June 17th, 2021

Five learnings from British Red Cross on creating a better working culture

While the global pandemic has forced us all to rethink how we’re working, British Red Cross has turned this disruption into a big opportunity, taking the bold step of using this year to improve its working practices for good.


This month sees the launch of its ‘Ways of Working’ project in the Fundraising & Supporter Engagement directorate, which aims to build a sustainable working environment in which people can thrive. By putting people – including staff – at the heart of its fundraising, the charity believes it will ultimately raise more sustainable income for those in crisis. 

Ben Cohen, Head of Fundraising Innovation at British Red Cross, talks about how the charity wants to learn from what has and hasn’t worked during the pandemic, using these insights as a starting point to keep on innovating in future. 

1. Wellbeing is our number one priority

“Right at the beginning of the pandemic, everyone from our CEO to our amazing Chief Supporter Officer Paul Amadi said, “We’re putting wellbeing first. That’s our number one priority for any decision we make during this pandemic.” 

Individually we’ve been empowered to adjust how we work – both informally with things like childcare, and more formally with things like our approach to furlough and flexi-furlough. Informally a lot of things have changed, so now we want to make sure we’re designing ways of working that don’t lead us back to old habits.  

Putting people at the heart of fundraising refers to our staff, volunteers and supporters, as well as the people in crisis that we’re helping. It doesn’t sound like a radical shift, but it is. Looking at our previous strategies, as well as other organisations’ strategies, pretty much everyone focuses on what – the big mission, the numbers – no one really talks about how. How are we going to treat our people? How are we going to create a good environment they’ll be happy in? You never see ‘happy people’ in a strategy.

The rationale is that if we put people at the heart of how we fundraise, our staff are going to be happier, they won’t be as overwhelmed, and they’re going to be delivering better work in a more sustainable way. We’ll be recruiting a more diverse spread of people. Our culture will gradually improve. And ultimately, we believe this approach will lead to us being able to help more people in crisis. 

Diversity and inclusion can come from changing how we work to a more human approach. Charities always try to be super-efficient and focus a lot of effort on cost cutting, and there is merit to doing that to an extent. But not when staff start to suffer, putting in long hours because they care about the cause, and about the supporters. Often it can mean that one job is doing four jobs and that’s not healthy. We want to live the principles of our charity internally as well as externally.” 

2. Habits are hard to shift

“We’ve always wanted to change our culture and our ways of working, but as quite a traditional, hierarchical organisation with a lot of history, that’s been difficult to realise. When we found ourselves in lockdown and working remotely, things shifted, and the organisational resistance lessened. 

We found ourselves with a bit of a blank slate. There are some amazing things we’ve started doing during the pandemic, that are fairly informal, and we need to make sure that those don’t get lost.

We’ve been better at communicating as a directorate. At the start of the pandemic, we had a directorate town hall on Zoom every Friday. It included a lot of people who couldn’t come to meetings before because they worked remotely. People said we feel like a more cohesive directorate because of that. We’re going to keep doing that on Zoom every month.

We’ve embraced technology. The pandemic pushed us to think about using Teams and putting our files in shared folders that everyone can collaborate on, rather than using old-school shared drives and finding out someone’s editing another version of the document you’ve just finalised. 

We could have decided we want to be a fully agile organisation and made huge changes all at once. But the work showed us that we need to start where people are. People aren’t going to respond well to another enormous change project when they’re already overwhelmed and dealing with so much uncertainty.” 

3. Insights are our starting point

Our first bit of work was two months of insight in December and January, running in-depth interviews with our staff and the directorate, and doing some surveys, digging into what was working for people and what wasn’t. 

Some obvious things showed up, like no one wants to go back to the office full time. Some things were less obvious, for example there’s a double-edged sword in remote working. People love the flexibility – they’ve embraced things like Teams, instant messaging, and collaboration whiteboards – but they’re missing other humans, and they’re overwhelmed. 

When you work by yourself in a room, and throw in an always-on messaging system, emails, Teams and Zooms, everything’s piling on. If wellbeing comes first, we probably need to take things away for the moment, rather than add more to people’s plates. While there are huge benefits to how we’ve been working, if we don’t design ways to manage it, the technology will control us, rather than the other way round.

One word we’ve used throughout is sustainable. Some of the ways of working that have come out of the pandemic are not sustainable. People have got through it for a year, and there are some great things, like not commuting, and Zooms, and having a more level playing field, but not everything is sustainable in the long term.”

4. Changes are made in small steps 

“We’re taking the classic innovation approach of testing things and scaling up what works. Rather than doing one big release, every two months we’re releasing a small, manageable batch of stuff that people can get their teeth into, digest and feed back on. By the end of that two-month cycle we’ll get some feedback, and we’ll decide whether to keep things, or get rid of them. The idea is that, slowly, we build up a repository of stuff that works for us and iterate to a good place.  

Each batch is broken down into three sections: keep doing, start doing, and experiments. Each two-month cycle focuses on a different theme that came from our insight. There are eight different themes and the first is around helping our people thrive.

One idea we’ve been trialling is Headspace Day (an idea from Kate at Alzheimer’s Society) which goes in everyone’s calendar on the last Tuesday of every month. It’s designed to address that problem of endless Zooms and overwhelm: one day where the whole directorate doesn’t email or call each other, and can work, plan, strategise, or do some personal development. It’s not going to solve the whole problem, but it will start to nudge us in the right direction. The idea is to start empowering teams to block out their own time, to normalise and encourage it, so people have the vocabulary and the knowledge to start doing it themselves.

If you’re someone who’s in demand, or an expert, getting a hundred messages a day, and pinging back responses at different times, you may find the day ends and you haven’t been able to do your actual work. We’re addressing that with an idea informally called Office Hours (we might change the name), which is an hour or two a week where you’re available on Teams, or via a Zoom link, and people can come and ask you questions. It’s another small way to give people more time in their day to focus.” 

5. This is the year to make changes

“There are some good changes that happened during lockdown, but don’t assume they’ll stay when we go back to the office, or to hybrid working. We’ve got entrenched habits in how we work. When we’re back in our rut of sometimes commuting in, it’ll be so much more difficult to make changes. There will be some CEOs that want people in the office for a certain number of hours. Now’s the time to start shifting. 

It doesn’t need to be radical straight away. The pandemic’s shown that it’s a bit nuts that we had to be at our desks from 9 to 5. Lots of studies show that the number of hours you work in a knowledge-based job doesn’t equate to better work. It’s about having good hours and making sure we’re doing good work, not forcing people to be present at their desks just because that’s what the contract says. 

We can open up jobs to so many more people that may have children, may be about to go on maternity leave or just coming back, may have a lot going on with their family, or may be carers. Opening up work to a much wider variety of people helps us live out what our charity stands for. 

We’ve got a whole section of the project called Experiment. This involves the bigger questions you can’t solve by popping something in someone’s diary, or on a slide, or in a workshop. For example, how can we create the serendipity of running into someone you wouldn’t normally work with, when we go back to hybrid working? Or how do we create a growth mindset in the directorate? 

We’re talking to Ryan at Good Innovation about developing a light-touch training package where people can nominate to be an experiment lead for a two-month period, maybe one day a week. They’ll get training in an innovation approach to testing solutions in a non-risky way. Starting with a question and developing a rigorous process to come up with a solution really quickly. We want to start feeding that into the directorate, so people will go back to their teams and try running experiments on their own. By doing that, we’re slowly moving towards a culture we want.” 

If you only do one thing

“If you can, do some insight with your staff to find out exactly what’s been working over the past year. And then make sure you’re still doing that. Put it in writing. Get your senior leadership to sign it off. You might decide all meetings are on Zoom, so there’s a level playing field for staff, remote and in the office. Make sure new norms are reinforced if they’re working well. 

We’ll publish the insights from our ‘Ways of Working’ project further down the track. In the meantime, I’m happy to share our work with anyone, any time.” You can email Ben at BCohen@redcross.org.uk