Star Interview

HR’s role in driving pandemic growth


HR has had to navigate a move to a digital-first operation, but for Linh Chi Nguyen, Head of People at THIS, digital is all her team have known…

Words by Kieran Howells | Design by Lucy Bick

Words by Kieran Howells


Design by Lucy Bick

 

The past 12 months dealt HR just about the biggest challenge it has ever faced. Wellbeing slumped as isolation, anxiety and burnout ran rampant through the global workforce. Many workplace communities packed up their desks and headed for home, unaware of the ramifications that the pandemic would have on their careers and, according to mental health charity Mind, more than half of all professionals believe that their mental health has plummeted due to the adverse effects of Covid.

In fact, every aspect of work sparked challenges. Suddenly, HR were having to ensure that their employees had computers, desks, headsets and working internet whilst it also scrambled to find technology capable of recreating many of the experiences vital to everyday operations. Following the Government’s announcement of a new Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, HR also quickly had to navigate the legalities of furloughing employees – at its peak usage, 9.9million – and now, as the advent of vaccines hint at a return to some form of normality, it is once again HR’s job to orchestrate either a return to the office, a more permanent remote working policy or a mix of the two.

I was talking to the founders about the logistics of remote working and then bam, two weeks later, we sent everyone home indefinitely

Born in the coronavirus period

However, whilst the journey taken by HR to move their physical operations and culture to a digital-first approach has caused issues for many firms, what about companies that have flourished and grown within this strange time? Those for whom, pandemic business is all they’ve ever known? This is the rare situation that Linh Chi Nguyen, Head of People at innovative food ethical meat substitute brand THIS, found herself in when, after just months in her position in a company with just seven other staff members, she found herself having to plan out its bright future from her home office.

“When I joined the company, it was nine months old so there wasn't much in place for the people infrastructure. I was tasked with building the majority of the people strategy from scratch,” Nguyen says. “I was in the office for a week and a half and in that first week, I was talking to the founders about the logistics of remote working, we hadn’t made a decision yet. And then bam, two weeks later, we sent everyone home indefinitely.”

However, whilst this may be the epitome of nightmare territory for many, Nguyen is a people leader who had cut her teeth in unpredictable circumstances, thriving on the chaos. With a previous employer, she was part of the team that handled a massive upscaling project from 40 people to around 200 upon her departure. “With a start-up, it’s unpredictable. You don’t know what’s going to be thrown at you and also, it gives you an opportunity to create lots of new initiatives. I like that variety and unpredictability,” she adds.

Who is

  • THIS is a food start-up focussed on creating meat alternatives from plant-based ingredients such as soya beans and peas.
  • The brand was founded in 2019 by Andy Shovel and Pete Sharman, previously co-owners of a burger restaurant chain.
  • The goal of the company is to create an ‘ethically and environmentally’ guilt-free solution to meat consumption. The company’s products are nationally available in many major retailers such as Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury's.
  • The brand plans to open a ‘Willy Wonka’ style plant-based innovation centre, in which it will continue to test and release new products.

Why can’t we take care of these people? Yes, it costs a little more, but it means we have happier employees

Growing in lockdown

The company has had a landmark year, one that would stand out in the history books of even large companies, let alone ones with such short histories like THIS. After a rocky start to the year, as restaurant client orders died down, its customer-facing business skyrocketed, launching in stores such as Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury's. As such, Nguyen quickly had to set about hiring new staff, devising onboarding processes digitally and ensuring that the company’s culture shone through via digital platforms.

She explains: “The absolute first step was making sure people had a good set-up at home. We knew that this would go on for a while. We sent people what they needed, or bought it for them. The second was retaining the culture and making sure it didn’t get lost. We looked at how people socialised in the office – all of those micro interactions add up and they’re essential in creating bonds – so we settled on having a social meeting every day for half an hour, just a place to hang out. The founders join, and we just chat about life, what we’ve watched on Netflix etc. These are so important for our culture. Sometimes it feels a little contrived, but I believe that it’s the best that we can do in these times and, after 10 months, it really feels essential and it feels like we know each other, which we literally wouldn’t do if we didn’t have them.”

With a start-up, it’s unpredictable. You don’t know what’s going to be thrown at you

Solidifying culture in times of change

Nguyen’s next step was going deeper into leading HR concepts, founding initiatives such as one she called ‘THIS knows that London costs loads’ under which, the minimum salary in the company was set at £35,000. “We didn’t want people to ‘just get by’ living in London. We need junior staff as well, but we didn’t want them to feel limited by their market salary. Why can’t we take care of these people? Yes, it costs a little more, but it means we have happier employees.”

Nguyen notes that a close-knit culture did exist pre-pandemic, but that an evolution took place in the wake of the virus – led by her efforts in this new frontier. Now, with 23 employees on board, including whole departments that didn’t exist before Covid, the vast majority of whom have never set foot in THIS’ office, her fruitful efforts to create an engaged and culture-centric workforce will only be put to the test when they do, finally, meet. “These people, all they’ve known is this 100% remote experience of working for us. It’s quite amazing” However, she isn’t worried. “I had to create efforts to keep people engaged, keep people social and happy. It’s been great in a very different way and I think we have such a strong foundation now over Zoom, over our messaging platforms, that I am confident, when we do go back to the office and see each other, the culture won’t change much – if at all. It’ll only be better,” she concludes.