Workplace Leaders
Head of People

Ben Saunders

A journey involving visiting submarines and going to sea on warships through to being a Head of Department in a top UK Law firm, to the Big 4 and now a REIT is always going to be an interesting one. In this varied discussion, Max Webber, Co-host of The Interview, sat down with Ben Saunders, Head of People at Workspace, to discuss his journey into the people function, how Workspace creates a culture of belonging, and Ben’s approach to establishing a proactive HR function that supports Workspace’s growth.

Ben's Journey

Max: Could we start with an introduction to yourself and Workspace?

I’m a modern language graduate, who started working for a government agency, then moved to a global maritime Professional Body, where I initially worked in Learning & Development before moving into a generalist HR field. I’ve worked in various sectors: regulatory bodies, not-for-profit, maritime, legal, Big 4, and now Workspace Group. I’ve been here for the past two and a half years. Workspace Group is a Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) that's been around since 1987. With 77 buildings in our portfolio and a team of over 300, we are the leading provider of flexible office space in London.

Max: What drew you to the people function in the first place?

In terms of the world of people generally, I like that people are the key to the success of the business, meaning HR has the ability to make a difference across a whole organisation – the people function can help people grow to achieve wider business goals. I enjoy how transferable HR people and skills are across different businesses, sectors, regions, cultures and jurisdictions.

In relation to my current role, I interviewed at Workspace just after the pandemic. I was attracted to the role as the company’s values and goals resonated with me. The company had decided to not furlough employees and even gave rent discounts to its customers through the first lockdown. I like the fact that Workspace is a commercial FTSE 250 company that also believes in the mission of what it is trying to do. It supports its employees and customers and has big plans to grow and develop whilst also doing the right thing. The people I met in the recruitment process reinforced that.

Additionally, there was an opportunity to evolve the HR function from being a reactive one to a proactive team. We’ve achieved a lot in this time: introduced new systems and streamlined processes, established a recruitment function, introduced business partnering across the teams, helped the company acquire buildings, worked with the business to roll out new initiatives like baristas in our centres, developed new career frameworks and brought in apprenticeships.

We’re focused on changing people’s perception of the HR team from being a back-office function to being a team that can help grow the business. We’re spending time with line managers and employees to really get to know people around the business. We are conscious that over 50% of our people aren’t based in our head office, so we get out to meet them. We shadow people for a few hours so we can walk in their shoes and better support them in our own work.

Max: A recent theme on the series speaking to other leaders across the sector, trying to build a sense of belonging and inclusion – what’s key for that?

We try to diversify our recruitment pipelines by working with other organisations to widen access to Workspace and the professions within it. We have also redesigned our appraisal process and now focus on having actual conversations with employees about what they want to do, where they want to go in their role and how we can support and develop them; instead of just focusing on the formal written appraisals – which helps us create a more personalised employee experience.

In terms of our recruitment activities, our primary objective is getting the best people out there. Having a fair and inclusive environment for progress is important, too – people are able to join in very junior roles and be promoted right the way through to the top. We have some really great examples of where our people have been promoted. Last year, in fact, 36 individuals (over 10% of our workforce) received internal promotions within our business. Others have changed roles from front of house through to those in head office. We’ve also brought in apprenticeships, where there’s a misconception – people think apprenticeships are for newbies; we’re using apprenticeships to upskill our workforce and support their development. It’s all about opening up different opportunities.

Another key part of creating a sense of belonging is giving people an opportunity to understand our business, values and goals. To that end, all our new joiners undertake a corporate induction over 2 days. It helps them to establish a network within an organisation and find out more about the company they are joining.

We’ve also launched our first employee network, focused on supporting others. We have initiatives across the whole spectrum of DEI, so people feel like they belong at Workspace. We’ve had excellent guest speakers talk about different topics to encourage people to get support if they need it and build broader awareness. 

Max: In today’s world, people are often busy and it can be tough to engage them on these initiatives – how do you go about doing that?

It’s always a challenge. When you’ve got lots of people across multiple sites, it can be tough to reach them all, so we use a blended approach. As a company, we work hard to create an environment where people feel they can belong, contribute, grow and be themselves. That is key for growing DEI, as is supporting people in their careers and also helping them grow their knowledge and grow as a person within Workspace.

Creating a sense of fun is also important. It may sound a bit trivial, but we are at work for such a long period of time – it’s important for people to enjoy being at work and to be themselves at work. Our Charity, Wellbeing and Social committee works hard to arrange a series of events throughout the year. When people are happy, it creates a great environment for our customers as well.

Max: What traits do the top people leaders have that help them bring their teams together?

Firstly, you need to have knowledge in your field, as people always look for this in their leaders – it is often taken as a given but you always respect someone who has knowledge of their domain. Secondly, communication skills are also key – people really value a five-minute chat to see how they’re doing; they want to be able to communicate with their line manager and feel like they actually care about them.

We, in the HR team, sit in the open plan office as well as visit the other centres, so we are seen by the business; so they feel they can communicate with us. You need to take time to meet with the teams and get to know people within them. You can spend a lot of your time getting tasks done and running between meetings but actually, for people to feel like they belong, you have to spend time just talking with them.

You have to be a role model and be open to ideas from others. I don’t know everything. I have different specialists in my team, who know way more about different areas than I do. Be aware of the knowledge of your team and be receptive to what they have to say. You’ve got to champion your team as well as shouting out successes and recognising the hard work being done. I am very lucky as I work with some great individuals.

Max: What are the best ways to overcome inertia and help teams engage with new ideas and approaches?

I think it’s about communication. When you listen to people, when you act on their feedback and then explain the journey that you’re going to go on together, it helps people really buy into that change.

Max: What is the best piece of advice you’ve received over your own career?

Get to know your business, your industry and the people that work in it. Get around the people you support and make them feel like they can approach you at any time. It’s amazing how much more willing people are to talk to you when they feel like they have a connection.

Curious to see what the future of training looks like?
Max Webber
Max works closely with people leaders and change-makers in our professional services markets. If you're looking to feature on The Interview, or simply want to learn more about GoodCourse, then get in touch at

The future of training is here, are you ready for it?

Tired of chasing your learners to complete dull training? Let's speak today👇
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.