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Hearst Magazines UK undertook a culture change to keep pace with the industry

22 Aug 2019 By Eleanor Whitehouse

The publishing giant has restructured and implemented a more collaborative way of working to accommodate the rise of digital media

"The scale of change that’s happening in publishing will come as no surprise,” says Surinder Simmons, chief people officer at the UK arm of media conglomerate Hearst. And she’s not wrong. The rise of digital media during the last two decades, not to mention smart devices to consume it on, has meant print products have had to fight ever harder to maintain their place as part of the publishing industry’s arsenal. The increased prevalence of digital and social competitors has also meant, like many others in the field, Hearst – which produces stalwarts of the magazine world including Cosmopolitan, Elle and Men’s Health – has seen its financial model and revenue streams fundamentally disrupted.

The arrival of a new CEO, James Wildman, in April 2017 was the catalyst for a whirlwind period of transformation for the organisation, which would see its people agenda placed firmly at the front of its strategy. “We knew the industry was changing and the challenges were becoming different,” says Simmons. “So we decided to put people front and centre of the business.” 

As well as a significant piece of restructuring work to encourage a more collaborative approach, during the last two years the company’s 850-strong workforce has seen the introduction of a more flexible, agile working model, plus a move from outdated offices in London’s Carnaby Street round the corner to a more modern, fit-for-purpose building in Leicester Square.

This “phenomenal” pace of change, as Simmons describes it, has meant she and her 16-strong people team have also had to step up to support the business. Staff are now expected to work collaboratively across brands and disciplines, rather than just vertically in individual areas, which the HR team has been instrumental in encouraging. “You can’t change a business and have people continue to operate in the same way – it just doesn’t work,” Simmons says. But perhaps the biggest transformation, she adds, has been the people team’s contribution within the company. “What the business now expects from its people team is different to when I joined six years ago,” she says. “Not only do we underpin a lot of key cultural decisions, we also lead many of them. It’s rare you find an HR function that’s really at the forefront.”

The company’s transformation kicked off in September 2017 with the introduction of a staff engagement survey – with the first iteration returning an 86 per cent participation rate, indicating the workforce’s clear desire to voice its opinions. “There was so much change going on, so it’s important to get a temperature check of how people are feeling,” Simmons says. In the first year, engagement scores increased from 7 to 7.7, and the organisation’s net promoter score went from 11 to 29. 

With a different way of working has also come a different way of learning. Their critical role in supporting the developments at a local level has allowed Hearst to heavily invest in its middle managers with the creation of a management and leadership academy, which will see nearly 200 managers undertake three two-day modules throughout the year around how they and their teams prefer to work together. “Upskilling and promoting our managers will really help support how individuals feel about the change,” says Simmons. Wider still, the organisation is investing in three core learning academies for all staff covering sales and content, as well as a third offering ‘softer’ skills like confidence, persuasiveness and raising your profile.

Hearst is also trying to appeal to a broader range of potential recruits. “Publishing could be more diverse in terms of socioeconomic background and ethnicity,” says Simmons. “So we’re looking at ways to give more opportunities to people who wouldn’t have had them before.” 

One way the company is attempting to rectify historic imbalances is via The Nest – its own incubator programme. Between six and eight candidates are given a real business challenge and asked to present a solution to the senior leadership team around eight weeks later. Participants are paid the London Living Wage and given an allowance, enabling those from around the country to take up the opportunity. “We’ve got several strong commercial plans currently underway that have come from The Nest,” says Simmons, “and some candidates have gone on to secure permanent roles within the business.”

But inclusivity doesn’t stop with new hires. The company is putting measures in place to reduce its gender pay gap of 18 per cent by ensuring at least one female applicant is shortlisted for any senior role, as well as – reasonably unusually in the industry – offering a coaching programme for new parents to help them feel supported in returning to work. It also has networks for LGBT+ and BAME employees and, for the first time, the organisation marched as part of this year’s Pride parade in London. 

A recent investment in better HR tech will, Simmons says, also help ensure more efficient use of data and the chance to chart progress around inclusivity. But does she see all the hard work on transforming the business paying off? “We feel really proud of the cultural work we’ve done, and the personal and professional opportunities for people working here are unprecedented,” she says. “Talk to anyone in the business and this feels like a great place to work.”

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