Long reads

How are people teams responding to coronavirus? ...Waterstones

16 Apr 2020 By Jenny Roper

People Management finds out what employers are doing to tackle the logistical, financial and staff wellbeing implications of the global pandemic

The organisation

Waterstones is a high street bookseller with 295 bookshops, including Foyles, Hatchards, Hodges Figgis and branches in Ireland, Brussels and Amsterdam. Waterstones is the only national specialist book retailer of scale in the UK, employing over 3,000 booksellers. Recent bookshop openings include Victoria (London), Hove, Silverburn (Glasgow), and moves to new locations in Guildford and Kensington. Waterstones supports the Waterstones Children’s Laureate and awards the prestigious The Waterstones Children’s Book Prize, now in its sixteenth year and voted for by Waterstones’ expert booksellers.

Impact on the business

In mid-March Waterstones was already seeing some store closures as a result of “a significant decline in footfall in those locations”, reports HR director Andy Stephenson. This was particularly the case for shops located on university campuses, for example.

It was clear from this point that the business would need to furlough booksellers if redundancies were to be avoided. “In the normal course of events if demand had dropped that much we would have been in a place where we were looking at redundancies,” says Stephenson. “One of the interpretations we took early on, which we think is completely morally right, is we looked at how many people we would have to cut from the workforce and compared it to the number of people we had in vulnerable categories [particularly at risk of Covid-19 infection].

“We took a view at that point to furlough all the people who were vulnerable because it was broadly equal to the number of redundancies we would have made. We then redeployed people around the organisation.”

This constituted the first wave of furlough activity. A few days later, it became apparent the business “needed to furlough the bulk of [its] estate” because of further  shop closures, says Stephenson. Now the firm has placed 94 per cent of its workforce on the government’s job retention scheme.

Furlough criteria and staff contacts database cleansing

Fortunately, the HR team realised early on as part of its first wave of furlough activity the importance of criteria for who would be temporarily laid off – this meant this was all in place ready for the second more significant wave. “One of the bits I’d most advocate is anything you do should be done, as with any good HR activity, in a structured manner,” says Stephenson. “So we created a furlough policy adapted from our redundancy one, which very much showed how we would select people for furlough.”

Stephenson adds: “We did an exercise to check what email details we had across the whole estate. About 30 per cent of the email contact details we had in the company were correct personal ones. So 70 per cent of addresses were solely an internal email address which wouldn't work when they were furloughed, or they were out of date or incorrectly formatted. Fortunately over a couple of days we managed to correct pretty much the entire database.”

Initial communication

It is critical any business furloughing staff communicates this well to employees, advises Stephenson. All Waterstones colleagues were sent a template of the new agreement to sign and a letter explaining the scheme in detail. “The letter is very much the reassuring things you would want to say to people about the fact they are still employed, we are still a viable business and we’re looking to protect their jobs,” says Stephenson.

The HR team utilised existing capability within the business, getting the marketing function to send this information out “en masse but in a very data-protected” manner: “So everyone got a nice letter, a very comprehensive agreement, a very detailed  Q&A as much as we were able to at that point, and instructions on how to send it back to us.”

The team anticipated lots of questions and push-back, but were pleasantly surprised most staff only expressed praise for how quickly and clearly the changes had been communicated. “In fact the most common question that came up was: ‘how do I claim my furlough payment?’ So it isn’t abundantly clear to people that we pay them, so for our final wave of people we put that in the Q&A,” reports Stephenson.

“There were also questions on: ‘can I volunteer, particularly for the NHS?’ So we’ve again made that clear. We also got questions around: ‘can I do some work?’ So there are lots of  people who desperately want to do work for the organisation and in line with the legislation we’ve been really clear they can’t.” In fact so strict is this rule, Waterstones has made it clear to staff they’re not even allowed to upload book reviews online during this period.

Holiday accrual and other benefits

“The other question was: what happens with holidays?” says Stephenson. “We decided we will allow people’s holidays to accrue. We’re effectively using a flexible version of forced holiday. So we will be giving people notice they... must have used x per cent by this point.” 

The business also made it clear in its initial letter that it might have to retract discretionary benefits such as car allowances at some point, depending on how long the furlough period needed to last for.

Ongoing comms

“We are sending out regular communication while people are off,” reports Stephenson. “We’re sending FAQs as things come up, and links to our EAP and to recommended government sites around debt counselling and health advice. And we are starting to send them comms around what’s going on in the business just so they stay connected.”

There’s also an important piece around those ‘left behind,’ says Stephenson. There has been a very small amount of something he terms “reverse survivor syndrome” – the opposite of where people have been made redundant, whereby some staff feel slightly jealous colleagues are off “on full pay” while they’re still working. So also communicating well with these staff is crucial, says Stephenson.

“So we are just reinforcing the message that they are keeping the lights on and the business running, and are truly crucial,” he says, adding: “The workforce does seem very engaged – both those who have been furloughed and those still working.”

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