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Interview: Heather Lee, head of HR at Lincolnshire Co-op

As an essential retailer based in the heart of the community Lincolnshire Co-op found itself very much central to events during Covid-19 and some of its… View Article


Interview: Heather Lee, head of HR at Lincolnshire Co-op

As an essential retailer based in the heart of the community Lincolnshire Co-op found itself very much central to events during Covid-19 and some of its learnings from this period are being incorporated into its long-term operations.

Heather Lee, head of HR at Lincolnshire Co-op, says: “We were quick to respond to Covid-19 as we are very aware of being an essential retailer and having a physical presence in communities. We were in the eye of the storm. We saw the whites of people’s eyes.”

Crucial role for app-based communication

Pulling together its experiences during this period the company has set up a Future Working Group that is considering what elements it will retain post-Covid-19. One area that featured prominently was the company’s app – developed with Engage Business Solutions – for use by colleagues, which very much came to the fore over the past year.

As well as enabling colleagues to view their pay-slips and check holiday balances the app also has newsfeed and messaging functionality – that can go to all colleagues but also be filtered for individual business units including food, fuel and pharmacy. This became a critical link between HR and the teams in stores.

“When Covid-19 came we needed quick communications to the teams and there were questions about how to operate. HR focused on answering the questions. At the peak of the crisis we responded to the messaging feed seven days a week. It was an immediate way to support colleagues,” she says.

The app has proven to be a good “temperature” check across the business and its usage has been increased as a result of Covid-19 after initially being introduced into the company in July 2019. It has now been incorporated into the virtual induction of new recruits.

Introducing virtual recruitment

Covid-19 has very much changed the way Lincolnshire Co-op brings in these new colleagues with the process now centralised and handled virtually. This digital recruitment gives greater flexibility for candidates and also frees up the store teams to focus on running the shops.

Another activity that will continue post-Covid-19 is virtual volunteering. “We’re about physical outlets and are involved in community events. We’ve now also identified virtual volunteering – including mentoring, job coaching and employability skills. We’ll continue doing this,” says Lee, adding that the company’s e-learning platform has also found itself with a more important role on the back of Covid-19.

Lincolnshire Co-op expects to use a greater mix of blended learning in the future, with richer digital content as evidenced by the fact its Leadership Programme now includes recorded video content from the senior team thereby enabling colleagues to easily “dip in and out” of the course content with much greater flexibility than when it was classroom-based.

Building on its purpose

Lee believes the purpose-led nature of the Co-op has helped it step-up during Covid-19: “It was an enabler and helped us define what we are about; helping and supporting communities. We brought together ideas and resources to help the people in the community including helping those shielding.”

The location of the Lincolnshire Co-op stores – on parades of shops in the community or in villages where it is the only shop – means it is a critical, much needed resource, which Lee says helped distance it from the abuse received by some employees in other Co-op stores around the country. “This is about metropolitan areas versus country locations. The vast majority of our customers are supportive. In our communities we’re the only food retailer,” she explains.

Being at the heart of the community also helped the company increase its colleague numbers – by adding 10% to its 2,800 employees – in order to cope with demand during the early stages of Covid-19 when such stores were busier as more people were around and had started shopping locally more often. “We had 1,500 people apply for the 280 jobs. We’re so well known, people could see what the work was and that it was all Covid-19-compliant,” says Lee.

Adapting to changing work patterns

The demands placed on the stores in the future will invariably be affected by the changing patterns of work with more people working from home and adopting a hybrid working model. One of the challenges of such moves, which will affect Lincolnshire Co-op like all other businesses, is how to transfer skills between people.

“We recognise that some roles can be done confidently at home but this does not make it easy to share skills. Employees need to see how things are done and this requires the transfer of skills,” she says.

Despite the challenges Lee is excited about the future and is concentrating on how HR can make a difference for the people working within the business: “It’s about what difference you can make for them and help them to contribute. It all benefits the organisation.” She points to the “inspiring” work that has been done over the past 12 months, which has led to virtual awards being held across a week beginning on 12cApril.

“Across the themes of Helpful, Inspiring, Trustworthy and Community Difference we’ve collected a lot of stories of customer-facing experiences through the colleague app. We want to recognise colleagues during that week for the things they’ve done,” says Lee.

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