A View from Asda: Aligning The People Strategy With The Business Strategy To Drive Commercial Success

by Sarah Cullen

Senior Vice President – Chief People Officer at Asda, Hayley Tatum, speaks to Marlin Hawk in this two-part interview about aligning the customer and colleague experience, measuring the commercial impact of HR and the effects of the Covid-19 crisis.

During her more than 20-year retail career with two of the UK’s largest supermarkets, Hayley believes in the value of looking after your colleagues so they can look after your customers. Some of the key initiatives that are part of Asda’s people strategy that we discussed with Hayley are: creating a flexible working environment, addressing the gender pay gap, offering equal employment opportunities for all, and bringing relevant and new technologies into the employee learning cycle.

Hayley also shares her views on the Covid-19 crisis; the way organisations are acting now influences their reputation with colleagues over the long-run and how we have accelerated flexible working practices forward that could have otherwise taken years to achieve.

How does the people strategy at Asda align with the overall business strategy?

Asda is a large employer and a passionate service provider both online and in our stores. We believe colleagues are our most powerful brand ambassadors, therefore hiring great talent to join us is important and we are very clear we hire for attitude and we train for skill. Our customer profile and our colleague profile are quite similar, and that isn’t always the case in retail. You can have shop workers who serve people whose lives are very different to their own. In our business, that proximity of lifestyle is close which really makes a difference. We consider our colleagues to be our customers, they live in the neighbourhoods we serve and are part and representative of those communities.

The people strategy is inextricably linked to our strategic goals and ambitions. With clear decisions on where customers prefer self-service and those areas and moments where they prefer to have colleague assistance. This guides us to train our colleagues to be as relevant as possible and flexible and available to match customer needs. Could you talk a little about whether this has always been the case for you at Asda?

Has it always been important that the colleague and customer experience are aligned and that the demographic is similar? Or has it become more important as a strategy over the past couple of years?

It has been for a very long time. If I listen to our longest serving colleagues, they will describe 25+ years ago, the Asda business – was struggling. At the time, the leadership team understood they needed to get their colleagues engaged in the business. They needed them to love serving customers. But they could not afford the best of everything - the best training, the best pay rises – because the business was not doing so well. So, they developed a highly effective, low cost employment proposition that focused on taking care of colleagues, listening to their views, and taking care of their basic needs. It sounds simple; after all it was about treating them as equals, with a shared voice in running the business rather than employees. A great deal of the legacy of today’s Asda culture started back then. The leadership team borrowed engagement ideas from other businesses; ironically including Walmart! Looking after your colleagues so they can look after your customers really is a sentiment that everyone here believes in but stems from a time when Asda could not compete with the hourly rate of its competitors. Asda had to engage their colleagues in a different way and did so very successfully.

Years later Asda has continued to go from strength to strength as part of the Walmart business. In fact, when Walmart bought Asda it is quoted that “this business is more Walmart, than Walmart”. The values were so strong in the organisation. The focus on customers and the care for colleagues was paramount. That was front and centre in the business and remains true to this day.

Have you seen growth in HR and the People function having an actual and measurable impact on company performance on the commercial side? Do you see that relationship with the commercial side of the business at Asda?

Although intuitively it makes absolute sense, it is very difficult to get a straight-line correlation that says, “treat your colleagues well and your customers will reward you with their custom and loyalty”. Despite some correlation, one does not seem to directly cause the other. However, in Asda we monitor leadership, which we can track a positive correlation to colleagues given an encouraging and inclusive environment to be confident, supported to ask questions, and able to make decisions for the customer in the moment. If you have a diverse team of colleagues that are led well then, yes, I believe you can see better performance. Of course, in recent weeks during the Covid-19 emergency customer and colleague safety has been prioritised above everything else. This attention has not had a direct commercial impact, but certainly has had a reputational influence which I believe in the long term will be reflected as best practice.

Are there any specific metrics by which you measure colleagues and teams in terms of how they feel supported?

We have quarterly engagement surveys, within these a number of questions roll up to an engagement index. We have also got the same with questions about leaders creating our Leadership Index. We have leadership indices for all our stores so we can see what difference each local line manager is making and compare that to others. We have also got our own dashboards and KPIs allowing us to spot patterns of performance. We’ll look at all business metrics – for example, our sales, NPS and shrink performance – and map these achievements against our engagement and leadership scores so we can find the connected stories between the best leaders and the outcomes in terms of commerciality and learning for the company. These are then shared across all our stores – whether you’re a Saturday worker all the way through to a Store Manager – our store teams are bonus-incentivised on local store performance so it’s in everybody’s interest to serve customers well and exceed local targets.

What does flexible working mean to you? You mentioned that Asda strives for flexible, engaged colleagues. How have you seen this affecting attraction and retention both in-store and at the corporate level at Asda?

Retail is a highly flexible industry. Most of our workers, and this has long been the case, work flexibly. There are many different contracts for colleagues needing flexibility - night shifts / day shifts, full time / part time, or just work weekends to suit other commitments. The very nature of serving the public, means as a business it is essential to have a flexible workforce. As a sector we know a lot about providing flexible shifts, whether that is working around school times, condensed contracts - working four longer shifts rather than five, weekend-only shifts to fit around full-time education or around a second job. On top of all of that, we then have opportunities to work from home, depending on the nature of the work to be done. We have a whole plethora of different opportunities of how our colleagues choose to work. Of course, it does change with the nature of the job given we are in a service industry. We must be available for our customers – when and where they need us to be! However, the number of hours you choose to do or how the rota is constructed and how that fits around children or caring responsibilities or personal fitness, for example we can make all that work with such busy lives. We have got a whole range of flexibility on offer, and I am pleased with how popular they are with our teams.

We have had great experience with stretching flexibility even further within our Technology team. It’s really an example of “anytime, anyplace, anywhere”. Over the school Summer holidays, we encouraged our five-day workers to choose the days they worked. We understand that childcare can be expensive. So, during the school holidays some of our working parents, work their shifts across weekends when they have more family help meaning they spend less on holiday childcare through the week. These initiatives have improved our employer brand; enabling us to attract much better-quality technology expertise than we have been able to previously. We now lead with our flexibility offer when we approach the digital capability market. I answered this pre COVID-19 which has in essence acted like a time machine accelerating already well-regarded flexible practices forward in a matter of weeks where I thought we might get to over a number of years!

All our central colleagues – approx. 3,500 – have been successfully working from home; and whilst many are also juggling childcare and home-schooling responsibilities the shift in attitudes is astonishing. As we begin to plan for a gradual release of lockdown measures, we are not wasting the lessons learned and will return to work in a very different way and to an environment reshaped to encourage ongoing blended work locations and practices.

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