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When COVID sped up Brexit - Honest Burgers turns to Workplace from Facebook to beef up employee engagement

Cath Everett Profile picture for user catheverett December 16, 2020
By taking a people-first approach and using technology to reduce the admin burden during the initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, UK restaurant chain Honest Burgers was able to minimise redundancies, re-skill its workforce and ensure transferrable skills were put to good use

(Instagram Honest Burger)

The Quick Service Restaurant (QSR) sector has thrown up some compelling digital transformation stories on diginomica over the years, with McDonald's going supersized, while others have had smaller appetites to date. Now here's a use case from the UK’s Honest Burgers, which rolled out Workplace from Facebook (WfF) about 18 months ago and finds itself using the system as its key employee communication and engagement tool, a lifesaver during the COVID crisis. 

Chantal Wilson, the company’s People Director, explains:

We decided it would be our central platform for all business activity, so we got rid of our email system and moved everything to ‘chat’. But it wasn’t just a people program to us – it was an engagement tool. And because we went into COVID with a 98% engagement score, we knew people were seeing most of the communications or resources we shared. It also gave us faith that if English wasn’t an employee’s first language, difficult words like ‘furlough’ would be translated into their own language. So it became an important building block.

For a sector where many staff belong to the under 25 generation that “expects technology at its fingertips”, being able to communicate with them digitally was important even before the pandemic, but became really vital during it, she adds.

Much of this communication was facilitated by six bots, which were created by an in-house team using The Bot Platform tools and integrated into WfF via its chat feature to enable a single point of sign-on for ease-of-use purposes.  Each bot performs a different function and was assigned a persona of its own to make it feel more human. For example, the ‘People Guardian’ bot supports people through any personal challenges they are facing, while ‘Ops Larder’ automates key tasks for, and sends useful information to, central support and ops managers. Wilson says:

At the time of the first furlough, we had 730 people and without technology, we’d have had to write each person a letter regarding the situation to ensure we complied with employment law. But using our ‘Collaborator’ communications and collaboration bot, the HR team could message the letter out, people could log queries through it and then we held a Zoom call for live questions. A huge 430 people confirmed they’d received the letter in just two minutes - and I really don’t know what we’d have done without it. Before COVID, this technology was a nice-to-have, but since then it’s been critical.

Tech saves the day

In fact, without such support, Wilson says, she and her team would simply have been too bogged down in admin work to come up with the two key initiatives that helped the firm save jobs, re-skill its workforce and ensure transferrable skills were put to good use. These comprised ‘Back to Brixton’ and ‘Craft Exchange’.

A key challenge that Honest Burgers faced during the UK’s first lockdown in spring, Wilson explains, was that “COVID sped up Brexit”. While food outlets across London in particular had been facing chef shortages since the referendum on whether the UK should leave the European Union took place in 2016, once lockdown struck, the company lost 150 of these key workers overnight as people left the capital and the country. Wilson says:

This meant we had headcount in the wrong areas. We were short of chefs but had lots of waiters with no restaurant customers. So that’s where ‘Back to Brixton’ came in. It was a nod to where the company had started, with the founders doing any job that needed to be done, so it was about going back to our roots. 

After the UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak said that furlough could be used for training purposes, the company messaged its remaining employees to say that, while the aim was to save every job, chef skills would be given priority and it was offering 20 front-of-house staff the opportunity to retrain. A massive 320 people volunteered. Wilson says:

We’d assumed that no one would volunteer as if they’d wanted to be chefs they would have been, but the power of technology is that you can just ask people. 

Taking a people-first approach

A second wave of retraining subsequently took place in August after the Chancellor announced changes to how furlough was to be funded, putting more of the burden on employers. Wilson explains:

We said if you want a flexible furlough arrangement, you have to do ‘Back to Brixton’ and retrain. The vast majority were really happy to and only about 20% wanted to remain as waiters, even though we made it clear that while they were used to doing 30 hours, we could only offer them eight in that role.

The move meant that only seven people in total were made redundant, all of them from head office, which now employs about 30 people. The rest of the current workforce of 510 is split evenly between chefs and front-of-house staff.

Meanwhile, in order to maximise the use of their skills and help support workers on furlough who were receiving only 80% of their wage, the HR team also launched its ‘Craft Exchange’ initiative. The decision was taken to stop using third party suppliers and to post any craft-based jobs, such as graphic design, sign painting or gardening, onto a newly-created internal skills marketplace.

Employees were invited to sign up to the Exchange and indicate which skills they possessed. Qualifying workshops were held to rate their expertise levels and they were accredited using the ‘Honest College’ learning and development bot. They would then receive instant messages from managers if any relevant projects became available, for which they were paid the London Living Wage. 

Both initiatives meant that not only was Honest Burgers able to minimise the number of redundancies it made, but it also saved money that could be reinvested into the business. Wilson explains:

We were inspired by a people-first approach, which is about putting people at the core. But from a business perspective, it also saved us loads of money in the middle of the pandemic when cash is king and everyone’s struggling. We lost 220 people organically but to lay them off, it would have cost us more than £700,000 in redundancy and £400,000 in holiday pay. In other words, while it may initially look like a better decision to lay people off, in practice the cash we saved enabled us to continue to grow sales.

One of the key learning in all this centers on the sometimes-unexpected benefits to be gained from employing technology in a people-centred way. As Wilson concludes:

Tech allows you to do the simple stuff, so you can spend human time doing the important stuff. It’s vital to cherish the human connection and using tech in an effective way allows you to do that.

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