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Manchester Airports Group takes off with ServiceNow to rethink Employee Experience

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez November 8, 2022
Manchester Airports Group is one of the UK’s largest airport providers and is learning lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic about what it takes to make a great employer.


Manchester Airports Group - which owns and operates three of the UK’s largest airports - Manchester, London Stansted and East Midlands - is adopting ServiceNow’s NOW platform to rethink its approach to Employee Experience, particularly as it relates to employee onboarding. The adoption of ServiceNow’s enterprise HR Service Delivery module comes in response to the lessons the Group learned during the COVID pandemic.

Ryan Cant, Manchester Airports Group (MAG) Chief Digital Officer, spoke with diginomica at ServiceNow’s recent World Forum event in London, where he explained that since the organization flatlined during the pandemic - where the airports were operating at 1% capacity - it is now focused on a period of growth. But Cant notes that the disruption taught MAG that it needs to be able to flexibly scale during periods of significant disruption.

Prior to the pandemic MAG was supported by approximately 7,000 permanent employees, as well as a wider ecosystem of about 50,000 people. Describing the experience of the COVID crisis, Cant said:

It was just survival mode. We did about one percent of the traffic between March 2020 and March 2021, which ultimately meant that, as a business, we had to think about protecting as many jobs as we could, raising capital to survive. We sold a significant property portfolio to raise cash to keep the business as a going concern. So, clearly from a project point of view, the focus really shifted into survival mode.

The cost of doing nothing was still very significant, because you still have to maintain a runway, secure it.  And we had to actually still operate the airport because we still had key worker flights and all that kind of stuff coming in and out.

What was challenging for MAG was not just effectively having to operate a skeleton operation during the worst days of the pandemic, but also that scaling up was unpredictable. With the changing variants during 2021 and the introduction and then cancellation of travel corridors, the airports had a number of false starts in terms of passenger volumes. In addition to this, the government support scheme for employees during the pandemic (furlough) came to an end during this period. Cant recalled:

I think in hindsight - and hindsight is a wonderful thing - we would have obviously wanted to have started hiring for the summer peaks of 2022 far sooner than we did. And clearly, had we done so, we might have averted some of the scenes that we saw earlier in the year, ahead of summer.

That said, what it has done is it has given us a real opportunity to say, whatever the next business change is, we should be in a position whereby through investing in the capabilities within our platform, and thinking about automating the HR processes that go alongside that, our imperative is that we get ourselves into position where we can scale up and scale down in a far more automated way.

And that has become the focus as we come out of the pandemic, we're doubling down on that.

Streamlining processes

MAG is a SuccessFactors SAP customer, using the platform as its HR system of record. However, having been a ServiceNow ITSM customer for a number of years, the airports group is now extending the Now platform to include HR service delivery. Cant said:

All we had done with ServiceNow (HR) is take an email inbox and turn it into a basic case flow. And when I say basic, I don't even mean that it was sorting it based on query type, it was just scraping that inbox and putting it in a ServiceNow workflow.

What we're trying to do now is, with the HR enterprise purchase, really sort out the colleague service portal. Before Christmas, we're going to put that live with all of our 36 queries that come in to HR, mapped out, with some automation on them as a kind of a starter for 10.

That actually will free up so much capacity in our back office teams, and mean that employees aren't just firing emails into a mailbox and then five business days later they get a response that says, ‘Well, what exactly did you mean?’.

“We’ll be able to go through the process of raising the query in the first place. That's job number one, which is really more focused on existing employees. In parallel, we are designing out the hiring and onboarding flows - the aim being to release a decent amount of that functionality before spring.

A lot of the ‘unpicking’ of the SuccessFactors back end processes comes down to understanding why the processes are so hard in the first place. Looking at the approvals process for a new hire, Cant explained:

Right now it's a 42 step process and we click this button and that button….why? Some of that is ‘Manchester Airport Group told us to’ and ‘you wanted it to go to Bob's desk’. Well, who is Bob? It’s cleaning up a lot of that.

It’s actually really hard to do that, because you've got to go through the whole: who is Bob? Oh Bob’s not here anymore. So who’s the replacement for Bob? It actually goes to Brian. Right. So, Brian, do you care? No, Brian doesn’t care. Who does it actually go to in your team? Bill. Well, Bill does care. So we ask, why do you care, Bill? Bill thinks that’s his job. So you ask, why do you really care, Bill? When you think about it in that context. Bill doesn’t really care. So you've got to really unpack all of that stuff.

This complicated process of understanding ‘why’ a system works the way it does leads to ultimately quite a simple conversation from a technology point of view, Cant explained. Ultimately, what MAG is learning, is that the basic workflows will work for its organization. He said:

ServiceNow will be the end to end experience layer for colleagues who are onboarding to us, hiring managers who are bringing other people into their teams, and our HR professionals. That's, in a nutshell, that's this technology strategy.

Landing the wins

MAG has a clear idea of where and how it can deliver benefits quickly for the organization, whilst also improving employee experience. For example, Cant has a pet hate for MAG’s current contracting process, as part of employee onboarding.

At present, MAG offers someone a job and then it manually produces a contract for the chosen candidate. It has a template in Microsoft Word that it adds a name to, but inevitably a number of changes to the document get manually included along the way. Cant said:

Clearly, that takes time, because the request to raise the contract goes into an inbox, and then somebody reworks it, and then if they’ve got a question it goes back to the inbox, etc. The reality is, actually, I should be able to say, ‘I would like to offer this person this job’, having all the approvals already in place, I would then push a button and then it would be in a colleague onboarding portal.

You could then log into that, read the contract, send me any questions back and forth through the platform, and digitally sign the contract. I can then store that image in a document repository to refer back to it. That will be a massive boon for us, because if you think about the lead to live time, that process of back and forth internally, and then back and forth between the candidate, and then the admin process, there's a lot of hours to be saved there. That’s a really big area that I'm really passionate about.

Another area that Cant is focused on is data collection during the onboarding process. Describing his own onboarding experience, he said:

I was onboarded to Manchester Airport Group pretty much 12 months ago to the day. And I'm not proud to say, given that I now own the systems, it is singularly the worst onboarding experience for any organization that I have ever had. And not through lack of trying in terms of the personnel - the people are all lovely.

In many ways, that’s our Achilles heel. The people are so lovely, and so welcoming, and so helpful - they say, ‘let me help you with that. I'll just work around it’. Rather than actually everybody saying ‘this is madness’.

The experience is so bad, according to Cant, because despite there being an extensive vetting process that requires a number of financial checks (to ensure employees aren’t likely to be tempted by offers of bribery), MAG requires employees to resubmit data once they start with the organization. Cant  explained:

You join the organization and we say, ‘Problem is we haven't actually got your bank details’. And to get your bank details, we'd like you to get into the system, the core system. But you can't get into that core system until the batches run to enable your access to it. And that batch workload can’t run until your line manager sends an email back to the HR service and says that you've actually turned up to work.

And they can't do that until they get an email from HR to ask [if you’ve turned up]. And that could be a few days. If you joined at the start of the month, pay day is in the middle of the month, and the cut off is the 10th. So if you miss that, well we’re very sorry, but you’re not getting paid this month. For the 90% of our colleagues who join and miss a month’s salary over a cut over period, that's a horrible experience.

MAG should be operating a basic principle where it simply does not ask for an employee’s data more than once. Cant said:

We should make sure we ask you for your sort code and account number. We should do the basics. And then we should transfer that into our core systems. We can still do the backend checks that say that you actually turned up when you said you would, but to ask you again for a lot of really basic information that we've already asked you for, that's an obvious one. And so from a benefits perspective, the primary benefit is that the colleague gets far better experience.

Change is here

It’s early days for MAG and its journey with ServiceNow, but Cant is clear that the employee experience at the airports group needs to change for the better. In terms of the technology projects, the thing that Cant and his team are hyper focused on is change management - ensuring that the business moves with the digital team in the right direction. He said:

I think like any technology implementation, it’s only as good as the business changes wrapped around it. Our organization has been guilty of seeing business change as the last mile. This traditionally has meant we're going to do some processes and some procedures and we're going to expect people to love it. The reality is that that's actually doing change to the business, not with the business. So I think the imperative for us is to do that real business partnering right up front.

We need our teams to work hand in hand, to actually design it in a way, right up front, that is going to build towards that, rather than us taking what I've sketched, going forth and conquering, and then 12 months later coming back and saying ‘tada’.

I always describe my role, and my team, as the closest thing inside technology to the business. And we've got to be that bridge. And you’ve got to grab some people from the business side and bring them across the bridge and make them technologists.

And Cant is absolutely clear that this change, focused on employee experience, is an imperative for MAG. He noted that whilst employees and potential candidates still want basic training, a competitive salary, and the right benefits package wrapped around their role - they also have more choice than ever. As such, the onboarding experience can make a real difference in attracting good people to an organization. Cant concluded:

I think the area that we can differentiate ourselves in is in how we engage with people throughout that process. And, of course, doing something nice for somebody in terms of experience doesn't stop them turning down a job offer that's significantly financially more attractive to them. Of course it's not.

But in a scenario where they've got two or three offers that are all similar in terms of a financial package, or a career move for them, or whatever, the organization that really invests in the experience that they're providing, and gives an impression that they've got themselves together, and they're organized, that they've invested in this kind of capability, I think creates an impression that says: this is an organization that cares about its employees.

I think that's, for me, going to be one of the big outcomes of this…if we do it right.


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