Primark: Fashioning the Future of HR in the Retail Workplace

At our Workday Elevate Digital Experience 2021 in the UK, fashion retailer Primark shared how it brought together effective HR approaches and technology to move with agility, engage with employees, and prepare for the future.

Discussing HR’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Leena Nair, chief human resources officer (CHRO) at Unilever, wrote in a recent McKinsey article that we’re all in the same storm, just sailing different boats, and we all have to adjust and adapt to the requirements of our business. But what does that mean to the office of the CHRO?

At the Workday Elevate Digital Experience 2021 in the UK, Mark Judd, vice president of product strategy, EMEA, at Workday, spoke to Lorraine Culligan, group director of people and culture, and Ian Lynch, head of people systems at Primark, a fashion retailer headquartered in Dublin. They discussed a number of HR-specific trends, including maintaining business continuity during the pandemic, nurturing diversity and belonging, the future of talent, and developing an agile and distributed workforce. Here are excerpts from their discussion, edited for clarity.

Could we start by giving our readers who are unfamiliar with Primark some background on the business and what it does?

Culligan: Primark is part of Associated British Foods (ABF). We’re very different to the other businesses that sit under the ABF umbrella, predominantly because we’re a fashion retailer. We have the mantra of “amazing fashion at amazing prices.” Our buying teams are constantly innovating and bringing affordable fashion to our customers in the markets in which we operate. We have 391 stores today, across 13 countries, with approximately 70,000 colleagues.

As a high-street fashion retailer, I can imagine the last 12 months have been particularly difficult for you. How have you managed the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Culligan: It’s been a challenge, as it has been for so many businesses. There was no handbook for how you deal with a pandemic of this nature, but we’ve really dug deep into our culture and our values in terms of how we support our people. 

The majority of our colleagues are within our retail network. We also have colleagues working in our supply chain depot, and then we have our head office and regional office colleagues. Our colleagues working in retail have essentially been in and out of lockdown, at home for a majority of the time, while our head office colleagues have continued to work. So we’re dealing with different audiences, but it’s been about how we’ve communicated and engaged with our colleagues, and the great work by our leaders to make sure that engagement has been meaningful.

“We’ve really dug deep into our culture and our values in terms of how we support our people.” 

Lorraine Culligan Group Director of People and Culture Primark

Primark is a very physical business in terms of our managers running around the shop floors, and we love nothing better than to be at our head office collaborating. But that’s been taken away from us, and we’ve been living in a virtual world. It’s a world where we can’t look at somebody in the eye face-to-face, give them a hug, give them a handshake, and we’re learning to connect with each other in different ways. 

And then there has been ensuring their overall well-being. How we look after our colleagues — the care, compassion, and doing all of that in a virtual landscape — certainly has been challenging. Having said that, we’ve learned an awful lot over the last year.

That’s a lot to deal with. Ian, given the picture Lorraine has just painted, with remote workers and the need for engagement, how important has technology been in delivering all of that?

Lynch: I don’t think we could ever have anticipated that technology would play such an important role as it has in the last year. Moving all of our head offices and regional offices to working remotely within the space of a week, and then everybody moving on to video calls and video meetings, was a big test for our technology network. 

“Resilience and the agility of our technology have never been more important than they were this year.” 

Ian Lynch Head of People Systems Primark

I think from an HR technology perspective, it’s been important having information at hand in one place to be able to recognise where we have people, what information we need to share, and what information we need to send in terms of emergency messaging. Having the technology to be agile to react to changing circumstances daily was absolutely crucial. At a point, circumstances were changing daily in different countries, even within specific regions of individual countries. That meant we had to react very, very quickly. Resilience and the agility of our technology have never been more important than they were this year.

Belonging and diversity are two areas the office of the CHRO has been doubling down on over the last 12 months. Can you tell us a bit about Primark’s approach and what the priorities will be as you resume business as usual?

Culligan: I think it all really comes under the banner of inclusion, and certainly within Primark, inclusion is a huge part of what we do, particularly as we think about the future. We’ve ambitious plans, but with those business plans obviously comes the people plan to support that. As we think about inclusion, that means looking at how we develop our leaders for the future, how we develop our managers for the future, how we spot talent within the organisation, how we open up conversations and communication in a more meaningful way, and how we reach our colleagues on the shop floor. Technology is a huge enabler, because if you’re in a store with 1,000 colleagues, empowering one leader to have a conversation with that volume of people can be difficult. So, how we use technology to communicate with people is a big piece in that consideration. 

When we think about well-being, how do we support our colleagues in a meaningful way? There are so many considerations, and what gives me huge pride is the emphasis that’s put on the people agenda and the support we have from our CEO. That’s an absolutely critical piece for me as we lead and come out the other side.

If you had to give me the top considerations for somebody looking to invest in a digital strategy that puts people at the core, what would you say they were?

Lynch: I think it’s about recognising that the digital native workforce already has consumer-grade technologies at home, and when they come to work, they look for the same in their workplace. 

It’s also the balance of not losing that human touch around how you communicate. As Lorraine just said, for our 1,000-colleague stores, how do we do that in a human way while using technology? Learning through digital, supporting well-being, as Lorraine said, and sharing that on a digital experience are all really important. It’s still got to be about the end-user experience, and one of my big focus areas in the next year will be looking at our technology through the end-user experience lens.

Watch Primark’s session at Workday Elevate and learn more about how the retailer is working with Workday to drive HR transformation.

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