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How William Hill’s L&D strategy set them apart from the competition during the pandemic

To an outsider, there might appear to be little difference between one bookmaker and the next. But inside William Hill, a tailored Learning & Development package helps employees go one step further than the rest...

Words by Liam Soutar

Mark Skinner

Chief People Officer at William Hill

 

It didn’t take long, following last July’s ‘Freedom Day’ for companies to realise the importance of Learning and Development (L&D). What followed last summer’s end of most lockdown restrictions was a widespread exodus of talent. To help combat this, some employers threw money at the issue, with The Law Society recently telling the BBC that some legal firms were offering starting salaries as high as £150,000 in a bid to retain top talent.

Novelty work perks, like popcorn carts and candy floss, were also used to fend off firms from poaching staff at Fidelity International, while Wyke Farms – the UK’s largest independent cheese producer and producer of renewable energy – offered staff free cheese, an annual bonus, discounts at high street retailers and career progression opportunities among other things. While some of these tactics have helped employers and HR keep hold of staff, data has pointed towards the influence that L&D can have on an employees’ decision to stay. For example, 94% of employees say that they would stay at a company longer if it invested in their learning and development, according to LinkedIn’s Workplace Learning Report 2019.

Taking this data into account, coupled with the findings of a 2021 survey by Randstad UK, which revealed that one in five have left or are considering quitting their job in the coming months (with reasons ranging from burnout to new work-life balance priorities), it’s becoming increasingly clear that offering something more enticing than rival businesses, such as a solid L&D plan, could be a crucial way to retain and attract new employees from a highly saturated talent pool.

Couple these statistics with further research from LinkedIn’s 2021 Workplace Learning Report, which found that 64% of professionals said that learning and development is now a “need to have”, and it seems that many employers have already taken notice of the importance of L&D in the fight to retain staff. Others, however, appear to be lagging behind the curve. In fact, according to City & Guilds’ Annual Skills Index 2021, 30% of UK workers said they have not had any formal workplace training in the last five years, while more than one in ten workers said they’d never received any form of learning and development support – something which could tempt staff to look elsewhere.

 

Learning nowadays isn’t about pushing our content, it’s about self-directing. Giving people time, which is the most precious commodity

‘Not your typical high street bookmaker’


Yet, for some employers, L&D has always been an integral part of working life, even prior to the coronavirus pandemic. One of those organisations is the famous bookmakers, William Hill. For the organisation – which was founded in Birmingham, has more than 10,000 staff members and boasts over 1,400 betting shops – it was their commitment to L&D during the pandemic that helped them shed the stereotypical image of a traditional British high street bookies – that of being a firm only interested in making money – to one that cares for the communities it serves, using its L&D resources to help staff place customer welfare at its core and retain staff. In a recent interview with myGrapevine magazine Mark Skinner, Chief People Officer at William Hill, explained: “There is a really strong, customer-first culture....our culture is one of continuous improvement, so much so that when we talk about our culture, we say to our people ‘go one better’. If everyone is going one better, that aggregation of marginal gains means we will, ultimately, keep ahead of the pack.”

 

How Mark put his stamp on the role:

“I’m not a big fan of ‘HR’, which is why, when I took this job, I changed it to ‘People’. I feel it’s more modern, more digital, and says what it really is. ‘Human resources’ sounds quite cold and transactional, whereas ‘People’ can encompass many more things.”

L&D schemes at William Hill


Whilst the firm has over 1,400 retail shops, a huge amount of people also work behind the scenes, managing everything from customer service to product development, across several nations such as The Philippines, Bulgaria,Poland, Gibraltar and Malta. This requires several different approaches to L&D, not just in terms of giving staff different learning plans based on their roles, but also how it’s delivered, whether this is digitally or physically. As with many firms, William Hill’s L&D schemes were rooted in face-to-face training sessions and events, pre-pandemic. But the Covid-19 outbreak placed a more general importance than ever before on online learning as statistics have shown. For example, CIPD research indicated that 79% of organisations use some form of technology to support learning and collaboration, the most commonly reported including webinars and virtual classroom (36%), learning management systems (27%) and open education sources (23%).

Accumulating community links through L&D


Staff have access to a number of online learning modules, and particular emphasis is placed on training shop colleagues, and even office staff viewing people’s accounts online, to spot markers of harm. Player safety, in all of William Hill’s training process, whether it be shop or non-shop staff, is paramount, Mark states, adding: “We talk about it a lot, about safer gambling”. He continued: “If you’ve got someone who hasn’t been into a shop recently, they’re looking withdrawn, if they’re losing weight, they look concerning, then our shop colleagues have a huge moral responsibility to their local community.”

The bookmakers also bolstered its learning platform called Accelerate, which comprises mandatory learning segments, in addition to modules that, although entirely optional, can give staff a greater connection to their work and their customer base. “For example, say you’ve got the Cheltenham race coming up”, Mark explained, “we do expertise modules where people can learn more about it, about the different races and what they mean to people.” These courses came in handy once again last summer, during the EURO 2020 tournament, providing colleagues with nuggets of information about the tournament and the teams participating, to discuss with customers and establish stronger community connections.

It is apparent that William Hill sees huge value in investing in L&D, believing it helps employees embrace a sense of empathy and responsibility to their customers, rather than just teaching them how to efficiently run a branch. One of the things Mark and his People team are hugely proud of is that, in the first lockdown, shop staff who were unable to work went out into the communities they’d been serving for years. Heart-warming stories emerged of William Hill workers doing food shops for their vulnerable, shielding customers – acts of kindness which Mark credits to the firm’s L&D strategy teaching them to spot the signs of vulnerability among their regular punters.

 

…It’s our responsibility to provide them with the opportunities that will make them want to stay

The impact of quality onboarding


Yet, even before any learning or development is undertaken, staff must buy-in to the company’s culture and ethics, which is instilled during a thorough induction process. As an organisation, the firm prides itself on looking after its customers, particularly in light of the gambling industry’s poor reputation when it comes to customer welfare – a reputation Mark feels is not always fair. Mark continues: “Equally, for someone that’s joining one of William Hill’s offices, they will have their own induction programme which, in ordinary times, would be face-to-face, but will be based on questions such as: what is the company’s strategy, who are we? What are we about? What are our values? How performance management works, how we’re structured, and of course, player safety.”

William Hill’s emphasis on the induction process is a sensible approach, and one that can help businesses keep hold of staff for longer. For example, according to a 2020 Resourcing and talent planning survey by CIPD, 42% of organisations are improving their induction process to enhance retention, something which could set the firm apart from competition.

Reducing the odds of losing staff


Another important aspect of William Hill’s L&D offering is an ambition to retain as many staff as possible. To do so, the company offers three pillars to its people strategy. The first focuses on ‘balance’, all about hybrid working and making sure people can work flexibly. The second comprises ‘belong’, which touch on subjects such as diversity and equality, and the third is ‘build’, which is all about development and champions William Hill’s internal promotion strategy. Whenever a vacancy arises, the people function will always look to appoint someone from its internal talent pool before approaching external candidates, regardless of what level they are currently at. Mark explains: “We have this guidance which is: if someone internally has 70% capability of doing the job, we should give it to them before giving it to someone externally.” And of course, these internal candidates have an edge over external hires, in that they already have a clear understanding of the company’s values and visions, having completed plenty of L&D modules. William Hill’s strategy is also vindicated by recent Culture Amp data, which shows that as much as 54% of staff retention is “associated with the employee's belief that their company contributes to their development.”

A bit about William Hill

  • Founded: 1934, Birmingham
  • Head count: 10,000 +
  • Betting shops: 1,408
  • Head offices in Leeds, London, Gibraltar & Malta, with further bases in Riga (Latvia), Krakow (Poland), Manila (Philippines) and Cali (Colombia)
  • Company values: “Our purpose is to safely connect our customers with their friends and sports through a market-leading betting and gaming experience”

A focus on personal development


Aside from some of the L&D courses on offer, William Hill launched another project in 2021, with the idea of supporting staff with non-work-related self-improvement. Named ‘Build 15’, the initiative encouraged employees to set 15 minutes of their day towards some form of self-improvement, whether that be completing one of the optional learning modules, reading an article, or even something else entirely. What Mark and his People team felt was more important, from an L&D perspective, was giving staff the freedom to doing something for themselves, on their own terms.

He explained: “Learning nowadays isn’t about pushing our content, it’s about self-directing. Giving people time, which is the most precious commodity”.” And it seems that these decisions resulted in plenty of positive feedback from William Hill’s workforce, and bosses are eager to “never stop giving people the opportunities to learn”. Mark continued: “When you look at the number one reason people would leave us, it would be career advancement. So, it’s our responsibility to provide them with the opportunities that will make them want to stay.” It’s not a completely selfless good deed, he admitted. After all, offering staff the chance to develop their skills mean they’re more likely to stay with the company for longer, as evidenced by LinkedIn’s data on the impact L&D can have on staff retention.

 

A finger on the pulse at all times


It certainly seems that William Hill’s L&D strategy is worth its weight in gold. At a time when everyone is fearful of the ‘Great Resignation’, Mark is confident that the bookmaker is “not really feeling the bite we’re seeing in other places” so far. And it’s clear to see why the company is not in this turnover crisis – giving current staff, and job candidates, the chance to develop for themselves, not just for the good of the company, but to make them feel a valued part of their workforce and the communities they work in, therefore increasing the brand’s strength over its competitors.

“We have to think about what are our staff telling us, and we have to adapt to it. And with L&D it’s the same. Who knows where we’ll be in the next six months? You just have to be agile and be able to respond to that It’s so important that your people feel you’ve got your finger on the pulse” says Mark. By seeing the priority WIlliam Hill places on L&D, staff feel recognised and respected and, in turn, repay the company by staying with them for longer and pursuing long-term careers within the firm, rather than looking elsewhere.

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