How do you keep a workforce with an exceptionally high proportion of creative talent engaged and active, during a particularly hard period when the whole industry is struggling and the parts of the work people most enjoy have had to be suspended or changed?
In a conversation with People Matters, Mary Hogg, HR Director for the Asia Pacific operations of Merlin Entertainments – one of the world's largest operators of entertainment attractions – pointed to culture, purpose, and employer branding as the major factors in not only retaining talent, but finding them when the industry situation improves and hiring becomes an option again. Here's what she shared.
How are things going at Merlin Entertainments? What's kept everyone going through the impact of the pandemic?
This pandemic made us realise that the culture of the business is the glue that sticks everybody together, and it is so much more of an intangible benefit than we ever knew. As you know, it's been really tough across our whole industry. We even had the majority of our 140 global attractions closed at one point.
What's kept us going is the culture. As a business, we have a really solid cultural base, and we've always paid close attention to culture and engagement. We consistently have engagement levels in the mid-80s and sometimes 90%.
This comes from the nature of the work. A lot of our people do hugely creative work, and they really love what they do and live and breathe it. We have people who are professional Lego builders, marine biologists who work with rescuing sharks, all kinds of really unusual fields: these are people who are living their dream and getting paid for it. And those of us who work desk jobs feed off that as well. It's about keeping that feeling going throughout the whole business.
What's the biggest challenge right now?
Retention and trying to keep future focus within the business is definitely a challenge. So much of the excitement in our industry comes from people being able to move to different parts of the world or even just travel within the country, and now that there are border closures everywhere, including between different parts of the country in places like Australia, that excitement has been removed. What's more, people's ability to work, their actual careers, have been affected.
At the beginning of the pandemic we spent almost a month debating how to handle this. And what we came up with is: we're not putting careers on hold. People need to grow and develop.
We're trying to keep people engaged, to give them the sense that even though they might not be able to go to a different location, the world isn't standing still and their careers aren't stagnating.
The tourism industry feels quite different to how it did. So we want to make sure that people still feel the excitement that they would have done in normal times.
Could you share a bit about how you are creating that feeling of involvement and engagement?
Our approach is to focus on a common purpose, which is: we are still around, making sure that our guests and communities are well served. To do this we've had to pivot really quickly as a business, starting with going from an international business to serving the domestic market. That has meant a lot of innovation: if our attractions are closed, how do we move to online offerings, are they purely for community engagement, or they monetised?
And then there is the community engagement piece: how can we continue to create the kind of experiences we specialise in even when we're closed due to restrictions, how can we continue to support charities – if not globally then regionally or just country by country. So we've tried to continue our volunteering activities and supporting charities wherever possible, from our children's charity to our marine charity. We've tried reaching out in innovative ways, like setting up Zoom calls for children's hospitals to bring them the kinds of experiences they're not able to go out and see.
It's about using the tools we have to serve the community well, and at the same time letting our own people continue to experience some of the magic and the sense of purpose.
One issue your industry's facing is border closures which limit your access to talent. Does remote work help with this challenge at all?
We have some roles that operate well remotely, and we also managed to shift some business functions very quickly to remote work, which has been good for some colleagues. But we still have a number of roles that need people to be there physically, and these roles are also affected by peak seasons, so we have relied on the transient workforce to fill them. Border closures have cut off our access to skilled workers and created a real challenge with international mobility.
We do have the talent in our local markets, and we are now turning to them where previously we would have had transient employees. But because there is also the issue, in Australia particularly where state borders are being closed, there's also an element of people's own flexibility and preference – do they want to or are they able to move away from the cities, knowing that they might not be able to move back that easily? Do they feel comfortable with the uncertainty around relocation today?
So for us, the issue is not so much where to look for talent, as what are we doing to make sure that our employer brand is very clear in the local markets.
We know, or we hope, that we are attractive to candidates in many ways, but the question is around how to communicate our authentic self to the market. Not just one market, but many different markets, which might all need to be addressed in slightly different ways.
When it comes to talent retention, what's your takeaway from the experience of the last year and a half?
Every bit of effort we put into engagement and culture must be carried on.
We now see how well that pays off. Even though we're not recruiting at the moment – we've had to put our hiring plans on ice – we have doubled down on our commitment to make sure that we really put what we've learned into action when we finally roll those plans out again.
This pandemic has also been a huge reminder of the importance of purpose. For us, it's that bit of escapism and how surprisingly critical it is for everybody in our communities. It's quite easy to take our industry lightly, but at a time like this you truly see the value in the kind of family time and diversions from stress that we provide. It's really hammered home just how important that is to well-being, mental health, a sense of connection. And I think one of the learnings we've had is around understanding how important we are for the well-being and mental health of the community.