Gerard Jacques, director of people at Eurostar, tells Adam McCulloch about the company’s plans for hybrid working, with learning and the quality of line management at the hub of change.
The Covid pandemic has been particularly damaging for passenger transport firms, but while domestic organisations have seen customer numbers recover to some extent with the success of the vaccine and easing of lockdown restrictions, international companies reliant on business travellers and holidaymakers buying seats are still in the grip of the worst of Covid-19. Many are keeping staff on furlough, even as hospitality businesses return to some semblance of normality, and will now be paying a larger proportion of their salary, without knowing the date at which they can return to full services.
By January 2021, Eurostar – newly merged with French/Belgian rail provider Thalys – saw passenger numbers slump to less than 1% of pre-pandemic levels. Its parent company Eurostar International, majority-owned by French national railway operator SNCF, has been involved in talks with the UK and French government and banks over its financial sustainability.
The company employs about 1,400 people including 450 in its London, Paris and Brussels offices and 350 at its engineering depots. A further 600 work at stations and on board trains. Gerard Jacques, Eurostar’s director of people, has a complex task aligning the diverse needs of these employees with organisational culture and values as it faces an uncertain future but is happy to endorse hybrid working and to laud his colleagues’ loyalty and commitment during the pandemic. Here he answers 10 questions on Eurostar’s future plans.
Personnel Today: How did Eurostar come up with its post-pandemic working plans, did you take note of what other companies were doing?
Gerard Jacques: Rather than monitoring other companies, we have based our plans on the response from our people. We ran a number of surveys over the last year to gather insight, which strongly showed that people were enjoying many benefits of remote working, but missed the opportunities for collaboration. Therefore, we have developed a new remote working policy, which allows office-based colleagues to split their time between office, other business locations and home. We believe this will have a significant impact on the wellbeing of colleagues and teams.
Many feel that flatter structures and individualised solutions are the way forward in the hybrid working world. How far has Eurostar accommodated this?
With our new remote working policy, we have set as a guide that colleagues should spend around 60% of their time in the office. Establishing a policy like this would be difficult without quality line managers who will have the flexibility to determine the ways of working for their own teams. We have produced ramp-up training which will be mandatory for line managers, equipping them with the skills needed to deal with new situations that may arise as a result of this change in ways of working. It’s important that we treat our colleagues as individuals, and line managers can do this effectively with regular communication and contact. The key to the success of this new way forward will be open and honest relationships between line managers and their teams, which we believe can create a great working environment combining the benefits of home working and office based collaboration.
For what you lose in routine real-time minute-by-minute collaboration, what do you gain by having employees working at home?
As our office-based teams have adapted to home-working since March last year, there has been no loss of productivity. Colleagues value the time they save on commuting, and increased flexibility to fit work around other commitments they may have which can have a significant impact on wellbeing. For this to be successful, it is crucial that line managers have trusting relationships with their teams, and open conversations about objectives so that everyone is clear what needs to be delivered. We are also cautious to manage the risk of over-working, and ensure that people achieve a healthy work-life balance. We have been providing support for mental health and wellbeing from direct line management and from the business to ensure that colleagues feel valued and looked after.
We have produced ramp-up training which will be mandatory for line managers, equipping them with the skills needed to deal with new situations that may arise as a result of this change in ways of working”
How many staff have been on furlough and how has the company engaged them?
As an operational business which continues to be severely impacted by international travel restrictions, Eurostar had around 7-800 people on furlough. At both a senior and line manager level, we have made sure that we are staying in regular contact with those on furlough to make them feel valued and informed. We have also been providing tailored materials for support, and access to LinkedIn Learning to allow colleagues who want to to develop new skills while not working. In a difficult year, what has struck me is the loyalty that colleagues have shown, and a dedication to do as much as possible to support the business. People have worked hard to put new processes and procedures in place, and they are deeply invested in the success of the business. Eurostar has always had a caring and supportive environment, and the crisis has really shown how teams pull together to support each other.
How have learning and development teams adapted to the situation, what level of courses do Eurostar employees need to undertake and can this be done effectively in a remote setting?
As part of our remote working policy, we have developed bespoke training that can be delivered in the office or remotely. This includes a dedicated “return to work” session which is mandatory for line managers to ensure they are equipped to help their teams make the transition to hybrid working. Mental health and wellbeing have long been a key focus for our business and this has been even more crucial during the last year. Our learning and development team has developed a programme covering physical, mental and financial health of colleagues to offer further support based on the challenges brought by the pandemic. Additionally, a full range of programmes has been made available for all our colleagues via LinkedIn Learning to support continued development during this period.
Did the uncertainty over the future of travel and the financial future of Eurostar because of travel restrictions require a lot of work with employees to reassure them?
The travel industry has been one of the hardest hit by the pandemic, with international travel restrictions leading to a collapse in passenger numbers. As this started to make headlines, of course this was an unsettling time for our teams, many of whom were also on furlough either full or part-time. We have worked hard to ensure support and connectivity remain in place with our teams, with regular contact to make them feel valued and informed. As well as company-wide briefings with the CEO, which are run in a very open and transparent way, good line manager communication has been crucial, so that we can be aware of the individual requirements of colleagues.
We will work closely with our teams and unions to bring back our colleagues across full and part-time working”
Has there been a high turnover of staff because of uncertainty?
The government support schemes in the countries we operate, such as furlough in the UK , have allowed us to reduce our people costs through reduced hours and part-time working. We continue to have a very loyal and committed workforce and this, on the whole, has allowed us to retain the extensive knowledge, skills and experience of our people ready for the recovery.
Is the company planning to ‘let go’ of buildings or relocate to meet the needs of less office space … if so, what kind of locations are being considered?
Our new remote working policy will see our colleagues working from a combination of the office, other Eurostar locations and home. This of course means that we will need less desk space, and we have secured a new office in London which better suits the needs of this new way of working, providing space for teams to come together and collaborate during days they are working on location.
How difficult will it be to reintroduce people after furlough?
With government restrictions on international travel still in place across our routes, demand continues to be very low, and we are operating a very limited number of services as a result. The furlough scheme in the UK, and equivalents in Europe, have been very helpful in allowing us to reduce our people costs while retaining knowledge, skills and experience of our people. As the allowances and rules change over the coming months, we will work closely with our teams and unions to bring back our colleagues across full and part-time working, while carefully monitoring demand for our services in response to travel restrictions.
What has surprised you about colleagues’ response to the pandemic?
The past 15 months have been incredibly challenging across all our teams and markets, which is by no means unique to Eurostar. But the response from Eurostar colleagues has really demonstrated the values of the business. Our people have shown dedication to support our customers, adapting the service quickly to meet government guidelines for safe travel with signage and new processes at our stations and on board, implementing greater flexibility for tickets sold, and providing reliable support and customer service through calls, emails and social media. All of this has been achieved with teams and colleagues supporting each other, and genuinely caring about the wellbeing of those they work with. While challenges to international travel still persist, the strong collaboration between the business should put Eurostar in the best possible position for a strong recovery when demand returns.
HR Director opportunities on Personnel Today