How GWR’s HR team helped drive cultural change

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With just one day left to enter the Personnel Today Awards, we look at the initiatives that saw Great Western Railway win the HR Impact Award last year, including how its HR team helped drive cultural change during a period of transformation across the business.

Great Western Railway (GWR) is currently undergoing a £7.5bn modernisation programme, involving timetable changes and faster and more frequent trains. Such a transformation involves a great cultural shift for its 6,000-strong workforce, much of which is significantly unionised.

Learning and development played a big role in changing the way its employees thought about their role in the organisation. GWR has rolled out a comprehensive customer experience training programme – called Great Experience Makers – which aims to equip staff with the skills to provide the best possible experience to their customers, both internally and externally.

But this didn’t come without its challenges, as Frances Williams, head of employee engagement and reward, explains: “The challenge was getting people to understand the value of a good customer experience as part of their role and the benefits to the business.

“We did have a few issues, especially at the beginning, around people taking accountability for things. So we targeted the training that we had on this, as well as introducing leadership training to make sure that people felt accountable as a leader.”

A few years ago, apart from safety or technical training geared towards train driving and maintenance, L&D at GWR was limited. The company recognised that interpersonal skills and behaviour at work needed to be developed.

Its HR function was minimal, so it appointed staff to take the lead in the department’s main responsibilities – including L&D, wellbeing, occupational health, employee engagement and reward, and recruitment.

A sense of purpose

Great Experience Makers was based around the six pillars of customer excellence; personalisation, time and effort, resolution, expectations, integrity and empathy. Staff were brought in to learn about GWR’s purpose and the part they play in helping the business achieve it, their contribution to customers’ travel experience, and how working as a team will deliver the service GWR hoped to offer its customers.

So far two-thirds of its workforce have completed the two-day programme, with all staff expected to complete it as and when operational requirements allow.

“It has been received very well. While it has been difficult to get everybody to attend because operational incidents happen, we’ve had some really positive feedback. Our engagement score has increased from the late 60s to 79%,” says Williams.

Internal communication was also an issue at the company when Williams joined in 2011. Employee surveys consistently identified the need for better communication across its workforce – something that had previously been handled by its marketing function and had been left alone by HR.

The challenge was getting people to understand the value of a good customer experience as part of their role and the benefits to the business” – Frances Williams

The challenge stemmed from employees’ shift patterns. Railway staff are almost never working at the same time, so getting messages out can be problematic if different methods aren’t adopted.

Improving communication

Recognising that good communication is a key driver of employee engagement, GWR appointed a head of internal communications to sit within HR. Employees now receive a monthly magazine sent to their home address, a weekly email (if they have a company email address – which is not required by some staff), and messages are relayed on screens in its depots.

Although meetings are difficult because of its shift patterns, the company is encouraging line managers to have more face-to-face interactions with their reports.

Williams says: “We have a ‘time with your manager’ programme for frontline employees where every manager should aim to have two face to face interactions with their team members a year. It doesn’t sound like much, but due to the operational nature of the work, it is a bit tricky…Our driver workforce will have their manager meet them off the train to ask them how their journey’s been.”

As a result of its work to improve communication and employees’ involvement in the customer experience, Williams says staff turnover is low at just 6%.

It also wants to ensure that employees have more opportunities to get their voice heard and is looking at bringing pulse surveys to encourage employees to feedback their comments on a regular basis.

But the work doesn’t stop there; GWR is looking at developing its leadership training programme further and is working with trade unions to ensure its plans to close two depots as part of the Crossrail project does not have a negative effect on engagement.

Williams says: “Where are depots are shutting and when Crossrail comes in, we transferred 11 stations to Crossrail, which was a big thing. The trade unions are a big part of our culture, we worked with them really well to make sure people were impacted as less as possible and that their concerns were addressed.”

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