Off a quiet side road in a corner of central London, a tightly packed crowd is picking its favourite. Three figures are concentrating fiercely, knives in hand, at a table in the centre of proceedings. The almost comedic aim is to expertly dismember a piece of salmon, to the greatest possible precision in the shortest time. The more important purpose on show: to ensure one of Britain’s fastest-growing food businesses has a sustainable future.
Itsu, which sells wraps, salads and sushi in 68 stores across the UK, has long cherished its reputation as a people-centred brand in a sector known for transitory employment. Even so, by 2015 it was clear the company faced a problem in one of its most crucial roles: the fish cutters who expertly process huge amounts of fish per day. Attrition was rising, and stores were having to share staff. With 75 per cent of its dishes featuring either salmon or tuna, it was business-critical.
There were some specific causes for the skills gap, says Annabel Nash, itsu’s head of central HR. “The fish cutter role can be quite lonely. You’re in the corner, you’re the first one in – because the fish needs to be ready for production during the rest of the day – and you don’t interact with the others much because the concentration required is so great. Fewer and fewer people wanted to go into the role, and yet it is fundamental.”
Rethinking the reward structure was part of the solution, but the HR team had grander plans. They fundamentally rethought the fish cutter role in a holistic programme of interventions that spanned learning, engagement, employee relations and technology. And it would pay off in spectacular style.
Fish cutters duly became fish pros, backed by a huge investment in training that gave them the chance to gain City & Guilds-accredited qualifications by taking part in masterclasses. An internal comms campaign raised their profile inside the company, while a competition to find the Fish Pro of the Year caught the imagination, culminating in a finale live-streamed on Facebook to every itsu store.
“We created this rather silly, over-the-top video they would walk on to, Eye of the Tiger-style, wearing boxing robes. But it got everyone so excited,” says engagement manager Sarah Woodhead.
The programme of work was credited, in its first year, with a £600,000 decrease in labour costs and £850,000 savings in food waste as efficiency improved in line with skills. Most importantly, itsu’s recruitment issues have stabilised – taking the fish pro message to the masses via social media has increased the quantity and quality of applications.
It certainly impressed the CIPD People Management Awards judges, who felt itsu had demonstrated deceptively original thinking, noting: “This was a rare example of an HR-led initiative that connected perfectly with business objectives while showcasing the full range of HR and L&D skills.”
For itsu, the new challenge is to secure a pipeline of future talent. It is investing in apprenticeships across the business, as well as launching an integrated app that allows its 1,300 staff to access an internal social network and EAP system alongside the chance to recognise great colleagues.
As Woodhead says: “It’s tough out there, especially in this war for talent. But we put people at the heart of this business – that’s why we get up every day.”