How Head of People Nicki Sahota steered Mexican chain Tortilla through the pandemic and came out with HR on top...
When the first wave of the coronavirus hit UK shores, the service industry was one of the first to truly feel the brunt. A customer-facing industry, restaurants, pubs and clubs closed their doors whilst the rest of the UK went into lockdown and remote work. Perhaps obviously, this created a massive challenge for HR teams, everywhere but specifically the service industry with particular challenges regards furlough, communication, employee care and cashflow.
My big focus over [lockdown] was keeping our culture alive
One such HR leader who was faced with the challenge of adapting to a drastically different business landscape was Nicki Sahota, Head of People at Tortilla, who has been with the company for nearly two and a half years. The California-style burrito chain, which was founded in 2007, grew quickly from just one outlet in central London to 38 different chains around the country.
‘HR is a leader'
Sahota is a strong believer in HR’s place as a business leader. She states that at Tortilla, HR has always been treated as an essential function, but that if there were ever going to be a test of those credentials, lockdown was it. As a result, when lockdown restrictions loosened, she deemed it essential for HR to be front and centre. She believes that her place was to be with Tortilla’s staff as much as possible, and that the key was for employees to ‘see her face and feel like I’m close’.
She says: “In the world we’re living in, my job is primarily out and about, visiting branches and ensuring that our staff are happy. It’s a really stressful time, our shops are busy, especially with the advent of Eat Out To Help Out, the Government’s scheme to boost the industry, so seeing our faces and knowing that we’re with them and that they can expect to see our faces makes a big difference. I could be in Glasgow one day and in Camden the next – we’re all over the place.”
Communication is key
The lockdown was a difficult time for the company, which opted into the furlough scheme for all staff. With so much to arrange in a short space of time, Sahota decided that the key priority for HR was to ensure that staff received as much communication as possible. “My big focus over that time was keeping our culture alive, even if we could be together face-to-face. We wanted staff to know that we’re here, and we decided the best way to do that was through Facebook’s Workplace platform, which was intuitive and ensured that those sat at home wanting to hear from the business could do so easily,” she explains.
Coronavirus was a massive test of our culture and we were very happy to find that our team worked with us well and stayed true to our values
Sahota says that whilst social chat made up a big part of the communication between staff and leaders whilst in lockdown, there were also rigorous updates on company progression – something she feels was essential in levelling with staff and maintaining brand values. “It was also very important that we told the truth. It was a fine line, because we didn’t want to scare our team, but we also didn’t want to over promise. We did regular Q&A sessions with the MD in which any staff could put their questions to him and he would answer openly and honestly,” she adds.
Tortilla’s leadership also had some difficult news to deliver during this time. Service industry businesses, a large section of which were completely closed during lockdown, registered a decline of 83.4% in the three months to June and like all other businesses, the company struggled to survive, having to make some “very hard decisions” as Sahota puts it. Still, she says that staff reaction was always empathetic and understanding – something she attributes to Tortilla’s emphasis on the importance of inclusive culture prior to the lockdown.
“We have four values and they’re really simple,” she says. “The reason that they’re so simple is because they need to be. We don’t want to over complicate it; we want every staff member to feel like the values are at the heart of who we are. Those are trust, empathy, achieve, and the last one is market-leading. It’s easy to say these things, but we instil those values as much as we can and follow through on them – coronavirus was a massive test of our culture and we were very happy to find that our team worked with us well and stayed true to those values.”
HR’s ‘leading’ future
When talking to Sahota, it’s evident that her leadership of the HR team has steered Tortilla reliably through a very tough time – something that is reinforced by the strong connection between her and the staff she casually chats with in the branch we’re in. However, other firms many not have previously placed such emphasis on ensuring that HR is a leading function. This is something she believes coronavirus has changed – ‘hopefully forever’. “The HR agenda is absolutely at the front right now,” she explains. “I don’t know if it’s just wishful thinking but HR’s place has changed. People have realised just how important it really is. We’ve really seen a slow shift over the last few years to HR becoming more of a central function, but coronavirus has magnified that a lot.
The HR agenda is absolutely at the front right now
“Really, I think HR drives everything; if you’re staring a business right now, after coming up with an idea, what do you need? You need someone to hire staff, to train staff, to instil the structures to care for staff and pay staff. It just makes sense that HR is that centralised function that drives a business. Companies are starting to realise – I hope it lasts.”