IN THE DARKEST DAYS OF THE PANDEMIC, WE EMERGED FROM OUR ISOLATIONS TO APPLAUD THOSE ON THE FRONT LINE, THE ESSENTIAL SERVICES. COVID FORCED CHANGE, NOT LEAST THAT WE ORDERED MORE ONLINE, FROM ESSENTIALS, TO SENDING GIFTS TO INFANTS BORN, NOT YET SEEN. BLEAK TIMES, IN THE GRIP OF AN INVISIBLE ENEMY AND YET LOGISTICS KEPT GOING, ON THE FRONT LINE, SUPPORTING A BELEAGUERED WORLD. LEST WE FORGET.
HUMAN RESOURCES DIRECTOR, ASENDIA UK
“It comes down to a basic truth, we’re human. We must think and operate on an emotional as well as strategic level”
I come from Suwalki in Poland and I studied law at Bialystok. But when I graduated and contemplated what to do next, I really wasn’t convinced that law was something I wanted to pursue. That’s not to say that HR was calling at that point, I was still young and had no clear direction. So, I decided to travel to the UK and stay with my friends. I settled in London, where I started an HR admin job at Food Partners Limited, which was a “food-togo” manufacturer and logistics provider. This is how I discovered a world that never sleeps, the world of fast-moving consumer goods. I settled in really quickly and loved the job, which started to drift more towards an HR generalist role, which I found even more engaging. So, very quickly I decided to study for a second degree, this time in Human Resources Management, at the University of West London. The combination of working in a hectic, fast moving FMCG environment and studying meant that I had very little spare time, but I learnt so much in those early days. It was tough, definitely not glamorous and was all about quick change, fast decision making, tight margins, cost control and foremost taking people with you. It was also a really diverse environment, lots of different nationalities and everyone speaking different languages, so clarity of goals and unambiguity was essential to our success. I learned very early on that people being the most valuable asset, is an inescapable truth and that the most important part of communicating well was an ability to listen. It was a strange and amazing learning curve to be in my twenties and learning a new way of communicating. It was hard work and I was inexperienced and naïve, but I was gaining a grip on what HR was really about, what motivates and disengages people and how practitioners have to walk that fine line to ensure that we support the business, whilst ensuring that our people are at the heart of it all.
I always believed that I had natural leadership traits in me and that I had loads of ambition, but the world of FMCG is just such a constant whirl of activity, it took lots of my time and energy to keep pace with the business, as well as all the processes and systems. I could see very clearly where I wanted to be – a value-adding business partner – and that started to gain traction as I began to work on a more strategic and holistic level, focusing on, for example, people capital, challenging behaviours, building capability across the management teams and refocusing them by introducing a more people-centric culture. I look back at those early years and realise how important they were to my development and about how HR’s focus is, not only about being aligned with the business, but about being at the heart of it. That realisation dawned when I moved on with my career and joined Bakkavor Group PLC, a very diverse and complex, freshly prepared food (FPF) supplier to key retailers in the UK. The business was run at a constant and fast pace and was heavily unionised. No question, it was a really tough environment with lots of history and legacy and the unions were combative, but again it was great experience in which I learned about the power of relationship building, how difficult it is to win trust and confidence and how easy it is to lose it. In a way, I think my lack of experience with unions helped and I think that says that you should go into any difficult situation with a clear and open mind, avoid pre-empting anything and if you’re going in without having gained trust, don’t bother. My big focus at that time was building engagement, which is obviously aligned with trust and transparency and that lead to much greater understanding and mutual respect. That began to pay off through greater engagement, lower attrition and just a generally happier working environment. At this point, I really felt that I should leave on a positive note.
Well, it was a rise in responsibility, but a very similar environment. I was approached about a role leading the HR function for Pasta King Ltd. What really excited me about the post was that I was to be given complete carte blanche to build the HR function from scratch which, up until that point, had been outsourced. From day one, I set out to understand the business from every angle and made a point of, not just talking to the C-suite, mid-managers and leaders, but everyone, to find out what life was really like working for this company, the positives and, more importantly, the negatives. I set my plan out for the senior stakeholders and it was a culture of trust and passionate people that were the main drivers – they gave me the greenlight – and I set to work, with a newly-acquired and pretty basic understanding of the business. My experience so far informed that the best approach was simplicity, clarity and transparency and I advised the senior leaders that their visibility to employees had to be improved to demonstrate connectivity and authenticity. The other main area of focus was organisational design, because the business plan was ambitious growth and also to assess the capability development of managers, particularly in the commercial function, who would need to be able to absorb this pressure. Meanwhile, I was recruiting a skeleton crew of an HR department, in a bid to build the capability to support that growth and development. It was a strange experience because it was long-established firm with legacy issues and yet my experience was that this was more like a start-up business.
For me, it was always my dream, as an HR professional, to have a fresh start and have accountability and responsibility for creating an important part of the company. It was hugely motivational, working at that more strategic level and I could see the future path before me. This role really built my confidence and I began to consider where my next move would take me. Pasta King Ltd was a private equity-backed business and as it grew and became really successful, the plan was to sell the business to Greencore Group plc and I was certain that this was the right decision for both the business and people. It coincided with me becoming a mother, but I continued to work on the takeover and overseeing my team as they dealt with the transfer. Now I had other considerations other than career aspirations, which would form the decision for my next role. It was a really profound moment and I wondered if I would be able to simultaneously manage my ambitions and family. I took a conscious decision at that time to step back and dedicate more time to my daughter. I was also determined that, when I was ready to move on, it would be in a completely different sector.
When an opportunity for a role at PRS For Music came along, I felt compelled to take a closer look. PRS is a not-for-profit collective management organisation and for me, that world was completely different to what I had experienced so far. Everything was new to me, from the pace of the business to the very different set of senior stakeholders, that came from the likes of Sky, Google and the BBC. This was a an unusual culture and vibe for me and I also had to re-learn, catch up and recalibrate the way that I had been operating, in order to fit this type of industry. But I was following my inner compass and here I could see a business with principles, trust, transparency and a massive regard for its people. I understood the challenge, but didn’t feel overwhelmed. The great thing about HR, if you parachute in and just take your time to watch and listen, you can adapt to anything. I learnt so much during this time, but what PRS gave me most was a different dimension of thinking around flexibility, diversity and inclusion, taking the time to really think things through and develop my awareness. Also, in past roles, I could see that the way work was organised, more often than not, it piled more pressure on people who had caring or family commitments outside of work. I could envisage a different, more flexible way of working, but the cultures and mindsets in the industries in which I had worked, could not support it. Being a mother and working at PRS changed that and it is strange that one of the major impacts of the pandemic on the world of work is a commitment for an equitable approach to flexible working. PRS gave me the opportunity to really reflect on my resilience as a leader and, for the first time, I had the time to think about my personal brand and about what I wanted to achieve in my career, rather than constantly running, trying to keep up with the hamster wheel. I set out short and long-term goals and the latter was to progress my business partner role, work on improving the business in a more rounded way and always adding value. Ultimately, it all comes down to a basic truth, that we’re all human and we all need to invest in understanding ourselves and building awareness. We need to not be afraid, to think and operate on an emotional as well as a strategic level. We need to have that secure space, where we can try and, if we fail, try another approach, rather than fearing ramifications. When COVID descended, that became even more profound.
If the culture in some businesses was to focus on profits at the expense of all else, the damage to human resources was always inevitable. I believe that COVID has changed many perceptions about the work-related causes of stress and burnout, but also broadened the subject to a more holistic approach to wellbeing. It will be interesting to see how organisations change and develop post-pandemic and as to whether there will be a return to bad old ways. I really hope not. Now is a perfect time to climb aboard that cliché and think outside the box and really embrace those differences. The pandemic has re-shaped priorities and when people were forced apart by lockdown, that was a profound wakeup call, about what is really important in life. Inevitably, there will be businesses and industries that respond effectively and others that don’t and this will be an important benchmark when it comes to talent attraction, employee engagement and attrition rates. So I think all businesses should take this time really seriously and accept that there’s no way back.
Well, Asendia came calling and, although unexpected, when I looked at the business, I could see it was a logical career move in consideration of my experience to that point. Asendia is a pure logistics business and so a world I know well, but with a cutting-edge digital IT focus, which was a massive draw. We’re one of the world’s leaders in international e-commerce and mail, delivering packages, parcels and documents to more than 200 destinations across the globe. Combining the experience and expertise of our founding companies, La Poste and Swiss Post, the Asendia Group brings together a wealth of international and local know-how. We have a broad reach in the market, encompassing different aspects of e-commerce, from web shop software and marketplace management, to international logistics. As a group, we’re also committed to sustainability, offsetting all CO2 emissions for transport within Europe and from Europe to other continents, excluding first-mile and last-mile. Right now, we have over 1,500 people in Europe, UK, Asia Pacific and the USA. From the moment I met CEO Simon Batt it was immediately apparent that his appreciation of HR and wanting the closest association was the driver of the business. This is of course essential and I think if the HR Director and the CEO don’t align, it’s a non-starter, but this was the opposite and I felt totally engaged and energised with the alignment to the business, the values and the vision. But definitely, for me it was the scale and dynamism that was compelling and although I’m new to the business and still learning, the mission and strategy has already been well defined. So, as HR Director, my mission is to deliver on that and taking responsibility for the fourth pillar of the strategy, which is called SMILE.
I would say it is developmental – certainly not mature yet. Post-COVID, all cultures will have to reflect a new way of working and there will be elements of the existing culture, combined with the new that are in development. At its heart, a culture has to radiate human interaction and combine empathy and understanding with passion and drive for the business journey. Everybody I speak with in the business, across the warehouse and in the boardroom, genuinely cares about the business and there’s an understanding that we all have to be adaptable, agile and supportive. We call ourselves “Asendians” and there is an amazing sense of belonging and loyalty to this company that you don’t ordinarily see in this sector. When a firm has this realness and genuine authenticity, it should be celebrated, because it’s so compelling and plays a massive role in attraction, engagement, loyalty and retention, which in a sector renowned for its high attrition, is a major advantage.
Having the SMILE pillar is useful, because I can refer to it in context with the future plans of the business and it supports the change and disruption. Right now, I’m covering a lot of ground and focusing on learning and development, increasing awareness around diversity and inclusion and creating the place that really gives that employee-value proposition, so people genuinely want to come and work here. Ultimately, we want Asendia to be a great place to work and that is definitely my ambition, as is understanding what motivates people, understanding the challenges and responsibilities in their lives and galvanising that engagement. Nearly 60 percent of our staff work in the warehouse and collectively, they kept the operation going throughout the pandemic. They are all amazing individuals and genuinely take pride in what they do. Where there’s lots of passion and commitment, there is a great basis on which to build, but you cannot take anything for granted. You cannot keep moving forward and leave important HR elements to their own devices, they must be considered, addressed, worked on and adapted.
Very much so, that danger is always there and always has been. How often do we hear that a business is not the same since, say, the merger or buyout? For me, it’s definitely around constantly making sure that people understand where we are and where we’re going and what part they’re playing. An annual keynote from the CEO simply doesn’t cut it, it has to be communicated and validated, with clarity and transparency over vision, mission and certainty on the vital elements that join the dots. But importantly, it’s about putting people in that picture and making sure that there is inclusivity in the availability of learning, development and movement, so that people can meet their ambitions, though accepting of course that some people are quite happy to stay where they are. That’s why individualism is so fundamental, rather than a blanketed, prescriptive approach which usually leads to alienation. There is also a balance to be struck between psychological safety and stretching people outside of their comfort zone. Going back to how my role is developing, I’m increasingly looking right across the business to ensure that, as leaders, we hold ourselves accountable, demonstrate true role-modeling behaviours and keep listening.
No doubt it’s been a period of phenomenal change, a real gamechanger. But as a business, you cannot hide from change, you can’t hold the status quo if it is irrelevant to changing situations. Take Brexit, which was massive to our sector and everything has changed, from policies to ways of operating. I reflected on that – what the key takeaways and learnings are – and inevitably, there is definitely a clear case for providing greater support for change. We need to equip people better. Fortunately, flexibility is in our DNA and I don’t think that will ever go away. Being able to adapt very quickly is something that we can generally focus on more and develop those skills. We can only assume constant change and disruption that we will have to adapt to without losing visibility and momentum in our objectives. Times are challenging so we need to invest in building resilience and that brings into frame the wellbeing agenda and the support around mental, physical and financial wellbeing is really important. It’s about communication and clarity and it’s also about creating that experience of a great place to work in which people genuinely feel happy in. A culture that must radiate out to the talent that we must continue to attract into the business.
No question, the environmental agenda is critical to the future. Every business has an inescapable responsibility to consider the environment. For years, we’ve worked together in partnership with the Woodland Trust through their Woodland Carbon Scheme and we’re striving to mitigate our carbon footprint by ensuring that we’re planting native trees right here in the UK. We have already planted trees on an area the size of 35 football pitches, locking up carbon and creating habitats for wildlife. As part of the global company, we are part of an overarching plan that includes taking a big step by mitigating the carbon fuel emissions by 100 percent in 2022. One of the projects that we are really proud of are wind turbine farms in China that we have built and, looking at the long journey, the logistics network is gearing up to take more responsibility for its impact on the environment. The greater awareness is encouraging and we’re determined to play our part. In terms of changing expectations, we are an increasingly diverse organisation – we have five different generations and 23 different nationalities – and we’re improving all the time because we are genuinely embracing and supporting differences. We know the type of talent we want to attract and that is people from the widest possible diversity of backgrounds, to bring a rich collection of knowledge and experience into the business. In terms of difficulty in recruitment, by far the biggest challenge is the IT skill shortage – as it is for everyone and it’s such an acute problem – and so we’re planning to create our own pipeline, to develop from within. In terms of future attraction, there’s so many different levels to consider, particularly as the hybrid workforce takes shape. It will be a challenging balance as we transition into the new normal. We’re working hard to promote our proposition as a logistics organisation to the younger generation, because it’s not an industry that tends to be on their radar, but as leading-edge technology increasingly supersedes our operation, we need to shout louder. We currently have 30 percent shortages in the warehouse and the current resourcing crisis is predicted to grow worse.
It will no doubt be an era of both challenge and opportunity and we take a very optimistic and pragmatic approach and see it as a new set of policies and procedures, but giving more freedom on the global map. When I talk to the group’s Chief People Officer in Switzerland, there is definitely a positive flow of energy. On a resourcing and career level, I see the future as providing some exciting opportunities as we open up to the world. From an operational point of view, end-to-end we’re an increasingly digital business and have seen global online sales grow 11 percent year-on-year, in this quarter. Let’s not forget too, Europe hasn’t gone away and is definitely full of opportunities and further growth. Our focus, in terms of business growth, is to build sales, develop new relationships with customers and third-parties and continue to improve our operations. In terms of Brexit itself, I am glad to say the business hasn’t been affected, because we have been really prepared in advance. I’m confident that we are ready, we are agile enough and we have the business continuity plans in place to be able to adapt to changing situations. Despite the distractions and challenges, growth is at the top of our business plans agenda and we are ready.
I look back at my career and I think I’ve always thrived and become restless when things were stagnant. Is it just me? I don’t think so! Change is good because it requires that you do something to meet it and that is stimulating and forces you to think about how something can be improved. It’s been interesting to see how different businesses have reacted over the past two years and it shows that some could adapt to making those changes more successfully and quicker. The pandemic has been a terrible time for so many people, but what we all must do is learn, reflect and make sure that the future is a brighter place. We also need to be more accepting, that none of us are perfect and we don’t always get it right. We’re not machines, we’re human and that needs to be celebrated. As I look ahead and think about what the business is planning to do and the main ambitions from an HR input point of view, without a doubt it is supporting the business growth and that means delivering the plans through attracting and developing the right skills, but equally balancing this up with supporting diversity and ensuring equality and inclusion. We need to make sure that we continue to develop the capabilities of our people and give them the confidence to forge their own destinies, with resilience and agility. As we’ve touched on, there’s a shortage of key skills and rather than playing the victim to this reality and wringing our hands, we need to take responsibility and invest the time and resources to shaping our internal career and development paths and build a reliable and sustainable pipeline of talent. As I look towards the future, we have to be pragmatic and open to the fact that change will be the constant. But what I have learnt, above all else during my time in HR, is that you stand a better chance of succeeding if you take people with you and so we must allow ourselves and them to be human.