Same problem, different continent: in conversation with HR leaders from around the world

Across the world, hundreds of millions of employees work in consumer-facing industries – many of them involved in the critical work of national survival during the Covid-19 pandemic. The responsibility of keeping these large multi-site workforces safe, engaged, motivated – and, critically, able to come to work has largely fallen to a small community of HR leaders globally.

While every HR leader has in essence been dealing with the same problem, the world’s national governments have developed different and very nuanced responses to the pandemic – and in some ways, the world has never felt larger or more divided. With this in mind, last week The MBS Group brought together some of the most influential consumer Human Resources leaders from around the globe in a webinar to discuss the next phases of the health crisis, and to share valuable lessons learnt from different international markets.

Left to right: Ella Bennett, Group People Director at easyJet; Judith Nelson, Group HR Director at Dairy Farm; Sanjay Rastogi, Director, Corporate HR at Tata Trent; Karen Rivoire, Competence Flow Leader at Inter Ikea Group; and Kris Webb, Chief People Officer at Coles Group.

I started the conversation by turning to Ella Bennett, Group People Director at easyJet. The aviation industry has been one of the most severely impacted sectors during Covid-19. I wondered what her biggest learnings are from the period.

“Making sure that passengers and our crews felt safe and understood how to operate – at a time when we were stopping and starting, depending on different countries’ regulations – has been an immense operation,” she told us.

“The most difficult thing has been navigating how the rules apply across each of the countries, given all the different furlough and quarantine laws. I’ve been in the role two years and it’s been a massive deep-dive into the implications of running HR across borders.” All this was being achieved, Ella told us, while needing to dramatically take cost out of the business both centrally and in each territory, as well as plan for the eventual resumption of flights.

“The different approaches from each national government have made things complicated,” Ella explained. “We couldn’t do a one-size-fits-all approach to policy”. From national governments, what has been most helpful from Ella’s perspective, is giving clarity on their planned interventions – allowing the airline to plan in the right way, and put in place the right long-term solutions: “In Germany, France and Italy, for example, they put in place plans for long-term furlough pretty quickly – which took the panic out a bit. We don’t have that long-term assurance in the UK.”

I next turned to Judith Nelson, Group HR Officer at Dairy Farm, one of Asia’s largest retailers. Part of the Jardines Group, Dairy Farm has over 10,000 outlets and more than 230,000 team members. Judith has been living in our ‘new normal’ for the longest of all our panellists, since Covid-19 first appeared at Chinese New Year in January 2020, and following on from a period of significant social unrest in her core market of Hong Kong.

Like the rest of the world, Judith explained how she never anticipated how disruptive Covid-19 would be: “On 16th January I wrote a note saying that there was a new virus called Coronavirus in Wuhan, that it probably wasn’t as bad as SARS and that it would be over by the end of March. Little did we know that we’d still be here in September!

Asia has experienced multiple waves of lockdowns. I asked her what her key learnings have been. “I think what happens,” she told us, “is that you establish some core principles: how you operate your business, how you operate with the community, how you operate with your team members. And then those principals just get adapted in terms of the severity of that lockdown or stage of the pandemic.”

Like Ella, Judith noted that one of the most helpful things was clarity in government policy. “Singapore had complete leadership – and real clarity around what action was going to be taken. That allowed us to design our approach to fit the new rules. In some of our other markets, communication was less clear. For example, some  governments announced that they were going to close the borders at very short notice – and given that up to 95% of goods are imported into many of our markets, these announcements understandably led to mass panic, as millions wondered from where they would get their food! It was chaos – for example we had our delivery drivers held at knife point for toilet roll during that time. But then, the messaging was suddenly clarified that the border closure didn’t include trade. Clarity of communication is critical.”

Early Dairy Farm responses to the pandemic: team members in Indonesia demonstrating support to China; arranging a cargo plane import of hand sanitiser from Canada to Hong Kong; team members in Malaysia giving food to their local community.

On the topic of communication, I turned to Sanjay Rastogi, Director of HR at Tata Trent. Part of the Tata Group, Tata Trent is a leading player in branded retail throughout India. Its best-known format – Westside – has 140 stores across 80 cities. Throughout the last few months, Tata has made engaging with colleagues a priority, keeping up consistent lines of communication with its teams and re-thinking policies with employee wellbeing at front of mind.

“We asked ourselves: how do we keep our employees engaged?” Sanjay told us. “We revisited our employee segmentation and made a conscious attempt to humanise each person. Suddenly, all definitions of employee segmentation – gender, ethnicity, qualifications, experience, exposure – went out the window. We saw our employees as individuals living alone, those living with parents, with kids, those expecting children.”

In India, Tata had particular challenges around re-opening their store estate, as many colleagues had left major cities and returned to their family homes in the countryside. Throughout the pandemic, the Group was focused on doing the right thing by their employees: they didn’t make any redundancies, they made a commitment early on to pay their employees throughout the pandemic, and, where cost needed to be removed, leadership took pay cuts rather than front-line employees.

Additionally, the Group made specific interventions around communication, education and employee wellbeing. In the period, they provided more than 50 hours of learning per colleague; and – astonishingly – made a commitment that none of their 12,000-strong workforce should have to take public transport to get to work, using cutting-edge AI to redeploy workers to different stores and business units to minimise their commutes.

Next on our panel was Karen Rivoire, Competence Flow Leader at Inter IKEA Group. Karen describes her role within IKEA as “getting the right competence in the right place, at the right time” – which I think is a wonderful description for any HR leader! IKEA has stepped up to the plate during Covid-19, demonstrating what can be achieved when businesses think outside the box and do right by their people and their communities.

I asked Karen how IKEA has achieved this. “I think we got the balance right between local initiatives, global principles and human ingenuity,” Karen said, drawing on global examples such as IKEA turning one of its iconic blue boxes into a hospital in Hyderabad, through to repurposing store car parks as Covid-19 testing units here in the UK. “I think this period has strengthened our customers’ emotional connection to the brand, and changed how lots of people think about IKEA.”

The same is true internally: “Something that IKEA prides itself on is its strong set of values. I think from a people and culture function, it has brought us all even closer together… not least because the concept of ‘home’ has become so much more important the world over”

Karen spoke on IKEA’s franchisee model, and sharing best practice between business units during the pandemic: “There was a sort of cycle of learning that happened by holding a small group of franchisees and companies together. We were able to share best practice, and to very quickly put in place some people principles. These principals have underpinned all our Covid responses and have been useful for far longer than anyone expected. In Inter IKEA Group we created a concept for rapid resource reallocation across functions, business units and markets. It secured business continuity, and also improved organisational flexibility, developed new competences and enabled continued meaningful work.”

Last, but by no means least, I turned to Kris Webb, who is the Chief People Officer at Coles Group, one of Australia’s largest retailers with a workforce of over 125,000 people and revenues of nearly AUS$40 billion.

Like Judith at Dairy Farm, Kris spoke of the added complication of not being able to construct a ‘one-size-fits-all’ response. After all, Australia is an enormous region, spanning multiple territories and time zones – with each impacted by Covid-19 in varied ways. “In Australia,” Kris explained, “each state government has significant authority, so we had to navigate numerous different policies. We had to pivot very quickly and respond to each area accordingly.”

The retail sector has played a vital role in keeping the nation moving throughout Covid-19. Kris shared her experience of determining people policies during this most extraordinary period. “While everyone else was closing down, we were hiring!” Kris told the audience. “In just over a month we hired 12,000 people – anticipating our teams getting ill or not feeling comfortable to come into work.”

Corporate collaboration has been vital to businesses’ Covid-19 responses around the world. Kris explained how Coles had teamed up with companies in other industries – such as airlines – to take furloughed employees and hire them as in-store staff. “That has been lovely to be able to do,” Kris said. “Customer service is customer service – you just have to pivot what you’re selling. We’re now training some of these people to be store managers!”

All our panellists agreed that the HR Function has become more visible over the last few months, and that the role itself has evolved. “The condensed timeframes for decision-making have been very new to me,” offered Ella Bennett, “and my relationship with the board has changed. Previously, I might have spoken to the Remunerations Chair and all of the non-execs once in a while pre-Covid… now we speak once a week.”

Judith Nelson agreed with Ella. “We’ve all stepped up” she said. “As an HR leader, responsible for people across many territories, I think not having practical, logistical knowledge of every area of the business can be an advantage – as we can operate with only the core principles in mind. I’ve had the biggest learning experience of probably my whole career.”

New Coles team member Jenny Dunworth (R) joins their Kirrawee store, Sydney

As a panel, we also touched on talent – and the implications of Covid-19 on senior hiring. Ella Bennett observed that historically their challenge as an airline has been hiring aviation-specific talent, such as engineers and pilots, and particularly skilled hires that are diverse. Going forward, the challenge for many consumer businesses looks set to be retaining the functional leaders whose skill sets are transferable to other sectors. For example, those in marketing, IT, finance and HR roles often come from diverse backgrounds – and there is a real risk that these key talents may choose to move to less-impacted sectors, which would evidently be a real step backwards for diversity.

Moreover, many of the excellent programmes our sector has put in place in recent years to address diversity challenges – such as the Amy Johnson Initiative in aviation – are likely to be scaled back, meaning that there will be fewer female or diverse candidates entering the pipeline of talent.

Additionally, Kris Webb observed that the practicalities of hiring internationally during the pandemic have forced Coles to look deeper and harder within the local Australian talent pool – which Kris saw as a positive outcome of Covid-19, fast-tracking local talent within their own market.

I ask the panel if there’s anything they would have done differently. Across the board, all panellists admitted that they had underestimated how disruptive the pandemic would be. “I’d have paid attention to the fact that this was likely to be a marathon, not a sprint,” Kris offered, “and then planned differently as a result.”

Both Sanjay Rastogi and Karen Rivoire noted that they would have further prioritised employee wellbeing. “I think the line between customer motivation to purchase and co-worker motivation is more and more blurred than ever,” Karen told us, “and I would have liked wellbeing to be an even bigger topic ensuring people can speak up, and that mental wellbeing is not taboo..”

Our conversation lasted only sixty minutes – but I could have spoken to Ella, Judith, Sanjay, Karen and Kris for hours. Their collective insights left me feeling hugely inspired by the consumer-facing sector’s ability to do the right thing by its people, undertake enormous people policy changes under the most immense pressures and think creatively in the face of mass disruption. Their leadership has been nothing short of heroic! | @TheMBSGroup