Ticket to success: how London Overground became HR team of the year

Introducing driver-only operated trains at London Overground could have been a recipe for industrial unrest and employee dissatisfaction, but last year’s HR team of the year achieved quite the opposite. Peter Crush interviewed former HR director Alison Bell. 

As the volumes of publicity generated by rail strikes will testify, rail operators’ relationships with their staff have a reputation for being combustible.

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The mix of meeting cost commitments at board level, while also protecting workers’ rights and upholding safety, can often lead to a situation where industrial action comes first, and negotiation comes later.

One area that is currently stirring up significant unrest can be described in just three letters – DOO (or driver-only operated).

Like bus services, which have gradually seen the demise of traditional conductors in favour of the driver being responsible for taking money, dealing with customers and managing the timetable, DOO is seen as the next answer to improving rail efficiency.

Unsurprisingly, it is one decision that unions fiercely resist. In April, First Great Western became the latest operator to face an RMT-union led ballot for strike action, when it revealed plans to introduce DOO, effectively removing guards and catering services on its trains.

But perhaps this operator should look at how the HR team at London Overground Rail Operations (LOROL) introduced the same process during 2014, saving £5 million.

The rollout of DOO was not only achieved without a strike, but also created improved engagement scores, and involved no compulsory redundancies. The team, which bagged HR Team of the Year at last year’s Personnel Today Awards, was managed by Alison Bell, now head of HR at Crossrail.

Ominous task

“I wasn’t prepared for it at all,” confides Bell, who admits being thrown in at the deep end. “Initial stages a year earlier had been handled by my boss, the HRD, but he left. I was asked if I’d like to project manage it on one day, and the very next day was pretty much told I needed to sort it out.

“My first thought was ‘Oh my God, how am I going to get through this?, followed quickly by the realisation that there was no way this system wasn’t going to happen now, so I had to get it done.”

Her task seemed ominous. Not only were there multiple stakeholders (LOROL operates London Overground on behalf of Transport for London), but all conductor grades (10% of the employee population) would be affected, and train drivers would also be expected to change their roles.

Despite this, it was essential that none of the negotiations would impact travellers, while unions would also need careful handling.

“The only option was to break the project down into the areas I needed action on,” says Bell. At first, she admits it was difficult trying to get all areas of business to take their own small area of responsibility seriously, but help came from an unlikely ally.

“The safety teams really came to my rescue, and helped push things harder,” she says. “They ultimately wanted this to be done, so I was able to capitalise on this.”

The introduction of the policy was less of a shock to unions and staff as it could have been, as some of the planning had started before Bell took over, but it was still a major learning curve.

“It was vital my influencing skills were honed, but more than this, getting all of the technical detail right was a massive challenge,” she recalls. “I had to know a huge amount of minute detail about many aspects of the business.

“Writing new safety standards was impossible without first having a thorough understanding of how driving a train works, and what needs to happen. My credibility would have been on the line without this,” she adds.

Team effort

This was a team award, and Bell was supported by HR coordinators and – later – consultants, as well as ad hoc backup from the learning and development teams.

To ensure this was not just regarded as a top-down project, Bell embedded the newly launched LOROL Extras (reward and benefits platform), and introduced a manager-led employee recognition scheme called “Thanks to You”, which enables managers to spontaneously and instantly reward employees who go the extra mile.

Bell says: “Because we couldn’t settle for anything less than this being a successful project, we made sure everyone who needed to move into a new role moved into one they actually wanted, while to those who volunteered to be made redundant, we also made a pledge that we would try to give them the redundancy they wanted.”

To ensure this, Bell personally sat in on every single consultation, and made sure she or her team were available at any time.

What the judges said

“A big challenge, solutions considered impact on staff, big financial benefits.”

Considering the challenges they faced, her team pulled out all the stops. Throughout the project, LOROL maintained extremely high levels of satisfaction (91.5%). Some 70% of conductors were successfully redeployed within the organisation (with only 26% taking voluntary redundancy), and engagement scores, as recorded on its View Point survey, hit 93%.

Savings from redeploying staff were not insignificant at £134,000, but there were other successes that Bell was particularly proud of.

“We barely had any rise in sickness – which is normally the first thing that goes up when you do a project like this – and the statistic I’m most proud of is that we didn’t have a single employment tribunal. Normally for a process like this, you’d expect at least one,” she says.

Compared with where Bell has previously worked (including Nuffield Hospitals, Cory Environmental and Air France), she says this project was significantly harder.

“I’ve closed down entire sites before, but this was something different,” she says. “With this, we were also having to change how we operate, which added to the challenge of getting it right.”

Positives for HR

Looking back, Bell admits that at no point did she ever think she was working towards any “award-winning” team project.

“When you’re doing it, you just have to get on with it, and you don’t really think about how it’s improving the position of HR in the business – which it absolutely has,” she recalls. “All I can really remember during January to March last year was doing everything we could to get everything done in time.”

Although she says this project was very specific, the broad lesson she believes all HR professionals can learn, is to be closer to the business.

“The technical details of how LOROL operates really tested my knowledge,” she says. “But I had to get on top of it for this programme to have stood any chance of success. Looking back, the support I got was fantastic, but HR should really spend as much time as it can understanding the business.”

By the time Personnel Today had announced the award, Bell had already been seconded to Crossrail, but her experience and the recognition have proven invaluable: “It was great for the new people I was working with to see that I was bringing some pedigree with me. I don’t think anyone really likes ‘fluffy’ HR people!”

As for her new role on one of Europe’s largest engineering projects – Bell says she is firmly committed to seeing this next massive project to its end.

She concludes: “My biggest challenge here will be TUPE transfers and setting up payroll. But, like at LOROL, it will operate, because it has to operate.”

This year’s Personnel Today Awards will take place on 30 November 2015 at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London. Enter this year’s awards here

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