With less than two weeks left to submit entries for the Personnel Today Awards 2022, we profile one of last year’s big winners: Ruth Busby from GWR, who won HR Director of the Year.
In late 2019, Ruth Busby and her HR team at rail operator GWR were celebrating the progress they’d made. A new timetable changing three-quarters of the company’s services had been announced and the launch had gone well, customer satisfaction looked promising and employee engagement had reached almost 90% after a three-year trend upwards.
Then in March 2020, the pandemic hit, just before GWR was due to sign a new franchise agreement with the Department for Transport. The immediate reduction in operations meant that all rail companies were moved onto Emergency Measures Agreements, meaning huge changes to the financial arrangements of their franchises.
For Busby, who won HR Director of the Year at the Personnel Today Awards 2021, this was a time to act but also think of the future.
The team put in place a comprehensive Covid testing regime so driver training could continue and moved the company’s onboarding and learning sessions online.
Taking a step back
“We continued to run trains all the way through as we had to keep services running for key workers,” she explains. “It was stressful but I wanted to step back, take a deep breath and think about the plan. We wanted to give pragmatic guidance to employees and if we got it wrong we could change it.”
The HR function at GWR was suddenly more visible than before, with Busby chairing weekly managers’ calls while juggling homeschooling her children. The company did not furlough a single employee and for those staff such as revenue protection workers who had fewer hours, this was a good opportunity to push workplace learning tools.
Personnel Today Awards 2022 categories
Apprenticeship Employer of the Year
Candidate Experience Award *NEW*
Change Management Award
Employer Branding Award
Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Award
Excellence in Public Service HR Award
Family Friendly Employer of the Year
Graduate Scheme of the Year
Health and Wellbeing Award
HR Director of the Year
HR Impact Award
HR Team of the Year
HR Technology Award
Innovation in Recruitment Award
Learning and Development Award
Performance Management Award *NEW*
Reward, Recognition and Benefits Award *NEW*
Talent Management Award
The Workplace Culture Award *NEW*
Employment Law Firm of the Year
HR Consultancy of the Year
HR Tech Provider of the Year
L&D Supplier of the Year
Talent Acquisition Partner of the Year *NEW*
Colleague calls were extended to Facebook as well as Zoom so non office-based workers could attend and workers were encouraged to ask any questions they liked.
Being available was crucial, particularly given that five GWR colleagues died after catching the virus. “You’re trying to reassure people while recognising this is a terrible disease,” she says.
Busby’s team’s work was lauded by Personnel Today’s judges for responsive use of communications, senior leadership visibility and how they engaged with trade unions on safety measures and ways of working.
Managers received bi-weekly updates so they could cascade information to their teams, and every four weeks a director shared updates and answered questions.
New working practices
While office-based workers were based at home during the toughest restrictions, the HR team launched a project called Vista to consider how the evolving workplace might look as people returned to the office.
“We are a travel company so it can’t be about working from home five days a week. Our managers need to understand the service and the experience from the customers’ perspective, as well as support their front-line colleague,” adds Busby.
Non front-line staff can work in offices in stations if they wish but location is not mandated. “We treat them like adults, there have been lots of opportunities to take learnings from Covid,” she says.
The road ahead is not without challenges, however. GWR is one of the companies involved in national strike negotiations that could threaten to halt services this summer. The company has also been unable to offer a pay increase since 2019, which has caused a slight drop in engagement.
“We’re also responding to different customer patterns and there’s lots of reform on the agenda, so we face a couple of tough years.” As commuting has dwindled, train services are now often busier at weekends than during the week, necessitating negotiations around weekend working contracts.
HR at its best
Engagement within the HR team itself has remained one of the highest across the organisation, despite some structural changes. Busby believes the pandemic has shown HR as a whole at its best. “It’s been helpful for the profession as it’s raised our profile, shown what we can do.”
On a personal level, she did not know she had been nominated until the shortlist was announced – an even sweeter surprise after GWR won HR Team of the Year at the Personnel Today Awards 2020. “For GWR there’s a sense of pride to win something that’s not a [rail] industry award,” Busby says. She is now on the board for Women in Rail and is a non-executive director for an organisation encouraging people from disadvantaged backgrounds to enter teaching.
Looking forward to a period of reform and negotiation at GWR, her focus will be on supporting workers to “deliver a great customer experience” so the company can build revenue and work towards meeting union demands. “We’re constantly finding new ways to adapt, so it’s all about having conversations,” she says.
Full criteria for the 2022 awards are available on the Personnel Today Awards website.
The awards ceremony itself will take place on 15 November 2022. Past celebrity hosts have included Russell Kane, Claudia Winkleman and Hugh Dennis. The deadline for entries is 10 June 2022.
Personnel Today Awards 2022
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