CIPD Northern Ireland Conference highlights the role of people professionals in shaping the future of work

CIPD Northern Ireland Conference highlights the role of people professionals in shaping the future of work

By Lee Ann Panglea, Head of CIPD Scotland and Northern Ireland

Throughout the course of the pandemic, organisations from across Northern Ireland have been forced to adapt at pace and implement changes in the way they operate whilst navigating uncertainty and disruption.

The CIPD in Northern Ireland is no different to other organisations faced with doing things rather differently than what might have been planned or intended. On Thursday 13 May 2021, we welcomed more than 250 HR, OD and learning and development specialists to the Northern Ireland Conference, held online for the first time, rather than in the ICC in Belfast as planned.

A crisis like the pandemic brings new opportunities and it was great to see our delegates embrace the online conference platform as if our conference was always meant to have been online!

The last year has been an extraordinary year for the HR profession who have been front and centre of navigating huge people and organisational challenges across Northern Ireland.

This focus on the extraordinary achievement and good practice was a theme running throughout the day. We were delighted to be joined by speakers from leading organisations in the public, private and third sector, as well as some of our own CIPD experts to explore how businesses have been forced to react, to adapt and implement some of the most radical changes in the way they operate. But crucially, we also considered how we can take the lessons learned from the last 15 months to create a better world of work.

All the big workplace themes were touched on with great content designed for us all to reflect and consider the learning and practice we can apply in our own roles in our own organisations, but also as individuals.

As CIPD’s CEO Peter Cheese said in his opening keynote, as a profession we’re often the cobbler’s children and from time to time it’s good to indulge a bit in our own development and focus on ourselves for the day.

Everyone who attended will have their own takeaways and highlights and we can’t possibly share the best bits from all the sessions in one blog - there are just too many. But for those who couldn’t attend, here are some of my highlights which might encourage you to join us next year!

Our profession

Peter’s opening keynote drew attention to the spotlight on the profession through not just the current global and local challenges of COVID but also Black Lives Matter and Brexit which have shaped our focus since we last gathered together for our 2020 annual CIPD NI conference in Belfast.

Peter spoke about how strong people management practices have helped us navigate the storm of current challenges and the essential principles of good work and the vital role of people profession in re-building successful businesses.

Supporting organisations in times of crisis was a theme running throughout many sessions. Maxine Williamson, Deputy HR Director, Workforce & OD, Southern Health & Social Care Trust considered the key role of OD in this new work context, how we can embrace new realities and help others to thrive, as well as fully supporting and engaging our employees during uncertainty and disruption.


One of the great things about the CIPD NI conference was the opportunity hear a variety of  stories which provoked our thoughts, challenged our perceptions and encouraged us to think about approaching problems in a different way.

Our keynote session on building and empowering effective teams in challenging times from Mandy Hickson, former fighter pilot and only the second woman to fly a Tornado GR4 on the front line, very much did this. Few of us will ever be fighter pilots like Mandy but we can all relate to her reflections on the importance of agility, adaptability and resilience, as well as the importance of finding purpose in what we do.


Factors like technological change had already forwarded the case for strengthening the skills system, but with the ongoing pandemic accelerating the pace of change, this has now become an even more pressing priority for Northern Ireland.

Skills and lifelong learning were explored by the Department for the Economy Director of Skills, Graeme Wilkinson, and FinTrU’s Sinead Carville, whose session highlighted the importance of business, government and education providers all working together on a future skills strategy to future-proof NI’s economy.

You’ll hear so much more from CIPD in NI over the coming months on this topic in particular with the upcoming launch of our CIPD NI policy forum.

Flexible working

You’ll know from our Flex From 1st campaign how important we feel a focus on flexible working is for employers of all sizes.

In the flexible working panel session, Adese Okojie, founder of Black Women in HR, urged employers to focus on output, not visibility. Correna McMullan, Head of People, Compass Ireland and Amanda Donaghy, HR Manager, Fujitsu shared compelling insights on how to make flexible working a reality, without risking the creation of a two-tier workforce of those who can and those who cannot work from home.

Good work

Our view at the CIPD is that good work should be accessible to all, and the people profession has a leading role to play in Northern Ireland ensuring that work is both productive for the organisation, good for employees and benefiting wider society.

Our discussion on why a focus on job quality in Northern Ireland is crucial to our post-pandemic recovery shone a light on the drive for change in Northern Ireland with Christine Robinson, Head of Strategy, Policy and Partnerships, Belfast City Council sharing early insight on how the soon-to-be launched Belfast City Charter can improve job quality and drive economic growth.

Martin McCracken, Research Director, Ulster University Business School brought to life what good people management really means in practice for job quality and how it can improve business productivity.


The winners of the CIPD NI 2020 HR Awards for Diversity & Inclusion, Sensata Technologies, shared an excellent overview of their wide-ranging work on inclusion and diversity which includes a focus on mental health. They also outlined their ACE (Appreciating Cultural Exchange) affinity group where employees can get to really understand each other through discussion, volunteering and a programme of social activities, which include sharing culture, music and food. 

Finally, in a powerful and thought-provoking closing keynote, Frank Douglas, CEO of Caerus Executive shared his lived and personal experience of inclusion, diversity and talent management - a fascinating personal journey which has taken him from a childhood in Mississippi, to being a young trumpeter at New York’s ‘Fame’ school, to being one of the UK’s leading HR Directors.

Frank urged people professionals to challenge the ‘myths of meritocracy’ to make sure that every employee can achieve their full potential, regardless of their background.

Despite the ongoing disruption we face as businesses, communities and individuals, we must not let equality and wellbeing fall from the top of our priority lists. There’s so much we can do as a people profession to ensure we are leading ethical, sustainable and responsible business practice. What a great inspiring message to end the day with.

As Peter said in his opening, the CIPD is hugely proud of how people professionals throughout Northern Ireland have stepped up to support their organisations and their people over the past year. The pandemic must be a catalyst for positive change and people professionals should be more courageous and confident in challenging management to champion the people agenda – something that’s so important as we all work together to build back better in the months and years ahead.   

It was certainly a conference that left delegates with so much to reflect on and consider.  

Many thanks to our headline sponsor VANRATH, our media partner nijobfinder and to all of our event partners for their support. 

And if you didn’t manage to join us this year, hopefully we will welcome you at our next CIPD NI Annual Conference on 12 May 2022. Perhaps we might even manage to see each other in person - imagine that!