Workday Podcast: HR and Shifting to a Culture of Agility

Becky Woodmansee, HR director at Whitbread, the UK's largest operator of hotels and restaurants, talks about how Whitbread transformed HR and redefined its technology and culture to support 50,000 employees and a rapidly changing business model.

There’s a lot of talk about businesses becoming agile and embracing digital transformation, but how does that shift take place? Becky Woodmansee, HR director at Whitbread, the UK’s largest operator of hotels and restaurants, spoke to me about how the organization transformed HR and redefined its technology and culture to support a rapidly changing business model.

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If you’re more of a reader, below you’ll find the transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity. You can find our other Workday Podcasts here.

Steve Dunne: The phrase digital transformation is seemingly everywhere right now, and while it’s easy to get swept up with the noise, how do businesses go about truly embracing digital? I’m Steve Dunne from Workday, and today on the Workday Podcast, we’ll learn more about how one organization transformed HR, redefining its technology and culture to support a rapidly changing business model.

We’re joined by Becky Woodmansee, HR director of Whitbread, who is responsible for overall organizational strategy and leading technology enabled workforce transformation. Hi Becky, welcome.

Woodmansee: Hi. Good to be here.

Dunne: For some of our listeners that maybe don’t know, let’s start by talking a little bit about your role at Whitbread and what the company does.

Woodmansee: Of course. So, my job is HR transformation and shared services director at Whitbread. I’ll comment a little bit in a minute as to what that job involves. Whitbread as an organization is much better known by its high-street brands, so Premier Inn, which is a hotel chain, and also Costa Coffee, which is a coffee chain, as the name suggests. Costa is the second-largest coffee shop in the world and Premier Inn has grown quite rapidly internationally as well.

In terms of HR transformation director, I joined Whitbread two years ago and have been bought in to move us away from a series of legacy systems and old-fashioned technology and processes that we had toward a much more engaging offering for our colleagues.

Dunne: So, I know that Whitbread is an organization with real global scale. How do you start to think about the systems and processes that are agile enough to react to that change?

Woodmansee: When we looked at a new technology provider for our HR technology, that was one of the things that we were most keen to find. At Whitbread, we had gone through a lot of change. We last bought HR technology about 12 years ago, so it was a customized legacy system that I inherited and what we wanted was a much more agile system that was always the latest version of the technology. We got behind with the upgrades and were really looking for something that would drive agility by always being on the latest version and had the different elements of what we needed in an HR technology suite. We wanted that, as much as possible, under one roof rather than having a best-of-breed system where what we were finding was the integration points between, for example, a resourcing system and your core HCM system and payroll. Those integration points can really erode over time and not be that effective to use. That was quite important to us as well.

Dunne: A lot of the companies that we’ve been speaking to this week have talked a lot about the race for talent—getting the right people and so on. It’s a bit of a jungle out there in terms of talent management, so how do you start thinking about how you win that battle for the best talent?

Woodmansee: Yeah, it’s really important to our business. We have over 50,000 employees, and we’re always hiring. It’s the nature of our sector. So, for us, it’s about being really focused on the gaps that you have in your talent portfolio. It’s about understanding how you have quite a unique offering and attracting a very specific workforce population to your organization. So rather than being scattered, it’s about getting really clear on where you have gaps and where you need to find talent for your future strategy, and then focusing on what you need and not worrying too much about what everyone else is doing with their own talent strategies.

So, for us, we tend to focus on making sure that we have a proposition that appeals to everybody, but we’re particularly interested in attracting people who perhaps have had some kind of career break, or people who have had their career, but would like to continue to work perhaps past normal retirement age or in the later stages of their working life. We’ve got an offering that can suit people who might be on their second career.

Dunne: Sure. In terms of that, how important is employee engagement at Whitbread? What are some of the mechanisms used to keep such a large, diverse workforce motivated in doing that job?

Woodmansee: So, employee engagement for us is at the heart of what we need to have in order to be a great business, serving our customers really well. So, if you think about your experience when you go into a hotel or coffee shop, what you’re expecting is great customer service.If you come across somebody who’s clearly quite disengaged, then you’re unlikely going to shop that product again. So, from our point of view, employee engagement is massively important to us.

In terms of how HR technology—and Workday specifically—can help us with that, we’re very keen on Workday because it really puts control back into the employees’ hands, so they can do things for themselves. It’s familiar—very similar to social media platforms that people are already used to working with—so there isn’t a fear factor for any of our workers who perhaps are not that familiar with technology or might not use that much technology other than on their own mobile phone. It’s a really accessible product, and that helps us build employee engagement because people are in control, they can update their personal information or set goals for themselves around what they would like to achieve from their work, and they can interact with it as much or as little as they wish.

Dunne: That’s really interesting. Moving on from that, we’ve talked quite a lot this year about the “death of the annual review,” but how do you see the debate around continuous performance management versus that once- or twice-a-year feedback loop as it currently exists?

Woodmansee: It’s such a debate, isn’t it? And we debate it as much as any other organization. We think that having clear goals that we set for our whole organization and then having each employee play a part in [achieving those goals] is still going to be important in how we deliver value to our shareholders for the foreseeable future.What we like about Workday is that it removes the paper. It means a real-time conversation between a line manager and an employee, and not necessarily having to write down every last detail of each goal or the progress toward each one.  It can be captured on the phone or laptop as they’re having the conversation, and then it’s done.

So, it removes an administrative burden from both the employee and the line manager, but without going quite as far as entirely removing the annual appraisal. Actually, what some organizations do that we’re really at the forefront of in removing the appraisal processes is that actually the performance review did have more of a motivating effect than they realized and actually it was quite employee-led in some cases. So actually, I would like some kind of recognition for my performance this year, and particularly high performance, which are obviously the people that you need to develop more and more of within your organization, really do value that.

So, the debate goes on. We are part of that debate for sure, but for now, we think a technology enabled performance and goal-setting process is what’s right for our organization.

Dunne: Thinking about the path to the future then, we’re starting to see, obviously, machine learning, and people are talking a lot about artificial intelligence slowly shifting into the workplace. What impact do you think technology will have on the future of work, and more specifically, on the role of HR as well?

Woodmansee: Well, I think there’s no doubt whatsoever that the future looks like one where a lot of low-level tasks can be removed from roles and in the main, I would see that as something that is potentially quite enriching because it means that the remaining work is more interesting. In terms of robotics, for example, we can see some applications for that in all different aspects of our business, but we’re also noting that technology itself is not necessarily ready yet to deploy in a very radical way. So, I think what we will do is watch and see and then naturally, as things become more mainstream, we’ll probably find that we’ll then adopt those things, but probably more as a market follower than a market leader when it comes to AI.

It’s a big investment, and we want to make sure that we’re getting a return on that investment.

Dunne: So is there still work to do?

Woodmansee: Absolutely.

Dunne: Thinking about the future in terms of talent and skills, I know your Wise program has brought more than 2,000 apprentices through since its inception. What are your views on the emerging workforce and how you keep them motivated about the company for the long-term?

Woodmansee: Well, again, if I take our hotel business primarily as an example, we want to be seen as a place where there are really no barriers to entry and no limits to people’s ambition. So, you can join a hotel and be in a very entry-level position, such as housekeeping or in our restaurant, and through our apprenticeship scheme have a structured career path that can take you reasonably rapidly through to hotel management positions. It’s a massive opportunity for us where we are at the forefront—before the apprenticeship levy was introduced in the UK, anyway. I think it is important that apprenticeships are seen not just as being for people when they leave school, for example. Yes, it is a critical pathway into work and a meaningful career, but [internships] can apply to people at all different points in their career,  and be a great way to accelerate development and get onto the ladder, into a new profession, and hotels are a great example of that.

Dunne:I can’t have a conversation without mentioning digital transformation from an HR perspective. Obviously many other organizations are talking about digital transformation, but very few are actually getting on the road. As an HR exec who has successfully navigated that digital minefield, can you give us some insight into how you go about making that journey real?

Woodmansee: Oh gosh, where do you start with a question like that? In terms of actually building the business case for a transformation, I think you have to be really clear about how this is actually going to drive the bottom line of your business, significantly increase engagement, or significantly improve productivity. When I started out on this journey, I was actually new to the organization and somewhat cynical about whether the transformation journey that we would need to go on really needed to be technology enabled or whether actually it was more about process simplification, for example.

But, actually in our case, when I looked at the length of time it was taking us to make adjustments in our business in order to keep up with change—for example, in our sector, or commercial opportunities that we wanted to go after as a business—there was actually a drag effect on our business from not being able to adapt our core HR system quickly enough.

So, I think it’s about being clear about what you really need to deliver and why, and really holding true to that. So, when you then start making your business case, you have to keep coming back to when you’re looking at these wonderful products, such as Workday, and you’re in the RFP phase, being very honest with yourself about whether this is really going to deliver what we are looking for, and then that discipline probably continues throughout the journey. So, as you then go into later phases of the deployment, you need to understand your business and what you want to get out of it, and make sure you have the right amount of time to deliver what you need rather than being led too much by the SI partners or by Workday in terms of your deployment timelines.

You’ve just got to own the journey. You’ve got to see it as being there to deliver for your business. You need to have that confidence to hold true to what you were doing in the first place. When the going gets tough, which inevitably it will with any technology transformation, you need to have that at the heart of what you’re doing.

Dunne: Finally, any advice for organizations embarking on similar projects? Things that you would or wouldn’t do again if you were moving toward that journey?

Woodmansee: I definitely think there’s something about making sure you have a very clear partnership with all the organizations that are going to be involved in the change. I set up our Executive Governance group, comprised of our payroll provider, Workday, our SI partner, and Whitbread as a business at a very senior executive level. What that did for us is made sure that everybody was really clear on what the business case was and what we were looking to deliver, and I definitely would advocate that other organizations consider a similar approach in terms of just bringing all the parties. Workday doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s going to be integrated with the rest of your organization’s IT infrastructure. You will have other large systems providers; therefore, the system might be receiving information from. Having that in mind as you set out and really thinking about how you’re going to make the best of it and optimize all of those systems together is quite critical.

In terms of things I wouldn’t do again— certainly allow enough contingency. These are expensive programs to implement. Every day counts when you’ve got a large deployment team, so making sure you have a realistic level of contingency in your budget is always a good thing. Then, hopefully you won’t go too far wrong.

Dunne: That’s all we have time for today. I want to thank Becky Woodmansee from Whitbread for joining us at the Workday Podcast. If you’d like to hear more, please subscribe to our podcast. I’m Steve Dunne, and thanks for listening.

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