Berwick Partners were delighted to speak with Amanda Cox, Stores & People Director of Dunelm, one of the UK’s leading retail brands about her experiences and learnings through the COVID-19 crisis. Alka Gandhi, spoke with Amanda about both the role of HR and the opportunities that the pandemic has created. Having spent 15 years at Asda, latterly as Vice President People she joined the business in 2015. Amanda believes that future success lies in businesses being braver and willing to do the right thing – balancing both customer and employee experience.
COVID-19 has brought new and unknown challenges to Exec Boards and HR leaders. What has the pandemic meant for your role and function as a whole, and what has surprised you the most?
I would compare the experience to one of ‘walking a tight rope’. The word ‘unprecedented’ has taken on a life of its own, but that’s because there are very few words that fully describe what we are facing - both economically and personally, certainly for this generation. Experienced leaders have been forced to make unbelievable decisions and - to some extent - learn new areas on the job.
From a HR perspective, I think this crisis has highlighted the relevance and importance of people and their roles within organisations irrespective of job title. The last four months have been all about people; doing the right thing, helping people, listening to colleagues, customers and suppliers. This has meant that attitude and approach have been more important than ever and as such, it has brought the ‘people function’ to the top of the agenda.
We have been forced to leverage and maximise the resources and the communication tools which engage our people and learn to fully empower them – a forced but very positive action. The crisis brought so many issues to the forefront at great speed, removing the usual luxury of a ‘normal deliberating period’. We had to trust our people and give them more autonomy to respond, which has resulted in great agility. This has been wonderful to see.
What has surprised me is the sense of community that was formed so quickly, particularly within our stores. Colleagues have really come together, creating a sense of camaraderie and collaboration. It has been amazing to see managers empower their teams and the number of people who have flourished as a result, especially at such a challenging time. I have been impressed by the agility and speed to make things happen.
Do you believe the pandemic will have lasting effects on the role of HR within businesses? If so, how?
Absolutely. This crisis has pushed us to question several areas, not least of which is future working and the role of our offices. From my perspective, HR will also need to look at how we build upon the collaboration and empowerment that managers have created within our business. HR cannot ignore the fact that the pandemic has impacted the beliefs and behaviours of colleagues and what is important to them moving forward.
We shouldn’t ignore the fact that as well as going through a global health crisis, we are also going through a diversity crisis. One which will change the timing and framework in which HR leaders work going forward. HR will be placed at the heart of business decisions and how businesses drive future change.
Dunelm stores were closed for three months, and after trading continued via the ecommerce business. What challenges did that bring and what opportunities have emerged?
We made the conscious decision to close all our operations as we went into lockdown. The priority for us was the safety of our people and customers. Whilst stores remained closed, we did recommence our ecommerce operations. For us the key was to have clarity in our internal communications. People wanted - and understandably needed – reassurance, across several areas. There are businesses that have done this well, and others not so well. It was important for us that our internal comms strategy did not adopt a ‘broadcast’ style, but more of a ‘conversation’. The emphasis was very much on connectivity and genuine dialogue; having real time conversations as things have evolved.
As any retailer will know, re-opening stores was not an easy task. However, our commitment to conversational internal comms meant that, for us, it was relatively painless. We worked hard to take people on the journey with us whilst listening to their concerns - your people must trust you.
Retail has always been a challenging and fast-evolving sector, that has required skilled leaders. What do you believe the crisis has highlighted about leadership in retail – good and bad?
- The need for leaders and future leaders to be able to move comfortably between operating at a strategic level to ‘getting their hands dirty’; operationally making it happen.
- ‘Servant leadership’ where trust and empowerment are given. Listening and responding to colleagues who serve the customers. Many leaders have been caught out as a result of failing to grasp this.
- Emotional intelligence
- Recognition and a willingness to respond to the societal issues that are taking place.
- A shift to a more localised and empowered management approach. For example, a rise in the level of accountability to store managers to make tailored and impactful decisions for their customers.
Looking back over the past three months – what has been your biggest learning?
How much is truly possible if you get rid of bureaucracy! Through this crisis I have seen many positive outcomes:
- Rapid development opportunities for our people.
- Increased collaboration and support amongst colleagues despite remote working.
- Our people are more adaptable and capable than we realise.
- The crisis has forced us to move faster with innovation that helps our customer; try new ideas and ‘deliberate’ less.
We have an opportunity to be braver in our work and in doing so, unlock the potential of our people. Ultimately, we need to do the right thing – balance the customer and colleague experience. This is where future success lies.