Cover Feature

HR heads back to the pub

Mitchells & Butlers’ Group HRD talks engaging staff for change, doing right by your people, and how to get ready for the flexible future of work...

Words by Dan Cave


Pubs: The UK loves them

Most of us recognise that the pub is a central part of UK culture. This is because pubs – whether the quintessential ‘old man boozer’, the more urbane, post-working-week take on the pub: the city centre wine bar; the upmarket or family-friendly gastropub, the countryside pit-stop, or even the service station outlet or hipster brewery - are places where Brits go to decompress from difficult working weeks, catch up with family and friends, grab some food, go on dates, and, simply, visit for a decent knees up.

Pubs are the backdrop of countless birthday gatherings as well as significant anniversaries. Not forgetting, being a place for community meet-ups and club meetings, and the setting for, well, everything else: from watching sporting drama to being a location for quiz nights to take place, and hobbyist, or up-and-coming, comedians, singers and performers to practice their skills. As a magazine dedicated to British Life noted: “If you want to learn about Brits and our culture…it [the pub] is something you should experience.”

Pandemic pub obsession

This importance was perhaps never more appreciated than during the succession of lockdowns over the last year. With the front pages of our national newspapers obsessively charting how Government restrictions impacted our ability to socialise in these venues – lurching from catastrophising over how long pubs would be closed for (“up to nine months” one front page bemoaned in early 2020) to counting down till reopening – to constant chats about how we might replicate a similar experience in parks, to even a website being set up that charted how many days, hours, minutes and seconds it would take till different stages of pub lockdowns were lifted (till we go outside at the pub, inside at the pub with a few friends, and then go to any pub with anybody )the British obsession with the pub was clear for all to see.

In fact, pubs, bars and the wider hospitality industry – and the various stages of full closure and restricted reopening it has experienced over the last 14 months, as well a hyper focus on health, safety, hygiene and distancing – have become a totem for how well the UK was doing in its fight against coronavirus over the last year. Their status (open, closed, partially open) indicative of how strong the pandemic’s grip was over the UK at any given moment; the systems in place within them (limited group size, social distancing, outside or inside usage) a powerful example of how life had changed in order to deal with COVID-19’s threat.

M&B fact file

Head Office in Birmingham
FTSE 250 company
Has 1,700 pubs, bars & restuarants
Serves 430million drinks a year (2019 data)
£2billion sales (2019 data)
44,000 employees

HR, the pub, and coronavirus

You might be thinking what on earth has the pub go to do with HR? Well, now that pubs lucky enough to have outdoor space can, in some form, reopen, HR – and not just people teams operating in the hospitality industry – might start thinking about what this means for their workforce. Will the reintroduction of social spaces other than an individual’s own home start creating better work-life balance for UK workers (NordVPN found that many workers are putting in two extra hours a day since the pandemic began)? Will it result in annual leave being taken, as activities and holidays are planned? Will it even spark a slew of sick days or camera-off Zoom calls as some indulge, perhaps too, heavily in a space that has been denied them for the better part of half a year?

In probability, all of the above are likely being experienced by businesses right now. Yet, the reopening offers a model-of-sorts for HR teams outside this industry, too: it’s a chance to understand how HR teams within the heavily-disrupted hospitality industry have prepared for, not only for immediate moments of change – across the last year and also, now, with the reopening roadmap well under way – but a future that leaders from all sectors think will be shaped by increased uncertainty (PwC found in their 23rd Annual Global CEO survey that an uncertain outlook was a top concern of CEOs).

What HR leaders are currently overseeing in hospitality offers a chance for practitioners from all industries to see how key people strategy priorities, tools and connections have been realigned for a future where business leaders increasingly worry about the interplay of technology and people, engagement in a changed world, their ability to source new, key skills, the impact of fast-evolving Government policy and changing consumer behaviour.

Susan on being honest with your people:

“I think we've been as honest as we can be from the onset about protecting jobs, but we're not immune from this crisis. Secondly, we always told our people that we don't know what we don't know. Actually [at points] we've told our people, ‘we don't know the answers to this, but we will absolutely tell you when we do.’”

Mitchell’s & Butlers’ approach

To better understand this – and how to manage huge disruption and big change – it was a pleasure to speak with hospitality industry stalwart Susan Martindale, Group HR Director at Mitchell & Butlers (M&B), the largest operator of pubs, restaurants and bars in the UK – with well-known brands such as All Bar One, Harvester, Toby Carvery and O’Neill’s within the group.

myGrapevine magazine caught up with Susan just before pubs first reopened in April to get the lowdown on how, and why, she created an engagement strategy during lockdown and what that might mean for future relationships between people and organisations. She also reveals how technology had a central role, whether the relationship between HR and the executive has changed during the pandemic (and what that means for operational pace and the ‘sacred cows of business’) as well as an insight into whether M&B’s values shone through during this time, revealing why leaders (even in HR) need to front up even when they don’t know. (In a moment of typical candidness, Susan reveals that “nobody understood what we were facing truly facing” when talking about the iterative lockdowns and the impact they would have on employees).

HR's business alignment

There has been much focus of how HR’s role has been reimagined over the last year, with many claiming that it has, increasingly, taken a business-leading role as many organisations pivoted to protect people and better understand working structures.

At M&B, it appears that HR and the executive were aligned even before March 2020. As Susan explains, at M&B, HR and the executive 'have a close working relationship'.

Engagement, technology and communication

With enforced closures and zero output at various points over the last year, Susan knows too well that the hospitality sector took an operational battering during the country’s pandemic response. As the Government’s forced closures on the sector meant no business could occur – bans on people gathering would of course hit hospitality as “we are literally a people business,” Susan tells me over a Microsoft Teams video chat – M&B had to get savvy to engaging staff, even when they were not working, to assuage fears, keep skills sharp and ensure they knew how staff were, and how they felt, at every twist and turn of the pandemic. It will likely not surprise anyone working in HR that Susan took a flexible, do-as-much-as-possible approach. “We agreed from the onset that there is no such thing as overcommunication in these times,” she explains.

Susan on why HR should invest in people:

“We will succeed or fail on the strength of our people at the front line...”

And, as the HR lead understands it, this was a successful tack. As lockdown eased in 2020, she saw staff want to return to their pre-pandemic positions and describes a feeling of community between business and its people. However, Susan knows these outcomes are simply the result of M&B saying: ‘We’ll communicate with people a lot’. In her mind, the comms has to be purposeful, working for both people and the business. It must also deliver messages that help solve the immediate problems of a specific moment – consider that staff worries at the start of the pandemic are likely to be very different to staff worries now – and showcase company values in action. It’s the latter that Susan feels that M&B’s pandemic communication, at various points, has done. “We treated people with respect. Its one of our key organisational values and it means you have people wanting to come back when this is over,” she explains.

Brands managed by Mitchells & Butler

Across almost 1,700 sites, M&B operate an impressive range of well-know brands. These include:

Honesty and care

In fact, the apparent M&B approach: use the means, often digital, you have available; gauge how staff are doing even if you’re not physically near them; centre staff in everything and try to protect jobs is something that the hospitality giant’s HR lead believes has “been fundamental in making teams feel valued and up to speed with how their [working] lives are going to be impacted.” By translating how every Government announcement would impact individual workers – often using whatever means they had available at the time, such as a Facebook page – Susan believes it helped create a ‘warmth’ between staff by simply “distilling [changes] into practical information.” This, she explains, was supplemented by regular surveys, which looked into worker wellbeing but, crucially, it was never mollycoddling them. “The approach that we've taken in engaging our teams is to be as honest and as transparent as possible… sharing in good and bad experiences, and being very honest with our people,” she adds.

Pandemic lessons

In many ways, what Susan describes HR hospitality has had to go through during the last year or so offers lessons for other sectors, especially if widespread CEO prediction of increased macro-disruption comes to pass. With many businesses set to go at least partly remote in the long term, Susan’s comms strategy – which could be broken down to an engage, ask, explain – offers a way to find out how staff are even when they’re not physically close. There’s also a lesson about flexibility too: creating loose structures to offer strategic guidance, but not too rigid they can’t be adapted to challenges that HR might not yet know about. As Susan notes about the last year “I don't think anybody, first of all, understood what we were truly facing” therefore giving “people flexibility, knowing we won’t have all the answers right away” is key.

Susan on employee surveys:

“Absolutely fundamental in really making our teams feel valued and up to speed with how their lives are going to be impacted….”

There is also likely to be a piece about where digital fits into the picture, too. When the roadmap to opening up was announced, Susan had to “refresh core skills.” Of course, that was a challenge. It’s difficult to re-teach some of the soft skills of customer service, skills that are honed in an in-person environment, however M&B rolled this out across digital platforms. Yet, Susan did it – via what she describes as a “great” digital platform, specific COVID-19 modules, as well as live webinars – and importantly, trusted in it, too. With M&B up-front about how much their people’s mindset and ability translates into customer satisfaction (and, now, even more crucially safety), it shows the faith they had in technology to bridge the gap. Especially when the flipside of not being compliant with new rules, or letting staff go back rusty, had so many potential negative implications. “Of course, refreshing our people’s core skills was of central importance,” she says.

It’s not just the immediate challenge of refining customer service after time off on furlough that M&B’s pandemic digital training sought to fix. Knowing that getting core skills for the future is a key executive concern, M&B wanted to ensure that it was keeping a pipeline for the future. This meant keeping its apprentice academy going with practical elements running, even in difficult circumstances. Susan explains: “We hear about all this mass unemployment and people often say it means we're going to have a plethora of people available for hospitality. That might be the case for some job roles, but I still think we're going to face a big challenge back of house in kitchen managers, as we did pre-pandemic.”

M&B people statistics

M&B believes that success is “built on enthusiasm and professionalism of people”

M&B's people theory: happy, satisfied employees = happy, satisfied customers

Average tenure of group management team: 20 years

Average tenure of pub management team: eight years

Runs an annual engagement survey ‘You Say’, but feedback encouraged all year round

Variety of development opportunities for employees: apprenticeships to MBAs.

The future is now

Susan tells me that this focus on the future is a core part of what M&B has learnt throughout the pandemic. Admitting that at points it had to be, as many businesses were, reactive and focussed on just core elements – “we had a single focus…our focus has been to protect jobs and, my God, that has been the company priority” – she believes that this won’t deliver success in the long term. Yes, Susan explains, the pace that business learned to operate at during the pandemic will be useful and yes streamlining certain processes was a big learning cure but having a sole focus and purely being in reaction mode: “That's not the way you know, or succeed as an organisation,” Susan explains.

Susan on using values to guide the organisation:

"Our values are pride, passion, respect, innovation and they help drive engagement, and that respect and engagement are fundamental when it comes to guiding the organisation…"

Success will also mean, as Susan adds, “being less emotional”. Not in a way where the business starts making decisions that don’t put staff at the centre of what they’re doing – Susan reiterates that people must be at the centre of all business thinking – but being able, as a leadership team, to not hold onto elements of the business, or strategy, that don’t work. “The ‘sacred cows’ that we may have had 18 months ago, I think some of those will have disappeared because of the pandemic experience,” she says. In fact, this is one of the positives that Susan explains the pandemic has been able to do for the business. She believes the near-total disruption that M&B experienced has “made us really think about future proofing the business”. She continues: “It’s got us thinking about the long term, and what are the future trends and possibilities. We've always done that but we have to make sure we do that even more.”

What does this all mean for HR?

Most in HR will recognise Susan’s pandemic response as feeding into a wider engagement strategy: look after your people, communicate well, offer them the chance to develop – both in a skills sense and their attachment to the organisation – even during difficult times. This is a rarely-argued-against part of contemporary HR practice: business engagement boosts business outcomes, even during moments when it might require an alternate approach. Key commentators agree with this, such as Josh Bersin, and so do countless studies, including a Hays Group one which notes that firms with high engagement scores can have revenues that are up to four times higher than the average in their sector. Susan knows this too, as she says: “The way we will succeed… keeping our teams engaged, treating them with respect, and trying to protect as many jobs as we possibly can because how [our people] are feeling will directly translate to how our guests are treated when they come back to us.”

The challenge, of course, is to have done this during a time when disruption was near-total and everything that M&B knew about operating was turned on its head. However, what her response was – work out from your values and the business context, communicate effectively, rely on the digital tools you have available, don’t just think in a reactive manner but create operational and strategic structures that offer enough flexibility to be reactive when needed, and always keep an eye on the future – does offer HR teams in all sectors a broad idea of how to gird themselves for an uncertain future. Nothing that Susan tells myGrapevine magazine should surprise HR but it’s always worth bearing in mind and the media attention that hospitality has received means that the M&B story is an excellent case study, too. As the world opens up again, and organisations look to thrive and survive on a much-changed landscape, it’s worth remembering.

And, amongst this focus on business viability in the long term – what HR will be trusted with, digital solutions, and how much time will be spent on reimaging organisations for a new age of work – because M&B’s is inescapably about people, it does offer a clear example of what will get businesses through this time: their employees.

As Susan emphasises: “The reason we’re passionate about all of [engagement, wellbeing, communication] is that we believe that how our people are feeling at the frontline…translates into great commercial results.”