Hayley Connor, head of people and learning, on how coronavirus changed HR at Brewhouse and Kitchen

5 minute read

In May 2020 The People Space and 10Eighty held a week-long series of webinars to discover the practical steps HR directors were taking to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. We catch up with Hayley Connor, Head of People and Learning at UK pub chain Brewhouse & Kitchen, to discover the lessons since learned and which of the changes will now be permanent

Hayley Connor, Head of People and Learning at UK pub chain Brewhouse & Kitchen, on COVID-19

Business strategy and trading

It’s been such a whirlwind of a time. We changed our service style quite dramatically as we were quite bar focused, rather than table service focused. Although that was always part of our offering it was really cemented in. So that's been a big change for us. We introduced an app as well from which you can order your food and your drink. What we've seen is that our teams really do want to service the tables because of the tips that come along with that. It took us a while to get the app warmed up and into the business once we opened on the 4 July, but we’ve definitely seen an increase in tipping, even on the virtual pay-at-table app people are now using to issue tips or buy the team drinks.

We've seen a massive lift in service scores as well. One week we were 4.7 when the industry average is around four so we were really pleased with that. So a lot of changes we've made have definitely impacted. And I think one of the things that we did throughout lockdown was really engage our teams, train, put learning development programmes in, have fun, as well inviting people in to collect beers and take them home.

We’ve had two redundancies; we've managed to limit it and they were probably positions that would have been identified anyway. Banks are looking closely at the hospitality industry and you need to put yourself in line with everyone else now. They were positions we had right at the beginning in our start up world and now we have departments that look after that. At site level we managed with natural attrition, which is our student population.

We did see 92% of our team return to the workplace. A lot who didn't were ones that have gone to Europe and will probably stay there, as they want to be closer to their families. But we say that great engagement and teams have been involved in the process of looking at the guidance and interpreting it and telling us what they wanted to see and what would make them feel safe.

We had moments when members of the kitchen team did not want to wear masks as it’s hot and uncomfortable, so we had to put into practice our leadership skills and deal with every case as it came along, have conversations and reason with people and ultimately, as soon as you do that, they say, ok I'll wear the mask or the visor. And you see the team holding each other to account for it now, saying we're all in this together.

New actions and approaches we will keep

1. Innovative service and revenue streams

It’s been a substantial investment for the business, which made it even more gutting when the 10 pm curfew came in across the UK, as it’s almost a whole setting and your most lucrative sitting, so that was a lot of trade lost. We were really fortunate with our like for likes - we did grow during Eat to Help Out. Some areas like London suffered from restrictions and people working from home, so that was a real hit for us. But we have also found a lot more people working from the pub for a change of scenery, therefore we’ve packaged that up and put it into a certain service style and that's where we've seen our growth. We were well set up for it anyway as we had so many plug sockets and USB ports around every single table. We serve unlimited coffee. We’ve gone as far as offering tables to rent for a day in our unused function spaces. It’s something we’ll continue delivering. I think a lot of companies are going to move virtually some of the time and will bring people in for collaborative events and that sort of thing. I think people will use pubs more often for the meetings.

2. Training becomes virtual

Prior to COVID we ran one day masterclasses in areas such as craft beer with trained specialists, followed by a full week study period before you took your exam. In the first lockdown we did some remotely, but now we're finessing and making them more into a product rather than just something we quickly threw together. We now do them virtually in two-hour chunks every Friday for three weeks, the study week and then exam. That's been something that we've bought in for employees and now we're taking externally to our guests as well. And that reflects what we've been doing internally as well with our training.

Virtually delivering training has been huge for us. We really stuck to our guns on our induction day for managers though, and said, you're still coming in so we can sit down with you. I think we will move back to some sort of face to face as it’s important for company culture. But we used to spend a lot of money on travel and accommodation because we're so geographically spread. We’ve been able to do more training and learning and development, we just do it on Zoom. It’s more bite sized because people don't have the same attention span - you get your cheeky people switching off their screens. We use the whiteboard function, we use all Zoom rooms and breakout sessions. So I think that will definitely continue. And what's really nice is that a lot more of our line managers are getting involved in delivering training sessions because it's just a lot easier. So for our new apprenticeship we've got webinars being run by our CEO, our financial director, and all these sorts of people. That's something that will definitely stay. Our next challenge is new openings. We’ve got two potential new openings next year. So it's how we deliver the training for that to keep people apart.

3…as do meetings

I think we'll continue with meetings virtually. We've shortened meetings and have them a little bit more regularly. What we found during lockdown is that we had to be heavily inclusive in our communication style and ask for feedback all the time, which we should have been doing anyway, but it was an enhancement of all of that. And that's definitely something we'll continue into the future because it means your business is ready to change because hearts and minds are there.

I can’t wait to run another face to face party for our team. Quizzes just don't cut it any more. In the second lockdown we said, let’s get back on the quizzes again and the team responded that they wanted time off because it had been stressful and busy. So everyone was back on furlough.

4. Technology and better communication around all types of wellbeing

We developed wellbeing workshops during lockdown, which was just educating on wellbeing. We’ve put in a better communication structure now as well on Yapster. We use WhatsApp but not everyone is accessible on WhatsApp, and if a team member wants to talk to me or to any of our mental health first aiders they have to dig around for a number, try to find us and then give us a text. So Yapster is the WhatsApp for work and it integrates with our HR systems so is always up to date with the people that do work for us. It’s been a real success. We launched that in September and have had a fantastic interaction rate. It’s got a Facebook feed as well so we can put out company news, and that's probably one of the key things we've done differently.

I think our biggest change with wellbeing is just better communication. We’re running webinars more regularly so people can learn about life skills outside work. We have such young people working with us and I have found the issues I face at the moment are related to stress and anxiety caused by financial burden, and I’m helping out with issues such as universal credit. It's definitely not my expertise but you have to learn these things to try to help people out how you can. So mental wellbeing is something that will continue to evolve. We've definitely had a lot of people approach us just to have these chats.

As an HR professional you have your ups and downs and I have had moments of burnout because I just don't have the energy or the excitement. And the first time I felt excited again was when the vaccine was announced and I thought I can start talking about the future of HR again. But we’ve spent all that time on the new job support scheme, writing letters and getting people signed up, getting them prepped to take that 67% pay and then it all changed, so that's been frustrating as it's not the sort of work you want to be working on.

5. Focus on apprenticeships

We’re definitely thinking now about Brexit. The whole new immigration system is quite expensive for small businesses within hospitality and we have to consider whether or not that's going to be viable for us. The industry is relying upon the fact that they’re getting 500 applications for a team manager at the moment. And my message to line managers who are relying on that and not investing as much in putting their team on apprenticeships or in retaining the team is that this is a talent bubble in hospitality that’s going to burst. And what we're going to find is that we have depleted our talent pool, even more than before Coronavirus, because all those European workers have gone back to Europe; we haven't had the same immigration coming in because of the virus and we're going to find ourselves in probably the biggest war for talent once coronavirus ends.

Published 16 December 2020
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