The European Organization for Nuclear Research, otherwise known as CERN, is a workplace like no other.
The intergovernmental organization’s head of HR James Purvis tells UNLEASH that CERN has a “noble purpose”: “we’re trying to push forward the frontiers of human exploration”.
While NASA is exploring outer space, “we’re [focused] on an exploration for inner space – the exact opposite”.
Through its laboratories and particular accelerator called the Large Hadron Collider, researchers and scientists are investigating how particles interact in order to answer some of the most complex questions in the universe. This will have direct benefits on the world we live in now and in the future.
The role of D,E&I in uncovering the secrets of the universe
Linked with this desire to be at “the forefront of excellence and technology”, CERN is committed to being a diverse and inclusive workplace.
“There’s a lot of scientific research out there which talks about how diverse teams lead to greater innovation, creativity and problem solving”, notes Purvis. Ultimately, successfully achieving CERN’s mission comes from having diverse teams.
The organization is aware that its proportion of female staff and fellows has stagnated at 20%, so in 2020 it launched its 25 by ’25 commitment.
25 by ‘25 aims to increase the average percentage of women to 25% by 2025 – there is a particular focus on science, tech engineering and mathematics (STEM) roles where female representation has sat at the much lower 13%. This commitment puts CERN ahead of the European Commission’s requirements for gender equality plans for any institutes bidding for its funding.
Another element of the 25 by ’25 plan is to boost nationality diversity within CERN. An additional quirk of the organization is that it’s funded by 23 members states, plus seven associate member states.
25 by ‘25’s aims to improve the ratio of member states’ budgetary contribution to the hiring rate; the idea is that no nationality’s concentration in a department should exceed 25%. CERN identified that 12 member and associate member states were under-represented around staff numbers and attempted to balance this out with more conscious efforts.
CERN’s diversity and inclusion program leader Louise Carvalho explains: “The goal is for hiring managers to become more aware of the tendency we all have towards hiring person who resemble ourselves on the basis of language, nationality, gender etc. Reducing this natural unconscious bias means evaluating more carefully candidates from underrepresented states.”
Carvalho adds that in addition to thinking about diversity in terms of nationality and gender, CERN is also looking carefully at improving “the integration of persons with disabilities, persons who identify as non-binary and to value neurodiversity in all its forms across the organization”.
The need for leadership endorsement
For Purvis, D,E&I is about the journey, as well as the destination. “It’s the first time in CERN’s history I’ve seen total engagement of D,E&I by the top level management”, rather than them just seeing it as an issue for HR to fix.
Once the 25 by ’25 strategy got approval from top level management, including CERN’s director general, the next step was to get every department head to appoint at least one change maker (known as Focal Point) to lead the charge.
In total, 33 Focal Points were appointed. Carvalho shares she was “amazed” at the engagement and keenness of individuals to take up this opportunity “with gusto”, particularly as it was “over and above their daily tasks”.
The change makers then got to work (with the help of focus groups) reviewing their department’s existing D,E&I strategies. They looked at areas like recruitment, communication, leadership and learning.
As a result, they suggested actions for their departments to implement to achieve 25 by ’25; these were turned into fitness plans. They’ve been approved by each department’s management board and are now being implemented.
To demonstrate how each department’s diversity challenges and its fitness plans are unique and target, Purvis shares the actions being taken by his HR department.
2021 data shows that CERN’s HR team is 84.34% women, so the HR fitness plan sees Purvis’ team “focus on recruiting more men to achieve a better gender diversity”.
Other examples of actions taken by various CERN departments are new gender and nationality recruitment analytics, running exit surveys to understand D&I reasons why employees have left CERN and conducting meetings only during reasonable hours.
How did COVID-19 impact work at CERN
Since 25 by ’25 was first launched in 2020, CERN has been going through this D&I rethink during the COVID-19 pandemic.
On the topic of COVID-19, Purvis shares that because of the organization’s significant infrastructure (most notably the 27km particle accelerator Large Hadron Collider), pre-pandemic, CERN employees were primarily based on-site.
“Typically, we have 10,000 people per day on-site”– this includes CERN’s own 2,500 staff and fellows, as well as external researchers.
When the pandemic hit, “we took the decision that we needed to switch to remote” and to do that “we needed to switch the accelerator to what we call safe mode”. So, within a week, CERN moved from 10,000 people to 300 people on site.
To look after those who remained on-site, CERN supplied masks and hand gel; the organization “has always been safety first, and that really rang through in COVID-19”.
The researchers also invented a device called a Proximeter, which automated contact tracing while respecting data privacy rules.
“We put a lot of effort into the contact tracing, and ensuring that if you were a contact case or you tested positive your card stopped working, and you couldn’t get on the site. That is still in place today.” In this scenario, employees would switch to remote working.
“Everyone who could was entirely remote” – this was made possible because CERN has a “huge technology infrastructure”, shares Purvis.
Employees leveraged tech tools like Zoom and Indigo – “it was very seamless” – but the shift to remote work “did accelerate that automation, digitalization” of work at CERN.
The future of work at CERN
Of course, fully remote work was a necessity in the pandemic. Purvis shares that he and the HR team did not go on-site during the peak of the COVID-19 crisis.
However, during a panel session at UNLEASH World back in October, Purvis stated that CERN would not be offering fully remote work to any of its staff members.
Instead, CERN has built out a hybrid model, which says employees can only work remotely up to 40% of the time. The idea is that “the majority of work should be carried out on-site”. Purvis explains that while people disagree on whether it is too flexible or flexible enough, “on average it works for us… because we have a big infrastructure to run on-site”.
This hybrid model also fits with legal constraints on working from home in Switzerland, which impact residency and taxation, as well as answering a desire for collaborative in-person work.
“Collaboration is in our DNA – it leads to innovation. We need about 4,000 people on site for the accelerator to operate efficiently, then we are asking those who can remote work to come on site for collaboration”.
The hybrid model decision was also based on feedback from both employees and managers. “For all HR policy decisions, we try to look at the data, and then make sure that decision-making is based on data”.
The question is whether CERN is seeing a retention and attraction challenge from having a more conservative remote working policy?
Across its core population, Purvis thinks not. He shares that CERN’s 5% turnover rate has remained the same despite the ‘Great Resignation’; this global trend has been partially attributed to employee’s desire for flexible working.
However, he is seeing some retention challenges among CERN’s graduate scheme with many leaving earlier than usual (after 18 months, rather than two to years) and largely for IT companies that offer more flexibility around working location.
CERN is getting similar feedback from candidates – but Purvis sees this as a screening tool.
“The type of candidates we’re looking for are people who want to come here and say wow, this is a great place to work”. Purvis wants them to experience “the collaboration, the buzz, the excitement on the campus”.
While this “filter” seems to be working at the right level for CERN, Purvis adds that for the graduate challenge, the organization has “reshaped the full package of what we’re offering them”.
This includes thinking outside of the box on flexibility – for instance, allowing them to purchase additional holiday days or access part time work.
It is crucial to remember that flexible work isn’t synonymous with remote work.
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