Planning for the New World: A Q&A with Mark Atkinson
Q&A with Leaders 1st June 2020 8 minutes read
I am pleased this week to continue our Q&A with Leaders Series, Planning for a New World, with Linda Kennedy, the Chief People Officer at the AA. The purpose of this interview series is to understand and share how business leaders are adapting their business models and people strategies in response to the Covid-19 crisis and, as restrictions are slowly lifted, what we can take with us into the ‘new normal’.
I have been in the fortunate position to speak with many business leaders, across functions and sectors this past couple of months and have been blown away by the resilience and the agility that organisations have demonstrated in the face of such rapid change. Certainly, Linda’s account of the AA is a great example of this.
As Managing Director of executive recruitment and diversity consultancy, Green Park, it has been encouraging to see the recruitment market pick up in the last couple of weeks and this is reflected in the conversations I have had with HR leaders. It seems many of us, following a period of uncertainty and the need to rapidly adapt, are returning our focus to our long-term goals and for many in HR that means our talent strategies.
However, as a leader of an organisation that campaigns for greater workforce diversity, inclusion, culture and ethics, what I find to be especially refreshing is the renewed focus on well-being and flexible working. It seems that well-being and flexible working have been promoted to the top table, alongside productivity. These are no longer just HR priorities but those of the board and full executive committee with HR leading the way. Or, to put it in Linda’s words:
“As a member of the Executive team, you are always looking beyond HR but for me, the function really came to the fore during this crisis and it was all about HR.”
Chief People Officer | AA Plc
Throughout her career, Linda has led business transformation and culture change programmes in large organisations, involving complex stakeholder management and employee engagement development. She has worked across various geographies including South Africa, South America, Australia, Europe and Former Soviet Union, before joining the AA in January 2019.
The British motoring association that we all know and love, AA Plc provides car insurance, driving lessons, breakdown cover, loans, motoring advice and other services to motorists, with over 7,500 employees and revenue in excess of £980m.
How was the business structured pre COVID and what has been your response to the changes it has forced you to address?
The business was structured on a “lines of business” basis pre Covid-19, which has not fundamentally changed. The main difference is that the AA operates four call centres in Cardiff, Newcastle, Oldbury and Cheadle and these are now all operating remotely, with people working from home successfully supported by technology and remote management. Like many other companies, our office staff are also all working remotely and a number of our staff have been furloughed with support from the government. I think the interesting thing is that necessity has definitely become the “mother of invention” as we would never have thought it possible to have this number of people working from home effectively previously. What is particularly interesting from an HR perspective is the fact that productivity has actually gone up and we are monitoring this closely to see whether it will be sustained in the coming weeks and months. I think that this will lead to us re-considering what work can be done where and on which basis.
As a CPO with a broad set of responsibilities, how has your day changed – where are your key areas of focus from an HR perspective or do they go beyond HR?
The main change initially was that we moved to a Gold/Silver/Bronze response structure which enabled us to move quickly and make important decisions at pace. This meant that we immediately had a shorter term horizon and were focused on the virus and our response to it. Continuing to keep our customers supported and on the road was key, but we also looked at our broader remit and purpose. We quickly moved to a company purpose of keeping “Britain on the road” working together with the ambulance service to ensure that we were supporting the NHS in whatever ways we could. I think that Covid-19 has definitely led to companies reconsidering their “purpose” and am happy to say for the AA that ours was a very clear and obvious step from our existing position and we got our people behind it very quickly.
Obviously, as a member of the Executive team, you are always looking beyond HR but for me, the function really came to the fore during this crisis and it was all about HR. It put us directly in the spotlight, and we had to deliver the data and information required to allow us to make decisions quickly and based on up to date facts and figures. It also put the need for supporting our staff centre stage, looking at aspects such as mental health, coaching, helping those with families and home schooling etc. We did “Thirsty Thursdays” to quench peoples thirst for learning with helpful virtual training across a variety of areas and we developed Well Being Wednesdays where we focused on wellbeing and supporting our staff who were facing challenges due to Covid-19. We delivered a very open and honest communications campaign, with our CEO communicating directly to all staff at least two or three times a week, updating on the situation and the steps that we were taking as a business.
How has that impacted your views on workforce planning, your values and your organisational structure?
As mentioned above, the AA has always been a values led organisation. However, what I think the Coronavirus has done has given the company an even stronger purpose to “Keep Britain Driving” and has called on our existing values and ethos and strengthened them even further. People are proud to be part of our company and see the great work that our patrols are doing. From an organisational point of view, we are always reviewing how we can be more efficient and effective, and of course we are now reviewing whether we can bring in more flexible working and what that could look like. Certainly any old “presenteeism” mentality has been challenged by how effectively we have moved to home working and whilst it will not and should not work for all, we will certainly be considering different options and working patterns in the light of what Covid-19 has enabled, particularly from a technology perspective. We continue to review how best to structure and support the business and Covid-19 has certainly helped us to focus on areas for improvement.
Does your current 3-5 year people strategy still stand relevant moving forward or is this leading you to reconsider the long term plan?
Our People Strategy is fundamentally focused on the key areas that we still need to deliver for the business. However, Covid-19 has highlighted several things. Firstly, it has shown us the importance of data and accurate MI on people, which will in turn increase the focus on our HRIS development programme and accelerate it. Secondly, it has enabled different and more flexible ways of working, which we will continue to build on and develop further. We need to balance remote and onsite work and look at smart office spaces and usage. Thirdly, it highlighted how important technology and the right infrastructure is for us, not only in terms of using it to support the business but in terms of how we interact with our customers and develop our proposition going forwards. We will need to look at different ways to attract and retain top talent, particularly in the digital space which is clearly very important for us going forwards. This will include more comprehensive health and well being strategies, as well as continued focus on being a purpose led organisation.
Have you found that the Talent agenda has been in any way delayed or de-prioritised during recent times?
In terms of remote learning, coaching and supporting people to deliver improved performance, the talent agenda on developing our internal Talent has actually increased. We have identified this as a great opportunity when people are furloughed or working remotely to support them with virtual learning and tools to help them do their jobs more effectively. In terms of recruitment and the Talent Agenda, with regard to bringing in new skills, I think we definitely saw a recruitment slow down and “freeze” in some cases, whilst the organisation came to terms with what was happening and worked to understand the implications of Coronavirus. I see this relaxing a little now and we are starting to get back to a more “normalised” approach on recruitment – although we are very obviously mindful of reduced customer demand and keeping our costs down to ensure we can successfully retain all of our existing staff through the crisis. I think workforce planning will need to be dynamic and we will see more tailored working models to employees to enable flexibility as people return to work.
Do you anticipate any changes to how to attract and retain talent?
In terms of talent, I think it will take a while to establish what the “new normal” looks like and we will therefore see a slow return to recruitment and movement of skills/people in the market. I think there will definitely be a change in the skills required going forwards with more emphasis on organisation design, change management and business transformation. Also, I believe that flexibility around ways of working will become more important to candidates, having demonstrated that conventional hours and office presence don’t necessarily lead to better outputs. At the more senior end of recruitment, I think companies will have to be more flexible on contracts and what is offered in terms of incentives. In particular, I think relevancy and achievability of metrics will be key, as people will be reluctant to leave existing roles without some degree of certainty of reward for delivery in any new role. Equally, companies will want to incentivise appropriately for performance so it will be a fine balance.
In summary what have you learnt? What improvements have you made that you will retain and how have your values assisted you to navigate the transformation?
We have learnt that we are good in a crisis (not surprising I guess, when we have been called the “Fourth Emergency Service”) and can mobilise people quickly and effectively. I think we have also surprised ourselves by how successful all the changes (such as getting everyone working from home quickly) have been. There is no doubt that the crisis has seen many great examples of leadership and role modelling our values, which has further cemented who we are and what we stand for as an organisation. In terms of communication, we have learnt the importance of regular and honest communication from the top and will continue with that post Covid-19 so that everyone continues to be involved and has the chance to contribute. We will aim to keep the best things that have come out of this, such as the “all in this together” spirit, the focus on employee wellbeing and using technology as a key enabler. Above all, we will continue to communicate openly and honestly, as this was key in navigating through Covid-19 and will be beyond.