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Why leading the people team at HS2 is a unique but rewarding challenge

20 Aug 2020 By Jenny Roper

Controversy over the future, cost and environmental impact of the high-speed rail line, not to mention Covid-19 and Brexit, mean the project has seen its fair share of obstacles 

Trains up to 400m long carrying 1,100 passengers, top speeds of 250mph, 140 miles of dedicated track, 10 tunnel-boring machines at peak construction, working 24/7… Just a few of the slightly mind-blowing facts and figures associated with High Speed Two (HS2), Britain’s biggest infrastructure project since the second world war. 

But the figure still attracting most headlines, of course, is its cost. Phase 1 alone, running between London and Birmingham and as of this year entering its delivery stage, is projected to cost £36-40bn. Phases 2a, connecting Birmingham to Crewe, and 2b – connecting Crewe to Manchester and Birmingham to Leeds – could bring this total to around £106bn, according to the government’s Oakervee Review.

Of course this could in reality be higher given the number of upward revisions already made. Or it could be lower, given the possibility of its scope beyond phase 1 changing. “While with 2a we’re expecting legislation later this year that means it can move into delivery, with 2b the government is still speculating on whether it wants to build that,” says HR director Neil Hayward.

“The backdrop of coming into this year was spending most of last year trying to address speculation that the programme would be cancelled,” he adds, referring to the above review, commissioned in August 2019 in response to criticism of the financial and environmental sustainability of the project (but recommending, in February, it proceed as planned). “That made it very difficult for us to attract people.”

A pretty unique HR challenge, then. “I’ve never had my work as an HR professional as rigorously assessed – appropriately so in my view, it’s a lot of money,” says Hayward. The HS2 Ltd he joined in 2017 “wasn’t really trusted”, he concedes, as a result of “eight or nine years of shifting sands”. “When I joined, on the question of whether we and our supply chain were fit for purpose to build this thing... the reality was there was no assessment methodology,” he says. And so one of the things Hayward is “most proud of from the last three years” is helping develop a rigorous “approach to enterprise-wide capability”. “I’d say there’s almost nothing left of how we were organised then compared to now.”

And the workforce looks pretty different too. HS2 now employs 1,500 people directly, and the supply chain has grown from a couple of thousand workers to around 9,000 (set to double in the next year), covering a surprisingly wide range of disciplines. “At Curzon Street in Birmingham we’ve uncovered the world’s oldest railway turntable, and we recently found a bronze age settlement burial. And at one point, when excavating skeletons from St James’s Gardens north of Euston, we were probably the largest employer of archaeologists in the country,” enthuses Hayward.

This opportunity to be part of a project contributing so heavily to employment in the UK was one of the key attractions for Hayward. Pointing to HS2’s stirling work on D&I (led by head of equality, diversity and inclusion Mark Lomas, who last month made People Management’s inaugural D&I Power List), Hayward describes the chance to “make a difference to society at large as we ramp up and hire new people”. D&I targets, he explains, are both contractualised with suppliers and worked towards collaboratively. 

Brexit of course presents a huge challenge to such ambitions. “Even before Brexit there were likely to be skills shortages,” says Hayward. All HS2 can do, he says, is ensure as diverse a range of people as possible want to work on the project, and grow capability internally. “We’re going to be employing more people this year, which comes with its own challenges, but I know what I’d rather face as an HRD,” he adds, referring to Covid-19’s impact on other employers.

In terms of HS2’s response as the pandemic hit, the firm quickly shut its offices and sites, reopening a handful at the end of March. Now 93 per cent of 250 construction sites are operational, and offices reopened at the start of June. But most office staff will continue to work from home until September at least, with Hayward predicting a radical change to how HS2’s offices are designed and used, and how often people come in.

Which begs the question: will a project seeking to better connect the UK’s economic hubs, and already accused of London-centricity, make sense in a future potentially more dominated by remote working and location-agnostic hiring? To Hayward’s mind: yes. “It is far too early to make conclusions about the long-term impact of Covid-19, but the strategic business case for HS2 – more capacity on our railways, better connectivity to the Midlands and the north, and cutting carbon – covers issues that will remain important long after the virus has passed,” he says.

But the perception of London-centricity (largely the result of the project starting in the capital, feels Hayward), and HS2’s cost are by no means the only controversies dogging the project. “We have an enormous number of environmental protests going on at construction sites, and that will play out more in the news in the months to come,” Hayward confirms.

The HR challenge here isn’t one of convincing staff of HS2’s green credentials, however, he says (his personal favourite killer stat is that, according to HS2’s own assessment, of England’s 52,000 ancient woodland sites, only 62 will be affected by the full route and of these 85 per cent of the land will remain intact and untouched). Rather, it’s ensuring the organisation’s culture and values are strong enough to see employees through tough external scrutiny.

The organisation hung on to and attracted people in the face of uncertainty last year, for example, by having already built “a pretty powerful approach to staff engagement”, says Hayward: “We now start every meeting at all levels with a values moment where someone talks from the heart... Those values are part of our leadership assessment framework; they’re part of how we manage performance. 

“We’ve also been running regular pulse surveys since lockdown began and, because we’ve spent so much time building trust, we’re getting at least 75 per cent wellbeing engagement index rates each time.” 

All employers will need to take wellbeing more seriously now the Covid crisis has brought this to the fore, Hayward adds. And HS2’s wellbeing survey is a prime example of many businesses’ newfound agility: “That would have taken weeks if not months to get signed off internally before, but it took six days from concept to go live. So how does that become normal business?”

These are “the things the function’s got to address next year I wouldn’t have had on my list at the start of this year”, he muses. And it was a pretty long list to start with: “My remit touches every part of the organisation in a way that hasn’t been the case in some other pretty big jobs I’ve had.” But Hayward is relishing the challenge. “I’m motivated by learning. And I like having an opportunity to make a difference. But you’re talking to someone who’s converted; I believe in HS2.”

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