Creating The Francis Crick Institute: HR's role

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Ben Gilbert, Wellcome images
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This multi-institution merger presented operational challenges, but also ones around engaging and galvanising The Crick's new employee base

The organisation

The Francis Crick Institute is a biomedical research centre in King's Cross, London. It opened in 2016 as a partnership between Cancer Research UK, Imperial College London, King's College London, the Medical Research Council, University College London and the Wellcome Trust. The institute has 1,500 staff, including 1,250 scientists.

The institute defines its research programme as exploring ‘seven high-level science questions’. These include: How do organisms maintain health and balance throughout life and as they age; how can we use biological knowledge to better understand, diagnose and treat human disease; and how does cancer start, spread and respond to therapy?

The challenge

When then-HRD at Cancer Research UK John Macey was approached to head up HR at a brand-new entity pulling together several prestigious research bodies, his initial instinct was to respond with a firm 'no thanks'. “There was part of me if I’m honest that thought ‘this is not doable’,” he admits. “But I thought 'I’m going to give it a go'. So I took the plunge and joined in 2013.”

At this stage The Crick, as it's now affectionately known, consisted of about 20 people and physically nothing more than “a hole in the ground”. “It was a start-up brand and at the same time a three-way merger and a massive TUPE transfer and integration of three very culturally-different organisations,” says Macey.

The idea was to create something bigger than the sum of its parts where scientists could better collaborate and share research and resources.

But not all prospective Crick employees were thrilled at the idea: “The Medical Research Council’s national base was in Mill Hill, which was a beautiful building in beautiful surroundings… Lots of people walked to work. So to many people this was an unwelcome change; having to commute into London for the first time… Some people were quite hostile actually to the whole idea.

“But essentially the buildings that those organisations were housed in were really at the end of their life so the organisations that they belong to had to do something.”

So the challenge for Macey was both operational, but also one of engaging and galvanising the institute’s new employee base: “I had a completely blank sheet of paper… we did a lot of borrowing and stealing of policies and systems. It was a huge TUPE process and these guys all came with existing T&Cs, pay scales and the like. At the same time I had to create a third set that was The Crick’s.”

He adds: “For anyone, having your employer change is an anxious experience… So it was about explaining the rationale.”

The method

Macey decided that the way to get everyone on side was to involve them in lots of decisions, including the design of the building: “We basically got lots of people to walk through the floor plans and suggest how things should be laid out.”

He adds: “We were flying on goodwill the whole time though as there was no contractual need for anyone to engage with us. We relied so much on legacy institutes and staff who really rolled their sleeves up. They all had day jobs…”

Enlisting the staff themselves had a profound impact on this design. “There wasn’t going to be a staircase at all originally,” reports Macey, in reference to the striking spiral staircase connecting the floors of the building in the heart of its striking open-plan atrium. “Then someone suggested we needed something to connect the floors both visually and actually. My most productive meetings actually happen on the stairs as I’m walking up and down, bumping into people.”

The philosophy of the organisation is that no individual lab owns anything: “We don’t have divisions, we don’t have departments of science… we are just The Crick. All the labs are mixed up so we’ve got quite a salt-and-pepper approach. We create clusters of like research.”

The space has to reflect this, Macey explains, with equipment shared and co-located. Again this was something of a sticking point at first for some: “A major cultural thing was printers, which might sound a bit silly…. We had some very sceptical scientists who believed they needed an individual printer on their desks.”

The key was encouraging people to try new approaches, with the promise that things could be tweaked if they didn’t work: “We had to persuade people to just go with it. So saying: ‘Because it’s new nothing’s fixed; if it doesn’t work we can change it'.”

Another way of winning people over was to ensure legacy organisations’ past achievements were recognised, rather than wiping the slate clean too much: “We have to honour and celebrate the achievements of the historic institutes. Because really The Crick has only existed for a very short amount of time and most of our successes and scientific prizes are down to the legacy institutes.”

It took 50 weekends to move every lab into the building in 2016, Macey reports. “Every Monday morning we’d have a meeting on each floor to introduce people moving in,” he says. The idea – as with the central staircase – was to foster collaboration from the off. Employee networks and wellbeing activities are similarly aimed at encouraging people to meet and get talking about projects they’re working on.

The result

The now 30-strong HR team (including academic training, who look after The Crick’s circa 200 PhD students) has done well moving most over to a unified set of T&Cs, feels Macey: “We still have a number of people who have their legacy terms and conditions and some legacy contractual policies and pay scales. But we have done a good job really; I think we have 80% of people who are fully on The Crick’s package.

“We did have a lot of debate at the executive table about how draconian we wanted to be about getting people to move. So we could have taken a view that no-one’s getting a pay rise after the transfer until you take a new contract. But that would be completely divisive and what we wanted was everyone’s goodwill to make this work.”

One clear marker of success is consistently-high engagement scores. “I find that astonishing given the amount of change we’ve put people through,” comments Macey (who is leaving the institute at the end of the month after setting it on such a solid course).

It’s still early days – relative to how long it takes for these to come about – for pointing to specific collaboration-fuelled scientific breakthroughs. But already there’s a strong feeling of “one Crick” feels Macey.

“People introduce each other as from their legacy organisations a lot less than you’d think,” he reports. “We’re only three years post-merger and I’ve worked in other places where decades afterwards people still introduce themselves as ‘I was the former this or that'.”

He adds: “We’re starting to see the results of people becoming interested in each other’s science. We’ve got an amazing array of scientific discourse going on; we have seminars and lectures that spark interest from other researchers. That wouldn’t happen if we were separate. So it’s almost like a conference every day at The Crick.”

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