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Star interview: Lauren Stirling, Head of HR and People Development at Elior UK

21 May 2024

Amanda Vlietstra spoke to Lauren Stirling, Head of HR and People Development at Elior UK, about the culture at Elior and how it’s all important for attracting and retaining talent.

How would you describe the culture at Elior?
We’re really people focused and we recognise they are our biggest asset. We’re working hard to embed an inclusive culture through our Celebrate Equality initiative, and we’ve created a number of organic network groups across the organisation which aim to make our colleagues feel like they are part of it; whether it’s within the company or at site, we want them to be engaged and for it to be as inclusive as possible.

How is technology helping you to build an inclusive culture?
We’re in the process of rolling out a new HR system. The vision for this from our CEO is that it’ll be a one-stop shop, like a communications hub, and our people will be able to log on to it and access their payslips, as well as getting community notifications, business updates, and support from a wellbeing perspective. We’re at the early stages of this; it should go live in November this year. It’s a huge project but so important from a transformation point of view. Where we can struggle from an organisational perspective is reaching our colleagues at site. We’ve got 1,300 sites and around 10,500colleagues across these sites, so it's sometimes more of a challenge to reach them. We hope the rollout of our new system will really help bridge that gap and drive engagement.

Is it challenging to create a sense of culture for FM companies such as yours which have people working at site?
It can certainly be more challenging. We want our colleagues to feel part of a bigger organisation, even if they only see their line managers and on-site colleagues every day. One of the great things about our new HR system is that it's got a multi-lingual feature. For a lot of our colleagues, English isn't their first language, so this will really help from an inclusivity point of view as well. 

We tend to communicate through email delivery if we need to send out company-wide messages to everyone.  We often use QR codes asking for people to scan and give their feedback, and we’re really trying to encourage two-way communication. What we don’t want is for it to seem as if everything’s coming from Head Office, we’re more collaborative than that.

All FM companies have been experiencing skills shortages, so what is Elior doing to bring staff into the business? 
The thing about FM is that it can be immensely rewarding, but it’s a low wage industry and it can be challenging, and for some people, if they’ve got the alternative of working in a job where perhaps they’re sitting behind a desk, that might be more attractive to them. We have to think outside the box. Within our Lexington business, we’ve got a couple of partnerships that are supporting ex-offenders back into work. We’ve also got an internship scheme in place with Westminster City Council, which has enabled us to place a number of interns into our sites. They are all neurodiverse and aged between 18 and 24 and have a special educational health plan in place. It’s fully paid, and they’re supported, and it’s been really successful – especially when it comes to building their confidence in employment. The social value side of this is really important to us as well – giving back to the communities in which we operate - and to our clients. They see the worth in a social value piece like this and want to engage in it and support it.

What is Elior doing to create a positive employee experience?
Creating a positive employee experience isn’t just about pay. We offer enhanced policies; our care leavers policy is enhanced, offering up to four weeks on half pay which can be taken in half days, full days and weeks and we also offer other enhanced family friendly policies. We also offer volunteering days and we’re not prescriptive in what that has to be – it could be volunteering at a cat sanctuary, a food bank, or whatever our colleagues want to do as long as it is a registered charity. 

We do a lot of things from a financial wellbeing perspective such as holding regular webinars and communicating about Step Change and other charities that are there to support people under the banner of our Everyone Counts initiative. We share lots of information and resources like budget trackers, coming at it from a supportive point of view. We also give most of our colleagues a free lunch; lots of people are using food banks now so we can provide one hot meal a day, which maybe alleviates some of the pressure in terms of a cost of living perspective.

We undertake regular engagement surveys, and our scores are going up, which we’re very pleased about. 

Is it possible to start as a catering assistant at Elior and work your way into management?
Absolutely! Across our entire business, we encourage internal mobility and career progression. Over half of our managerial roles are filled internally, It’s something we really heavily push. Each of the business areas has their own learning and development business partner, and we conduct performance and development reviews, during which we talk about career development opportunities and look at our succession plans. Several of our senior managers started out working at a site, including some of our Divisional Directors. 

We also have a chef school, led by our passionate and talented chef trainer Lucy Webb and L&D Business Partner Matt Jennings. The programme is designed to develop general assistants and kitchen porters who aspire to become chefs. It covers the basic culinary skills including knife skills, stocks and soups and basic butchery and fish filleting to develop our Chef talent pool. 

What are you doing around gender balance?
Our Chief Executive is female, and so is our CFO – in fact 70% of our whole business is female. We can offer that flexibility within our business – employees don’t necessarily need to come in and work 9-5, they can work round the school run and other caring commitments, which makes working with us an attractive proposition for a lot of women. At our Head Office, we operate a hybrid working arrangement.  I think we’re effective as an organisation and that’s what drives engagement.

Do you think technology such as AI could change the human/people side of your business?
Yes, it will change it, but it certainly won’t eliminate the human element. In some of our care homes, we have a robot that comes out and delivers food like a trolley – but it also interacts with people and sings happy birthday! It was trialled in one care home and the residents were so upset when the trial was up that it was left there and remains there to this day!

What does FM and the catering industry need to do to bring more people into the sector?
The first thing to do is to dispel the myths. There are certain connotations linked to catering – it’s low-skilled, for example – that simply aren’t true. We’re doing a lot of work, going into schools and colleges, being an ambassador for FM and catering, to show to students that it’s a varied and interesting career path.

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