Devising a brand new people strategy is a huge undertaking at the best of times. And it’s even more of a huge undertaking against the backdrop of a global pandemic. But that’s exactly what Debra Lang, director of HR and professional services at national tourism agency VisitBritain/VisitEngland, a government arms-length body, took on during 2020 – a process she describes as “like trying to fly a plane and build it at the same time”. But despite tourism being one of the sectors worst hit by Covid, and the government-funded organisation unable to furlough staff, the timing turned out to be fortuitous.
A self-described “lifetime civil servant” and having previously worked in the Department for Work and Pensions, HMRC and the Cabinet Office, Lang is currently seconded to VisitBritain/VisitEngland from her role as director of people and workplace at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, having initially been drafted in January 2020 for a year (now extended to two) to shape and enact the organisation’s vision for a future-proof people strategy.
Lang’s main remit, she says, was to create a more transformational HR function and to develop a people strategy to support the company’s 300 staff, a third of whom are based across 19 countries, with a new approach to engagement and a particular commitment to improving L&D and I&D – two areas a deep dive into staff survey data revealed were lacking. “The team didn’t have the capacity to look further ahead,” she explains. “The people function should be there to curate the people experience, not police it.” After getting the green light to create the new approach, Lang spent a month talking to a cross-section of staff about their experiences, discovering “what they enjoyed and what hacked them off”, as well as commissioning an all-staff engagement survey and becoming “best friends” with the data analysis team to truly understand the results.
From this listening work was borne a host of staff networks, each run by passionate groups of employees to drive the organisation’s work in their particular area. What began as one mental health network is now eight, including seven in I&D, which have allowed Lang to tap into “latent energy” within the workforce. “As a small organisation, we don’t have much resource centrally, but these groups have found untapped enthusiasm none of us knew was there,” she says.
And although undergoing a significant change project while dealing with a pandemic sounds less than ideal, Lang is adamant the timing has been a bonus. Morale, she explains, has been particularly low during Covid, with some staff, including Lang herself, even contracting the virus, so the new strategy has “energised” the workforce and given them something to focus on. “Obviously things have been awful, which made me question whether it was the right time,” she says. “But while you need a people strategy in good times, you need it even more during bad times.”
A particular success of the change work has been VisitBritain/VisitEngland’s youth network creating a virtual week-long work experience programme for more than 200 students considering a career in the sector – something more than three in five say they’re now keen to pursue. As well as benefiting the students, Lang says the scheme was a positive experience for those who organised it. “I wanted to encourage more young people into the sector, and the youth network has blown my mind,” she says. “The team got a lot out of working with these young people.”
And where some areas of the organisation have seen the “volume turned down” because of Covid, other teams have been able to put that spare capacity to use via a workforce interchange network and shadowing (WINS) portal, where departments can advertise their requirements for short-term help, and staff from elsewhere in the organisation can apply to take it on. “We wanted to utilise all our resource across the globe in a positive way,” Lang explains. “Some projects have been started in the US, passed to Europe and then picked up in Australia as the day has gone on.”
But despite the limitations of the pandemic, the change work has boosted the organisation’s people metrics. Its latest staff survey surpassed each of the Civil Service People Survey’s five benchmarks around employee engagement, including a nine percentage point increase in those who say the company inspires colleagues to do their best. And Lang is particularly proud that the initiative has cost nothing. “You don’t need to buy in an expensive consultancy for something like this – you just need a good HR professional,” she says.
With lockdown measures hopefully being lifted soon and the tourism sector tentatively considering how it will reopen, as well as the organisation itself considering what its model of hybrid working will look like after Covid, Lang is certain it will be in a much stronger place to support the industry as it rebuilds: “The whole company, at one stage or another, has been in total lockdown, and yet we’ve done this fantastic thing. We’ve got a great HR team and an engaged workforce who are passionate and committed to working in tourism, and that will be reflected in how they support the sector.”