Ruth Busby of rail operator GWR was named HR Director of the Year for her work in ensuring that HR truly partnered with the business during the pandemic. We look at her winning entry and those of our other finalists.
Ruth Busby, GWR
Just months after rail company GWR launched a new service offer in late 2019, it lost 95% of its customer base and trains and stations were empty thanks to the pandemic. Employees were naturally worried about their job security and the future of rail. HR director Ruth Busby ensured that HR truly partnered with the business and put people at the heart of all decisions.
This included: increased communications and senior leader visibility; guidance for managers; engaging with trade unions on safety measures and ways of working; increased reporting and insights; strong leadership and ensuring colleagues felt engaged and listened to. Managers received bi-weekly updates so they could cascade information to their teams, and every four weeks a director shared updates and answered questions.
Ruth put in place a comprehensive Covid testing regime so driver training could continue and moved the company’s onboarding and learning sessions online. No GWR staff were furloughed during the pandemic, and employees could access ‘YourSpace’, a platform for knowledge and personal development. In its annual YourVoice engagement survey, engagement went up from 83% to 87%, empowerment went up four percentage points to 66%, and the feeling that senior leaders could explain the reasons behind important decisions grew significantly from 11% to 59%. Within her own HR team, Ruth achieved a record engagement score of 99%.
Judges were impressed with the agile and responsive use of communications, and the fact that GWR did not furlough any staff.
Alison Daymond, Adastra HR
Alison Daymond is managing director of consultancy Adastra HR, boasting an impressive CV with more than 20 years’ experience in the public and private sectors. Eight years ago she set up her own company that now has an eight-strong team of consultants supporting clients all over the world.
Customers are encouraged to think of Adastra as their outsourced HR team, and the company’s expertise covers not just HR but also employment law, health and safety, culture and team dynamics, change management, coaching and reward. The team was set up to hit the ground running during the pandemic and was able to offer clients tailored support. ‘Adastra Alerts’ covered key announcements and changes to government policy such as furlough and work from home assessments.
Alison kept the team spirit alive during the pandemic through regular communication and gestures such as pizza for lunch or cocktail boxes. She has focused on upskilling the mostly female team and a number of consultants gained additional qualifications and accreditations despite the challenges of Covid. Colleagues and clients believe she actively demonstrates the “human and resourceful” side of HR.
David Blackburn, Financial Services Compensation Scheme
The Financial Services Compensation Scheme (FSCS) helps consumers get back on track if financial services companies fail. David Blackburn became head of HR and OD in 2013 and won Personnel Today’s HR Director of the Year in 2020. In the year since, he has focused on the health, safety and wellbeing of all colleagues as they adapt to remote working.
Since April 2020 the organisation has recruited 50 new colleagues at all levels, including in HR. David has completed the implementation of FSCS’ new organisational design, which included the creation of several new roles at senior level that focus on communications and transparency as well as customer experience. He oversaw the design and launch of a smarter working toolkit to support ‘activity-based working’ as employees began to return to the office for some of the week. There is a smarter reward and recognition approach that includes access to career development resources.
Promoted to chief people officer in 2017, David has taken 100 days out of the end-to-end claim process, reducing the cost of claims processing by 23%. Over a third of claims are now resolved in five days and customer satisfaction is at 85%, up from 59% in 2017. FSCS has also received a number of awards for its commitment to diversity and inclusion and flexible working – the number of managers from Black and ethnic minority backgrounds is up to 17% from 10% and 33% of leaders are women. During 2020/21, the organisation helped more than 35,000 customers get back on track – more than during the financial crisis of 2008/9.
Jeanette Wheeler, MHR
Jeanette Wheeler is HR director of HR, recruitment and payroll software company MHR, and is responsible for a 26-strong team. Since she joined the business 22 years ago, she has performed a number of roles and embraced the challenges thrown up by the pandemic in 2020. In terms of mental health support, MHR offers an employee assistance programme and Jeanette has helped build up a team of several mental health first aiders, who checked on employees during lockdown if they felt vulnerable or anxious.
She helped HR to adapt quickly through the transition to working from home, working with IT to shift training and administration tasks to work remotely. Business partners were fundamental in keeping employees updated and the recruitment team continued to hire at all levels. Colleagues credit Jeanette with having a ‘360-degree vision’ in that she can see the bigger picture and the impact of any changes on teams.
Jeanette has redefined organisational design at MHR and learning sits at the centre of this. She says: “We support our people to progress, offering a graduate training scheme to help people make the first step in their career, or try new areas of the business to transfer their skills and expertise. We encourage our people to keep developing, just like our software, and offer a large variety of training to our employees.”
Alyson Fadil, N Brown
Retail group N Brown encompasses brands such as Simply Be, Jacamo and JD Williams. Alyson Fadil has been chief people officer for the past three years, during which time she has created a cultural vision, designed the organisational structure, and acquired new skills. She led efforts to create a new employer value proposition that empowers colleagues to support customers, be curious and work at pace, thanks to an online survey and series of workshops getting employees and other stakeholders on board.
Alyson has also worked with leaders on programmes to embed cultural change, including a monthly opportunity for peer-group reflection and development around emerging business themes. Part of her organisational restructure has been to diversify key roles across the executive team, which is now 50% female and 12% people from black or ethnic minorities. She has also boosted the company’s internal capabilities, replacing contractors in the IT team with in-house staff and reducing compliance on outside talent.
Alyson has driven a performance culture with the introduction of continuous feedback for colleagues, which is helping managers with a talent mapping process to identify high potential colleagues. On engagement, she introduced a colleague voice group, a revamped survey and the introduction of the first company awards. A colleague engagement team ensures all staff understand the part they play in the success of the business. In this year’s survey, the engagement index score moved from 68% to 74% and employee net promoter score moved from -10 to +7.
Robert Hicks, Reward Gateway
When Robert Hicks joined Reward Gateway in 2015, reward, recruitment and HR were handled by three different directors. During his time at the company, he has refocused HR so practitioners in every role report to a single HR leader, saving business costs and aligning people matters more closely with the business. There is now a team of 18 that focuses on six areas: L&D, engagement/internal communications, people operations, talent attraction, HR business partnering and office experience.
Robert has also played a key role in the company’s diversity, inclusion and equity strategy. A listening exercise identified three pillars for change: recruitment, progression and leadership, embracing inclusive practices across all three. This includes a diverse candidate attraction action plans, diversity commitments for managers and all interviews including someone from outside the department that’s hiring.
During the pandemic, Robert drove a supportive and caring response, keeping employees engaged, informed and safe. He met weekly with the CEO and head of global engagement to share insights from across the business and now meets weekly with local experience managers to discuss any concerns they may have about the transition back into work. There were People Team drop-in sessions each day available so employees could ask questions, as well as a podcast where workers could share music and stories that were personal to them. A Work from Home bundle meant employees were able to set themselves up remotely without financial burden.
Jessica Gallop, Student Roost
When Jessica Gallop started at university accommodation service Student Roost in 2017, it was a company with a central team of just eight supported by 200 property team members. This gave her the opportunity to assess the staffing mix and fill any gaps, as well as develop the organisation’s values and establish new systems. The organisation now owns and runs more than 50 properties in 20 UK cities, employing around 575 people.
It was a natural move to be the people director for Jessica, who had 15 years of experience in student accommodation and leisure operations. People, internal communications, L&D, organisational effectiveness and external communications now sit within her remit. Regular check-ins have replaced an annual appraisal, with regular informal discussion encouraged about employees’ performance and ambitions. There is a preference for treating employees like adults rather than a long list of policies and procedures. That said, there are mechanisms that help employees to speak up and break stigma, such as a menopause policy or domestic abuse policy and managers’ guide.
Jessica co-ordinated the company’s response to the pandemic and oversaw the creation of a business continuity pack to support employees and residents through the various challenges. She engaged with employees through virtual discussions or in-person meetings with the property team. Only 8% of the workforce needed to take time out due to Covid thanks to the measures in place.