Five Minutes with...Sue Yell, HRD at Warburtons

Five Minutes with...Sue Yell, HRD at Warburtons
Published: 25 May 2021

Warburtons is the largest bakery brand in the UK, employing nearly 5,000 people across their operations which produce over 2 million products every day. The past year has been a year like no other for the food and drink industry - keeping factories safe and operational during a pandemic, adapting to rapid changes in consumer behaviour and Brexit, being just a few of the challenges faced. But Warburtons has continued to flourish which is testament to its agile response. Katie Hart, consultant in Berwick Partners’ Consumer Practice, had the pleasure of speaking to Sue Yell, HR Director at Warburtons to discuss how the business adapted, the value of key workers, the power of solving issues with collective input and how the human side of all roles has been put sharply into focus.

The past year has brought new and unknown challenges to Exec Boards and HR leaders. At Warburtons, you’ve had the added complexity of having a workforce split between being based at home and in a 24/7 factory operation. What has the pandemic meant for your role and the HR function?

Where to start? COVID has brought challenges and opportunities and the world of work has fundamentally changed. For HR, the pandemic has been about business continuity and doing things differently, being more creative and delivering innovation. There have been so many external factors to take into consideration that ‘business as usual thinking’ has proven not to be enough in this very complex environment. In HR we need to be anticipating the needs of the business constantly which has proven more challenging. However, by putting in place effective interventions to support business transformation, such as enhancing new thinking and utilising the power of technology, we have still been able to fulfil this requirement. We have also had to pay special attention to the human side of change – we know that change trips up when the right level of attention has not been paid to people and communication. COVID has dehumanised the workplace to an extent, with social distancing, anxiety, etc. so it is essential for my team to now be paying particular attention to our working environments and the mental wellbeing of our people. For our key workers (our bakers and drivers) that have delivered amazingly, we need to recognise many will need a period to recover and process the past year. And for our home workers, we need to be conscious that there will be varying levels of confidence when returning to the office. We must be able to apply learnings from COVID to enable our head office colleagues to work smartly moving forward.

What has surprised you the most over the past 12 months and what have been your biggest learnings?

Three main things have surprised me, the first being how quickly the business has adapted. Warburtons is a traditional, long-established family business, so it has been astounding how quickly we adapted to remote working and how productive our people have been. Our use of technology has allowed us to inject more pace, make decisions quickly and collaborate at a much greater level. I feel that we achieved five years of change in five months.

The second surprise has been the resilience of our people and their ability to cope with immensely difficult circumstances (personally and professionally) and still deliver with an upbeat attitude. What they have achieved is amazing and it is essential that we recognise this across all levels and parts of our business. The third is the level of compassion that has been shown within the business. The attention managers have paid to people’s needs and the willingness to support each other has created a unifying effect. We have had so many colleagues going above and beyond to ensure the nation is fed. A sense of responsibility and care are values that are woven through our business, but the past 12 months have emphasised how much those values run through our people.

With respect to learnings, the first is the value of our key workers. Our business is very reliant on the quality of our products and our level of service which ultimately is delivered by our key workers - our bakers and drivers. Now, more than ever, that value is amplified, and we must continue to pay a lot of attention to their wellbeing, safety, and recovery as we try to get back to some sort of normality. You will get so much more out of people if you pay attention to the whole person and not just the transactional output – leaders that have done that well have been rewarded with outstanding work from their teams.

Another learning has been the importance of collaboration and the power of solving issues with collective input, knowledge and expertise from across the business. At a senior level, collaboration has never been stronger, and this, coupled with our clarity of purpose – to feed the nation and keep our people safe – has enabled us to make decisions at pace and meet ongoing demand.

What opportunities have emerged over the past 12 months and what will the business be doing differently with respect to people?

Like many businesses we see an opportunity to ‘Build Back Better’ and our principles include better utilisation of technology and working in a more agile way. The past 12 months have allowed us to embrace smart working earlier than we would have done. We will come together to collaborate, innovate or celebrate but outside of those occasions, we want our people to have greater choice and work where they are most productive. This also gives us the opportunity to present a more compelling talent proposition. Because we can be more flexible on where people are based, we can be more diverse in our talent pipeline, particularly when focusing on the next generation of talent. For example, we are developing our apprenticeships and working on an Engineering Academy.

We have also rolled out new HR technology and tools. COVID has allowed managers to culturally get used to receiving advice remotely, which would have taken longer to achieve in normal circumstances. We have also been delivering more L&D solutions remotely and training in a more flexible and accessible way, for example at weekends and evenings which has received very positive feedback. With our new technology, my HR team are able to deliver a better service which removes duplication of effort and allows us to focus on the value add.

The food manufacturing industry has been facing an unprecedented challenge with spikes in demand, shifts in consumer behaviour, keeping factories operational through a pandemic and Brexit. What do you believe these challenges have highlighted about the leadership skills required in food and drink manufacturing?

Today’s leaders need a broader set of skills. They must be able to demonstrate transformation skills and an ability to manage ambiguity where there is not a black and white answer. Collaboration and innovation are critical as well as a relentless focus on the customer and consumer needs.

Maintaining effective relationships, compassion, care, and appreciation for people is of utmost importance. Vulnerability has been a big thing over the past year. Leaders have not had all the answers when needed and they have had to accept that with the amount of uncertainty, they were not always going to get everything right. I have noticed an increase in humility and a greater willingness to ask for help and support when needed, which I think has positively improved collaboration.

Do you believe the pandemic will have lasting effects on the role of HR within food manufacturing? If so, how?

COVID has demonstrated the value of people functions. We have been looked to for guidance and direction and we will have to continue to play a pivotal role to ensure business needs are met, plus those of the individual. Demand for transformation, growth and innovation has never been greater, but the human side of all roles has been put sharply into focus. We must therefore intensify engagement efforts and the focus on health and wellbeing if we are to successfully re-establish the human bond that has been missing through the pandemic. It is essential that we build back better in a way that leverages our values and doesn’t negatively impinge on them – we cannot lose the pride and engagement that people say they have in working for Warburtons. We will accelerate transformation through people for long-term success.

For more information please contact Katie Hart, Consultant in our Consumer Practice.

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