Like many of her Yorkshire compatriots, Jill Maples doesn’t mince her words. “As I see it, there are three things that define firms in the gig economy: irregular earnings, ill treatment and the potential to have livelihoods taken away without warning, with nothing you can do about it. I have been appalled by some of the stories I have heard about gig economy companies, and wouldn’t be the HR director of an organisation that did any of those things.”
Maples joined courier firm Hermes in early 2016 – just a few months before the company began to be mentioned in the same breath as organisations such as Deliveroo, Uber and Sports Direct, as journalists and MPs began investigating the changing nature of employment in the UK.
The business was accused by the Guardian of underpaying couriers, an allegation it denied. And with 2,500 permanent employees at its head office and depots, and 14,500 self-employed couriers, Maples is adamant Hermes has a different model to its rivals. “Fundamentally, we are not part of the gig economy. We treat everybody with dignity and respect – whether you’re an employee, a supplier or a partner to us,” she says. “It’s a fundamental part of our values and our core business – and one of the key reasons that Hermes has never used zero-hours contracts, for example.” This is borne out by service lengths among couriers, says Maples: more than a tenth (12 per cent) have worked with Hermes for more than 10 years, a third for more than five years and two-thirds for more than two years.
Part of the reason couriers partner with Hermes for the long haul – and what distinguishes it from gig economy firms – is the strength of communication and relationships, says Maples: “With companies such as Uber, drivers take work and interact with the firm via a digital platform. Our field managers interact daily with our couriers, we have helpdesks they can call with queries and we do a quarterly update booklet that keeps them informed about our new clients and where we are going as a business. I think that’s really important in engaging and motivating them to provide services for us.”
And whereas gig economy platforms often see workers bidding for jobs against each other, couriers who work with Hermes have their own, established rounds of a stable, predictable size – which means stable, predictable earnings, says Maples. “They know what their round is and what service they will provide for us, and they develop links to their local community. That’s what they are really proud of, and what gives us that competitive edge.” A number of couriers join Hermes’ permanent operational team, too.
Given the size and breadth of the organisation, how do Maples and her team keep their ears to the ground? “It’s fundamental for HR not to sit in an ivory tower,” she says. “It has to engage with the business and understand what is important – is it talent and succession for employees? Driving a performance culture? Having inspiring leaders? I’ve taken great pleasure in engaging with the rest of the executive board to get them to agree with what I think are the things we need to do as an organisation.”
And that list is far from short. Maples may have only been with the company a little over 15 months, but her priorities – from payroll and self-service HR for managers, to health and wellbeing initiatives, apprenticeships and leadership development programmes – effectively add up to a total HR overhaul.
“We have some people in the 40-strong HR team working in the same way they have done for several years – which other organisations would have moved away from a long time ago – and others doing true business partnering,” says Maples. “Everything is quite manual at the moment, but we have the full support of the business to bring in the systems we need to help HR add value to the company.”
One initiative that’s already bearing fruit is the introduction of leadership programmes for field staff. “When I joined, we didn’t have a standard leadership programme for new managers who were joining the business, or who had been promoted,” Maples explains. “So we’ve tried to create something that gives them skills such as leadership, performance management and conduct, and how to engage with and motivate staff.”
HR’s ‘peak treats’ strategy – comprising massages, fruit and pizza deliveries, discounted gym memberships and employee of the week awards for depot staff – also had a significant impact during the business’s busiest period in the run up to Christmas 2016. “We did things that people said they wanted,” says Maples. “And they really appreciated everything we’d done. It’s the little things that make a difference to people.”
So do Maples’ efforts mean that her team is now regarded as a strategic partner by the business? “We’re on a journey; we’re now more of a business partner, sat around the table making business decisions with the rest of the organisation. That’s a journey we’ve been on for more than 12 months, and we’re really starting to motor now.”
Ultimately, says Maples: “I want the HR team to be seen as business people who know a little more about people than everyone else.”