EXCLUSIVE | HR leader's weekly coronavirus column

HR leader's weekly coronavirus column

Updated on Wednesday 16th December 2020

Over the next few weeks, David Wilkinson, HR & Communications Director at Premier Foods, a food manufacturer with brands such as Ambrosia, Bisto and Mr Kipling in its portfolio, will exclusively share his insights on some of the challenges that HR faces, how the function is approaching them and what areas of work HR should be looking at for next year in a regular column.  

This week, Wilkinson reflects on the past 12 months and what HR teams have learnt in light of the pandemic, as well as how HR professionals can prepare for the New Year and the challenges they may face.

What are some of the biggest things that HR has learned in 2020? 

As I’ve reflected on in my previous columns, 2020 has been a year like no other for all of us. For many, we may well have learnt more this year than we have across several years of the past. However, when I think about the top three themes we have learnt most about, they would have to be agility, communication and colleague wellbeing.  

Being a flexible and agile employer is really important; something that the pandemic has really shone a spotlight on. Having colleagues and leaders that can be adaptable and work in this way – alongside systems, technology and processes to support – is critical, now more than ever. We didn't have all of this is in place this time last year, but we were probably more agile than we thought. When lockdown happened, we had people who were able to adapt to this new way of working very quickly, which certainly benefitted us as a business.  

Effective communication is also vital, with internal comms having played a hugely important role throughout this year. Businesses must have multiple ways to talk to an array of colleagues who may be doing different jobs in a variety of locations. What’s more, this communication must be adapted for varying needs and requirements. Frequent, short and succinct messaging delivered via a range of routes has been really valuable to us at Premier Foods.  

Last, but by no means least, ensuring colleague wellbeing – both in terms of mental and physical health – has become even more important than before and remains a key priority of ours. We have seen an increase in the number of ways that a colleague’s health could be impacted during lockdown, and in turn, we have an increased responsibility to have plans in place to support colleagues when they need us. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach though – again, we must tailor appropriate action and have a variety of different interventions to match the needs of each colleague. 

What should be a top priority for the HR function in 2021?  

Looking ahead, I think it is all about balance between a return to delivering things that may have gone on hold in 2020, while recognising that most of us will still be impacted by COVID-19 for much of 2021. Of course, we all want to see progression and move forward, but it’s important to keep communication levels high and work hard on all aspects of engagement to stay abreast of the long-term impact of the pandemic on colleagues. 

As we move into 2021, many businesses are having to continually adapt to external influences, such as the economic impact from COVID-19 and our exit from the EU. HR needs to be prepared to find ways to address any colleague concerns, which comes back to effective communication and agility.  

How can HR leaders get ahead for next year? 

We know next year will still be a challenge, with people increasingly frustrated by the restrictions placed on them and a vaccination programme that will take most, if not all, of 2021 to complete. 

That said, while we may not yet be in a position to plan for life to return to how it was pre-Covid, we need to start deciding how we can move the HR agenda on in a world that may still be facing restrictions of varying degrees. It would be irresponsible for us to wait for a return to face-to-face learning and development, as that may still be some time off. It is therefore important that we decide how those programmes can be facilitated in a different way, utilising the technology that we now have a much greater understanding of. In time, it will be possible to take a blended approach that incorporates physical and virtual routes. 

This extends to reintegration of teams and the reintroduction of office working too. While we cannot say with certainty right now on when a ‘full’ return to an office environment will be feasible, it is important for HR leaders to have plans in place that can be delivered in a timely manner as guidance changes. It will of course require some adjustment, as the initial move to working at home did, but having a clear plan and communicating it clearly to team members will help to reduce confusion and support colleagues with the transition as it becomes reality. 

The key thing is that HR leaders take decisions now, based on what we do already know and can to an extent predict. Waiting with fingers crossed for the situation to resolve itself and normality to resume is not an option, our working lives will never return to how they were this time last year, and we must work with the new 'normal' if we want to be effective business partners. 

Updated on Wednesday 9th December 2020

This week, Wilkinson talks about how the Christmas period can impact employee engagement levels in the workplace and sheds light on how the HR function can boost engagement in the last few weeks of the year. 

How does Christmas impact staff engagement levels at Premier Foods?  

As a business, we produce lots of seasonal products and many of our brands are enjoyed across the nation at Christmas. Our colleagues are excited about the business and the work they do, even more so during the festive period, and are engaged by the volume of mince pies, custard, stuffing and gravy that we sell. It is very motivating for people to see the brands they work on filling supermarket shelves and being part of festive meals across the country, there is a sense of pride knowing that the job you do is contributing to people’s enjoyment. Although I appreciate this won’t be the case for every business, looking at ways in which colleagues are creating a difference and making Christmas that bit easier for households is a great way to engage with colleagues. Of course, we are planning additional ways to spread the festive cheer as well, as we approach the big day.  

Why is it so important that HR keep staff engaged throughout the year – and what benefits can this bring to the business?  

High levels of engagement are mutually beneficial and working on maintaining that level should be a focus all year round. Many of us in HR will understand from engagement surveys the concept of employee ‘net promoter scores’, in other words, how likely it is for an employee to recommend the company’s products or services to others. We work hard to connect our colleagues with our products, because I believe that those who feel passionate and proud of what the company produces are more likely to be highly engaged. In our business where product innovation is so important, we like to give colleagues the opportunity to try new products before they hit the shelves, and to let us have their feedback. That way we’re involving people in important decisions about the food we make.  

Over many years of engagement surveys, it has been proven to us that our most engaged parts of the business are also the highest performing, by objective measure. An engaged team is much more likely to exercise discretionary effort and go the extra mile for a business, so productivity, service and quality of work are all likely to be higher. It is therefore very clear to me the benefits that high engagement brings to a business; the task for HR and line managers is how to maintain this consistently, especially during very challenging times.  

Do you have any tips for HR leaders that may be experiencing a drop in employee engagement in the last few weeks of the year? How can they look to solve this?  

Many HR leaders will have been exploring new ways to engage with staff during the pandemic, but as a function we do work extra hard at this time of year to keep levels of engagement high and use additional tools to do so. Ordinarily this may have been physical things such as Christmas parties and meals out, or small gifts, but as we approach the end of a year where people have worked exceptionally hard, it’s important to consider giving recognition in a variety of ways, especially as we can’t meet in person. We’re planning this year for an all-colleague address from the CEO as well as a festive video that shows all of sites contributing to a festive theme. Personalised colleague Christmas cards are another option, as are looking at different ways to still bring people together, albeit virtually, through activities such as quizzes, festive themed raffles or charity initiatives.  

Updated on Wednesday 2nd December 2020

This week, Wilkinson talks about the importance of recognising and rewarding employees around Christmas time and sheds light on how virtual get-togethers can help to boost morale and engagement. 

Why is it important that employers still reward employees this year despite the challenges? 

It is about recognition as much as reward. Many companies have had extremely tough years and won’t necessarily have significant budgets to spend on celebrating Christmas. However, it is so important that everyone in an organisation feels valued and that their contribution makes a difference. If a company can communicate that via a gift, it shouldn’t come at the expense of managers and leaders personally recognising the efforts of their teams. 

This is because so many have gone above and beyond this year, so to recognise that is important to secure future goodwill as well as show appreciation for a job well done. Some companies have been able to reward colleagues and key workers throughout the year already, but as a time to traditionally take stock and make positive gestures, Christmas is a key moment to engage with colleagues again and show they are valued members of the team. 

Secondly, it is important that colleagues understand we appreciate what they have been through on a personal level this year, demonstrating that we care and are concerned for their wellbeing. I mentioned in an earlier column that the colleague wellbeing agenda has shifted up a gear in the past 12 months, and I really feel we will see some rebalancing of the traditional occupational health model as people become more aware of their own physical and mental health. 

What can HR do as an alternative to office Christmas parties this year? 

I think the first thing to recognise is that most of our colleagues at Premier Foods – and indeed the UK workforce – are not office workers, meaning that HR teams are already used to thinking of different ways to celebrate the festive season beyond the stereotypical party. 

With a multi-cultural and generational workforce, we must look at ways of marking the festive period that includes and involves all of our colleagues. While the demise of the traditional party for this year will be missed by some, it is an opportunity for us to look at other ways to engage with and reward our colleagues. 

It is fair to say that for most of us, it is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Many organisations will be looking at virtual events, utilising technology to try and recreate a ‘typical’ get-together as closely as possible. Given the tumultuous nature of this year, I believe small acts of kindness and consideration will be well received. Additionally, the importance of adding a personal touch can’t be understated. 

How can getting employees together (virtually) over the festive period help with engagement and employee morale? 

It simply may not be possible to recreate that one-off event in a virtual way this year. With this in mind, company Christmas cards, sincere end of year messages and videos will carry more prominence, as will gifts that colleagues can enjoy and share with their loved ones. Gifts could be products a company makes, as we are able to do at Premier Foods, or vouchers so colleagues have a choice of what to treat themselves to. 

There are many other ways to bring people together to create a sense of involvement and community. Activities such as raffles, charity initiatives and cooking classes, can all be done via virtual platforms or online, and are examples of what we’ve been doing at Premier Foods to give people more opportunities to engage with each other outside of their daily roles to keep morale high. 

Updated on Wednesday 25th November 2020

This week, Wilkinson shares insights on how to ensure that all employees feel included regardless of where they are working, and sheds light on some of the recent recruitment trends.

How can HR ensure that employees are included regardless of where they are working (e.g. remotely or in a physical location)?

I think it’s important to balance central versus local communication and engagement. Where our colleagues have remained at our manufacturing sites, consistently working during the pandemic, we have strong and visible frontline management and site-based leadership, supplemented by consistent company-wide messaging and communication.

Colleagues who were based in offices and very quickly expected to work from home experienced a dramatic change with little or no preparation or training, either for themselves or managers. Even more challenging is the situation for the new starters who have joined in this period. They’ve never had the chance to work in the office environment, meet their colleagues or learn their job by physical on-the-job coaching.

To make sure these colleagues stay engaged, you need a blended approach from the HR team. This includes guidance and support about remote working, virtual training and development sessions, webinars, lunch and learns, in addition to executive leadership team videos and virtual ‘Town Hall’ sessions. On top of this, it’s crucial to make sure any colleagues who are struggling, or have specific needs, are not isolated and to tailor engagement accordingly. We have created a safe space at our head office where colleagues who really need to attend an office, for mental or physical wellbeing reasons, can do so.

Finally, although much of this is also new for us in HR, we have to be able to support managers and leaders in these difficult times where they are trying to balance exceptional operational challenges with a new way of leading their teams.

How can HR ensure that the D&I agenda continues to be prioritised even during the pandemic?

The D&I agenda has, if anything, increased over the last 12 months, and the perception of the public, interests of our stakeholders and views of our colleagues on this topic is unaffected by COVID-19, with a particularly high level of interest in social mobility and inequality, and food poverty, which has really been brought into sharp focus by the pandemic. Marcus Rashford’s campaign, the support he has received, and change that has resulted in, is evidence of that.

I know D&I is a big priority for many of us. We’re still towards the start of our journey, but I think of it like a huge infrastructure or capital investment programme – hard work has to go in at the early stages without an obvious return. So, it may take a while to see the benefit of the investment, but if we truly believe a more diverse and inclusive workforce will benefit our businesses then you can’t pause the strategy you are pursuing.

What trends have you seen in recruitment recently?

We’ve seen a significant decrease in the number of permanent vacancies we’re running at, and this is not because we’re scaling back, in fact far from it. As a branded food manufacturer whose products are primarily consumed at home, our business has performed really well over the past few months and we’re continuing to grow. This means we’re able to offer colleagues a degree of security in what we know is a very tough job market.

Where we do have vacancies, there is now a larger pool of candidates in the market who are applying. We have also seen more demand from graduates, as sadly many have seen job offers withdrawn or programmes reduced. We are pleased to still be recruiting this year – albeit virtually now – as nurturing talent is something we’re very passionate about.

Updated on Wednesday 18th November 2020

This week, Wilkinson introduces himself and shares some of the biggest challenges that the HR function has been faced with during the coronavirus crisis, and why engagement and communication played a central role in Premier Foods’ COVID-19 strategy.

Can you briefly introduce yourself, what your role is at Premier Foods?

I joined the business in 2007 after a largely generalist HR career, mainly in food and retail, and today have responsibility for our HR, communications and IT teams. Premier Foods has been a journey of change, transformation, and ultimately turnaround, and over these years I thought I’d seen most challenges that could face an HR Director, but coronavirus has been like nothing else. My teams have been pivotal to our business from the moment the country went into lockdown in March. Keeping colleagues safe has been our priority, and we’ve done a really good job at that, as well as making sure we supply the UK shopper with our products and protect the business for the future.

What are some of the challenges that the HR function has been faced with during the pandemic?

I think trying to provide clarity, guidance and reassurance for colleagues, when each day we were faced with a new and unprecedented set of challenges. We took the decision very early to put engagement and communication at the centre of our COVID-19 strategy.

From a Premier Foods perspective, the challenge this presented was how to balance the communication needs of office-based colleagues with those working on the front line in our factories. We’ve had to find ways to get the right messages out to all team members across different locations. Office-based colleagues have been working from home since March and it is easier to connect with them via our internal communications hub or video calls. However, our factory colleagues are on different shift patterns and don’t have access throughout the working day to the sort of technology many of us take for granted. Virtual monthly briefings were recorded so they could be watched flexibly. Leadership Team weekly briefings were introduced so we could speak directly to all colleagues, and we adapted all communication to be faster, sharper, and more accessible.

How has HR dealt with some of these challenges?

To support our communication strategy, we have strengthened front-line HR support, advising managers and supporting colleagues during this dynamic situation, and we’ve increased our focus on engagement. At the start of lockdown in March, we were keen to share stories on how colleagues were supporting local communities which included raising money, donating our products and manufacturing equipment such as face masks. This really helped to maintain morale, and we’ve also entered colleagues into industry awards to celebrate our hidden heroes and recognise their contributions.

I always wanted to check that we had responded in the right way, and we worked with our colleague engagement partner to design a series of coronavirus surveys where colleagues could tell us what they thought. We had a fantastic response rate and measured several areas, with notably 97% of colleagues stating that they either agreed or strongly agreed that our communication about Coronavirus had been at the right level and frequency. It is great to hear this – it means we’re doing the right things for the colleagues and gave my team the satisfaction of knowing that their efforts have made an impact.

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