How do you keep staff motivated? How do you…survive? Lastminute.com’s chief of culture Stuart Bagnell and UNLEASH editor Jon Kennard discuss this and much more in our latest interview.
Check out the the audio above, or the full transcript beneath…
Jon Kennard: Stuart, thank you so much for talking to UNLEASHcast. Today, we’re going to be talking about last minute.com and the last couple of years and culture and all these kind of incredible things that you’ve been dealing with really.
First, let’s set the scene a bit. The last couple of years has obviously been an interesting one for last minute.com. But you’ve found some great ways of addressing and approaching the situation that we’ve all been in. So could you talk a little bit about that?
Stuart Bagnall: The travel industry in itself has really struggled over the last few years, I think. And although I think we’re coming out the other side of it, it was a real challenge for our people, it was a real challenge for our customers. We went from what we call ‘a booking engine’, to then having to deal with an uncomprehending amount of cancellations literally overnight.
So, we weren’t prepared for that in terms of systems, processes, resources, people. And then, we’re trying to manage the workforce all at the same time, communicate with them effectively. And, managing things like fellow worker reduction schemes as they started to emerge, and we started to need to utilize them.
So it’s been a strange couple of years, I think. We started to see peaks last year where travel felt like it was it was coming back. But now we’re very influenced by the media – all it would take for someone like Boris Johnson to drop restrictions, and then we just see bookings start to change and cancel all over again. So it’s very much a roller coaster for us.
But, in terms of what we did as a company to manage and support our people, we took a very transparent and rapid communication response approach. I think like a lot of other companies in terms of internal comms, we would very much supplement our group-wide communications with local in person all-hands and roadshows.
And so it was great for leaders visiting different offices, great for engagement, obviously, but the downsides were cost and time and resource and it can really delay and slow down the impact of comms, but, when the pandemic hit, and we had to activate everyone through remote working, which I think only took us around 11 days, because we’d had some smart working and stuff like that in the past which was great.
But, we had to completely adapt the communication program. And we did that with the CEO. And it was great. I mean, we were running weekly Q&A sessions live through workplace, which were fantastic. And it was very much no question, no holds barred, we’d talk about anything and everything.
I think the transparency with people, and giving them that sort of open forum with the most senior person in the business was crucial to its success.
So, we created a narrative with people, we set expectations where we could – and there was a lot of times when we were talking and there was nothing we could tell them that we hadn’t previously just told them, I mean nothing had changed, we’re still in this situation – but I think it was just about having an opportunity for people to join the sessions. I mean, we had participation. Looking back at the data, I think it was about 1000 people were joining these sessions every week, which I think is great in terms of numbers.
JK: It’s just great to hear such a focus on transparency, I think. Maybe you’re at an advantage in that you’re very much a customer-facing business anyway, so you understand the nature of good customer service. But it’s just great to hear that that’s going both ways. You’ve done the same thing for your people, and it’s obviously been really appreciated.
Let’s talk about wellbeing a little bit as well. So, what things did Lastminute.com put in place to keep the focus on wellbeing because obviously, it was an incredibly disruptive – and less so maybe for other reasons now – time for people. So what was your thinking? And what were your actions around this?
SB: In terms of what I think of wellbeing [as] one of these topics, I think there was some attention on it before the pandemic hit, but I think the spotlight really, really did hit it, and we were subsidizing our communication programs with an initiative led by our people. So we created what we called the ‘Be Well’ campaign, and the goal was really to create and provide support and resources that helped our people overcome the negative aspects of what they were experiencing.
I think having everyone sat at desks fully remote, not being able to go out or do anything, it was tough. But our people are great. I mean, they really came together. And they’ve got a real pink spirit. That’s what we call it. And people were running various sorts of initiatives themselves. We had people doing fitness workouts, yoga sorts of things.
There were some people doing stuff at the weekends, which was unusual. We had a colleague who ran a drawing class for people’s kids, because they were like, ‘look, I’ve got children, and I know you guys have got children, it’s a nice distraction, maybe if they’re doing that you can go off as a parent, and have a moment of breathing space to yourself.’
But it was all about how can we help people manage their anxiety, and we switched our engagement survey from being focused heavily on engagement to wellbeing. I think we ran it in May and November twice to understand actually, are these actions having an impact? How are people feeling? And yeah, it just became purely about wellbeing. And the score? I think, with wellbeing and doing measurement, in that sense, is we had some quite good scores, and so people were saying, Actually, I am okay.
But what we realized quite quickly, is that you need to say that’s great, ignore that group of people. And then say, can we identify these pockets of people who aren’t feeling particularly great, [who] may need some further support? And I think there was a lot of things that we did with our leadership team. Because for the leaders, it’s really important that we were meeting as a group and saying, ‘how are you guys coping? And what conversations are you having with your people?’
I think it’s very British to be saying to somebody, yeah, I’m fine. And that’s it. And then you just carry on talking about whatever it is that you’re talking about, but we’re really encouraging people to say, look, are you okay, but are you really okay, just having that reach-out, having that conversation. And, we’ve provided lots of training and resources for our people to make sure that they were equipped in dealing with that. I mean, it gets quite personal for some people quite quickly. And, some people aren’t necessarily comfortable having this conversation. So, for us as a people team, it was really important that we were supporting our managers and our leaders in that.
I suppose the only thing to add to that is – empathy is something that was a word bandied around a lot over the last year or so. And I think for one, it stands out from the rest. It’s one of our core attributes or competencies that we’ve been focusing on and identified pre-pandemic, but I think it was the one that for us stepped out at the forefront. And it’s ongoing.
We just finished running our last engagement survey in February, that blended engagement, wellbeing put a third layer into it, which is now diversity, equity inclusion, because I think there’s a lot of other factors that will contribute to wellbeing and mental health like that.
JK: That was going to be part of my last question, which was, you put these things in place, but then they become part of a strategy. So they become a longer-term aspect of your business. And another thing that I think people are very keen on, is making sure it’s embedded in a lot of companies and will improve, certainly, work-life balance is remote working. And the idea that now, you mentioned that you had some kind of smart working initiatives before the pandemic, but maybe that’s been accelerated. So what are the plans going forward with where you’re recruiting from, how you’re recruiting, [are you] really going for a kind of a hire from anywhere – work from anywhere [strategy]?
SB: There’s a lot that’s happened over the last year. And it’s kind of kicking off right now, actually, which, which is great. But I think one of the first things in terms of recruitment and talent acquisition, it’s quite hard at the moment, I think, particularly for companies, which are very much digital companies like us. I mean, we don’t own any travel products, so we’re pretty much a travel tech company.
Every company is now a tech company, I would say, in some way, shape or form.
So you’ve really got to strengthen and showcase your employer brand at every opportunity and highlight why it’s great to work at a company because the competition is so strong, but you said we’re really embracing this hybrid remote working model, in terms of smart working to get a wider pool of talent. And so we’re targeting or focusing on countries that we’ve never recruited in before, and taking full remote workers.
We just embarked on a project to recruit 100 technology profiles, so that we can try and grow the business. And we’re in the process of launching a recruitment campaign around that, which is the largest we’ve ever done as a company. I mean, we’ve never had to run a campaign for recruitment before, we’ve always been able to leverage our brand reputation, but the goalposts have massively shifted.
To give you an example, that I think was it last year, we will start at 25% of our technology team or profile and voluntarily, people are leaving because either uncertainty within staying in within the travel industry was a factor. But I think, the main reasons were growth opportunities, or an improvement in salary.
What we’ve actually tried to do is we focused on developing our what we’re calling our DVP, our digital value proposition, to really understand from our technology teams, what are your key reasons for moving to a company, what would really attract you and and we use this as kind of a foundation.
For us, they were telling us that being really meaningful about how we communicate impacts their role, will have externally was essential. And, growth was another element, what can they learn at our company that they’re not going to be able to learn elsewhere. And interestingly, one of the main other focus areas was [that] they want to be able to solve complex problems. So provide the opportunity to be able to collaborate in a way which is educational for them, solving problems in a technology world.
So we’re launching what we’re calling a ‘crack the code’ campaign using that as a basic framework, which basically is a competition where if people can crack a code by finding a hidden sentence in the website somewhere, they’d potentially win a holiday, so a little bit of PR, in very much a Lastminute.com style.
But yeah, so that’s kind of what’s happening in in the recruitment side of things. But again, it’s not enough in terms of the flexibility that people are looking for. So yes, it’s great that we’re running a campaign. But as of March, we’re experimenting with a shorter working week.
So we’ve given people Friday afternoons off, which is great, I mean, lift for the holidays. And then the Friday morning, we’re really outlet, because the feedback that we get from our engagement surveys, it’s always around folk’s career development and personal growth.
We’re dedicating the Friday morning to what we’re calling people to focus on deep work, or on their own personal learning and development. So it’s kind of a no-corporate-meeting mandate and stuff like that, which we hope will make a difference.
But during the week, we want to give people flexibility. So we’re also introducing core working hours, which mean basically, we will only look to run corporate meetings and events during the hours of european time (10-4) and then people have got flexibility to top and tail.
So if you want to take your kids to school, or you’ve got whatever you need to do, you can work when you need to work. So it’s more about delivering your outcome, but with a bit more flexibility around it. That’s kind of the experiment we’re running. We don’t know yet exactly how it’s going to work, we’re going to continuously evaluate it and understand, after the summer, how it’s actually working for the business.
JK: Great stuff. It’s great that businesses are now changing a lot of policies really becoming people centric. It’s an amazing story. And it seems like lastminute.com have really got some some great strategies and ideas in place for the future. So Stuart, thanks so much for talking to us.
SB: You’re very welcome. Thanks for having us. And yeah, nice to speak to you.