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Insight: HR really is all about the people

People are the most important aspect of any retail business and in order to ensure they are contributing in the most effective manner they must be… View Article


Insight: HR really is all about the people

People are the most important aspect of any retail business and in order to ensure they are contributing in the most effective manner they must be fully trusted and their well-being regarded as a major priority. By Glynn Davis.

This was one of the key conclusions from the recent Retail Bulletin HR Summit 2017 in London where the keynote address from John Timpson, chairman of Timpsons, highlighted how the success of his family business has been largely down to treating employees with respect as well as trusting and giving them responsibility.

You have to trust people

“You can’t create great customer service by lots of training courses. The secret is terribly simple, it’s to trust people and to let them do things the way they want to do them. We only have two rules at Timpsons: look the part and put the money in the till,” he says.

Operating with such simplicity comes from his reading of a book ‘The Nordstrom Way’ some years ago that he says includes a chart that puts customers right at the top and then below them it’s the people who service these customers. The rest of the people in the company support them.

Putting so much trust in the people in his stores only works if you have the right people in place he acknowledges. “I wanted people with personality and had to find a way to find these people. We get all our candidates to tick boxes of the character traits that best reflect them. Since we’ve done this the [quality of the] people in-store has improved enormously,” says Timpson.

Selecting the right people

Of the 5,000 employees in the business 50% are referrals, and 10% are sourced from prison. Since 2002 Timpsons has been employing former prisoners and they have become an integral part of the business. This has been possible only with the acceptance that these individuals need a lot of help. “We loan them money, help with housing, and do mentoring,” says Timpson.

Part of the process of appointing the right people is to ensure the wrong people are not employed: “[Typically] management teams spend 80/90% of their time looking after people who are useless when they should be looking after the great people. We work at ensuring our people work alongside people who love the business just as much as them. If you don’t do this then you’ll end up with a business full of rubbish people.”

Although there was recognition of the importance of people in the Westfield shopping centre business when Una O’Reilly, HR director at Westfield, joined the company four years ago she says there was a problem of people working in silos rather than as a team in the way that is evident at Timpsons.

“When I joined it was a very successful business, but it was obvious that we worked in silos. We had excellent teams but there was not a ‘squad mentality’. We set out to create those squads,” says O’Reilly.

This has involved ensuring 25% of the bonus is based on how people have worked collaboratively. There has also been a focus on attracting more women into the business, with the aim of reducing the male characteristics of the organisation.

Well-being rises up the agenda

As well as recruiting the right people there is also an increasing move to ensure the well-being of existing employees. To meet the changing needs of the workforce at Royal Mail Group health & safety has been expanded to include well-being and in the last two years this has come to also include mental health.

This all sits within the HR function, according to Shaun Davis, global director of safety, health, wellbeing & sustainability at Royal Mail Group, who says: “Why invest in well-being? Why not? It’s protecting the people you work with as well as increasing productivity and engagement, and having less sickness.”

Integrating well-being within the Royal Mail Group has involved identifying and addressing the health more typical risks within the company as well as offering benefits such as discounted gym memberships, involvement in the Cycle2Work scheme, providing health insurance. In addition, there is a Well-being online portal that gives access to advice on healthy lifestyles, and on 37 of the larger Royal Mail sites there are subsidised on-site gyms.

Clearly by recognising the potential health risks in an organisation and mitigating this through well-being programmes is a sensible approach and reduces the chance that retailers could find themselves engaged in litigation.

This is undoubtedly a good idea because there is a raft of people-related legislation that is coming in the direction of retailers, which they will have to deal with at some point. Hannah Robins, partner at legal firm DWF, highlighted Equal Pay, Gender Pay Gap, Holiday Pay and Shared Parental Leave as all aspects of employment that will likely have to be dealt with in due course.

Driving up employee engagement

While these issues swirl around the retail industry the HR function is very much focused on retention in all its guises – from attractive remuneration packages and benefits to improved employee engagement. For Tina Oakley, HR director for UK operations at Amazon, making the workplace attractive to employees is vital because the 15 sites she oversees employ 20,000 people and she also has to ensure these people are all in place for the essential peak Christmas period when a further 35,000 people are drafted in temporarily.

“We have an engagement ethos. We’re incredibly associate-centric. We think about our associates and then work backwards from there, in just the same way we do with our customers,” she explains.

The key mechanisms employed include ‘Voice of the Associate’ that ensures associates can see that their views are being taken seriously. “We walk the building each day and see what we pick up. HR is integral, we’re on the shop floor and we’re visible. You get stopped as you walk around. During the last peak period we did 12,000 interviews in six weeks,” Oakley reveals.

The HR department also operates ‘Amazon Connections’ whereby associates are asked questions on their chosen device and analysis is undertaken at the Amazon head office in Seattle (52 million pieces of such data have been accumulated since 2015), with the results fed back the same day. If any follow-up actions are required then this is undertaken at manager level or potentially higher.

To further build on the engagement ethos Oakley highlights the fact that area managers have had their routines streamlined in order to free up 4.5 hours per week, which is now spent dealing directly with associates.

Engagement is also a strong area of focus for Charlie Field, senior director of communications and colleague experience at Asda, who says: “We’re engaging with our managers because leaders play a huge role in driving up engagement of colleagues. Store managers at our smaller stores have run engagement master classes. We recognise that not all leaders are naturally engaging so we help to point them in the right direction. We have ‘culture catalysts’ who are true role models of Asda leaders and we run ‘wild workouts’ with them. These could be about how to instil pride in your store or department.”

Buy-in from senior management

The success of bringing in such initiatives is invariably determined by the level of buy-in from the senior management team. Janet McKenzie, reward & performance manager at Southern Co-op, says: “You need to make sure you are pushing against an open door. Get them to buy-in to your vision. Half the battle with leadership teams is helping them to connect with the reality of what you are trying to do.”

This includes clearly showing the direct effects on individual employees of bringing in any initiatives and benefits: “You need to make it real when getting buy-in and picking your moment with [approaching] the decision makers.”

McKenzie is also adamant that delivering effective rewards and benefits does not need a big budget: “You don’t have to spend the earth. It’s not about spending lots of money. It’s about using it in the best way.”

A focus on what, she believes, are the three headings of benefits also helps with developing programmes: help save employees money every day; help them to save for their future; and help them care for their health and well-being.

Moving away from process-driven operations

Another cost-effective change that has been made by McKenzie is a move away from the annual appraisal on the back of both managers and employees dreading the exercise and there being little value being derived from the process. “Instead we’re giving employees a card and getting them to tick the job their manager is doing. We’re trying this and it’s about talking to each other and not about each other. It’s more about a continuous appraisal,” she suggests.

It is also a move away from the more process-driven nature of HR interactions of the past. This freer way of working is also evident at Specsavers where James Turner, head of HR for UK projects at Specsavers, says the company has a joint-venture model whereby the stores are partly owned by one or two directors.

This ensures they are passionate about their businesses but the people management aspect can be often overlooked as they are simply busy doing their main job – which is most often undertaking their essential ophthalmic duties.

To bring the people aspect up the agenda Specsavers has initiated the Platinum Employer initiative (with Korn Ferry), which is an accredited scheme that sets minimum benchmark standards that include engagement, talent management, learning & development, and recruitment & induction.

“It runs across the whole employee lifecycle – providing the tools and support to achieve the required standards,” says Turner, who adds that a vital element of the initiative is that it does not involve giving the stores processes to implement. “We’re not mandating this. We’re a support office. We don’t say process this. We just engage with the leaders to highlight these new things.”

This methodology has proved appealing and so far 240 stores have been accredited and 500-plus further outlets are still to be brought on-board. Helping Turner in this task is the competition that exists between the stores, with candidates for jobs sometimes asking why a particular store is not accredited.

Don’t forget importance of culture

By having its stores operate on a joint-venture basis they undoubtedly have their own cultures and do not fall into the trap of large chains where the personal aspects are lost as a big company mentality takes hold and quashes any independent thinking and the culture withers away.

This was a serious worry for Helen Verwoert, group HR director at Dr Martens, who has been at the company while it has moved into private equity ownership and grown dramatically. In February 2014 the plan was to: reach £500 million in sales; double the head-count; and operate 250 stores globally. It has reached £350 million in turnover and has 85 stores, but with this comes some cultural issues.

“We had a fantastic culture but when you treble and double the size of the business then you have the risk of losing this. I knew that I did not want the values of the company simply stuck on the toilet doors. That does not truly life the spirit,” she explains.

The answer was to undertake a ‘culture workshop’ that involved 150 people at the company and sought to determine what parts of the culture to keep, what to develop, and what to leave behind. “We got some rich data and it took 18 months to get a distilled version from this,” says Verwoert.

With this information Amanda Fishburn, global change communications & culture lead at Dr Martens, set about “bringing it to life”. This has involved pressing vinyl records labelled with the company’s values, and the launch of a social channel, Lifeworks, which has enjoyed over 50% sign-up globally.

She admits to a lot more work still needing to be done as the values and culture are embedded throughout the company. This will see a focus on reward & recognition, talent & recruitment, and measuring engagements with employees.

Although Fishburn says “none of this is rocket scientist” she says it has still taken three years to reach this stage – despite initially thinking it would take only a year. “Don’t rush it. Evolve as you go,” she says.


Further details on Retail Bulletin’s 2018 HR Summit can be found here.


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