor to another person.

It’s important also to look at that cartography in terms of personality types. The methodology we used was using the disc profile. As you can see we have 15  what we call source of stresses, 10 that are work related, and five that are outside of work. We can benchmark our HR department.

I thought for example we had an issue around understanding roles and responsibilities (SS1). It’s certainly orange on our dashboard, but in fact compared with other HR departments we’re not doing too bad, but certainly room for improvement.

Perhaps where we are doing less well than other HR departments, is understanding of the objectives: the appraisal system, feedback on the performance appraisals, etc. We can also target this and compare this to the personality  profiles in the Disc personality profile. You can see it’s not the same stresses for the same personality profiles. So you can see that it’s having personal time is higher on the I profile, versus maybe the financial worries on the C profile.

This allowed the HR department to have a more tailor-made plan to determine our priorities, to address the stressors in HR department.

Six priorities came out of that, addressing the:

  • flexibility
  • workload
  • recognition
  • leadership
  • communication
  • the tools and work environments

so (it was) very useful in determining concrete actions specific to our department.

So coming back to the main theme and the case study of CERN. We’re a year on prevention or cure? I think anybody will agree that we’d rather be vaccinated, the majority of us, than suffer from the from the disease  and have the cure that way. And I think it’s the same for this current pandemic.

A lot of work has been carried out, there’s been a lot of working by doing. I think even when we look into history and we see pandemics such as the 1918 Spanish flu, etc that did go on with numerous waves and go on for at least two year years. Our human optimism perhaps falsely led us to believe that it would be short-lived, we’d handle it better with the technology, modern approaches that’s not yet proven to be the case. I think we’re seeing it’s here for a while.

What we’ve seen at CERN is while we’ve been very active and reactive in the short term approaches, and the successful the actions have very much been in silos; HSE’s actions, psychologist actions, staff association, club, HR, etc.

Now what we’re working on one year further is putting this together in a multi-disciplinary approach to look at together how can we work as a cross-disciplinary, cross-functional team, to look at the issues. We see talk about pandemic fatigue, the long-term challenges with remote work teleworking. We’re seeing numbers increase in terms of reports to certain psychologists,  issues raised around mental health are certainly on the rise.

So I think it’s no longer one unit, or one part of the organisation’s challenge to deal with, but our best approach to working is to work together as a multi-disciplinary team. So that’s something we’re putting in place now. Perhaps with hindsight we should have done that at the start, but I know some of you in the webinar from the NHS we were certainly in in firefighting mode at the beginning, and have been through a lot of this this pandemic. So certainly lessons to be learned looking back and how we’d handle it in a future situation.

Speaking of the future this  beautiful sign that I’ve seen on many occasions; none of us have a crystal ball, I think one model that I like to think of is: ‘let’s talk about adapt, adopt and advance.’ We’ve all had to adapt to this unprecedented situation, we’ve all had to adopt to new ways of working. Perhaps some of the pre-Covid stigmatism attached with teleworking and ‘sorry they can’t join a meeting because they’re on telework’ or ‘don’t telephone them they’re remote working’, ‘don’t disturb them, they’ve maybe been reduced’. But there’s much more than just the lessons from teleworking even though that’s what we hear about their press.

I think there’s lessons about ISO strain, about stress, about well-being in the workplace, about workplace design in itself. So let’s move forward from the adapting and the adopting, to say how can we advance? What are the big lessons that we can learn moving forward to the post Covid, to the next normal?

I would really encourage all of you to make those decisions based on data. Collect the data in order to determine what the lessons are to advance. Because the solutions we adopt here at CERN won’t be the solutions you adopt. Each of us are different, just like people have personality types, organisations have different culture and there’s certainly no one size fits all. But making those decisions based on data would be my number one recommendation to you.

Thank you very much for listening and I hope it’s provide useful for you

As you have heard in the CERN case study APeopleBusiness has the prerequisite technology and competencies to effectively  help multi-nationals, large organisations and global institutions identify and resolve workplace issues. If you would like to discuss with us how we can work together please contact us…