HR at Eurostar: Light at the end of the tunnel

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Four years ago HR’s reputation at Eurostar was poor. But now it has been transformed into a value-adding function that’s been keeping services going amid Brexit turmoil

Gerard Jacques’ interview for the role of director of people at Eurostar was pretty memorable.

“I had an interview with the CEO at the time and the first thing he said to me was ‘I don’t rate HR’,” muses Jacques, when he meets HR magazine at the Eurostar terminal at St Pancras International. “Hopefully he was doing that as a challenge for me to say ‘well this is what we can do,’ because he signed me up for the job.”

It was a challenge Jacques was more than willing to accept. “I don’t like to go into businesses where everything is fine and fixed – I’d be bored,” he says, joking that his “fancy French name” (though he’s actually Welsh) also helped him secure the job.

It was May 1994 when the Channel Tunnel opened and Eurostar welcomed its very first passengers – the Queen among them – journeying between the UK and France. A quarter of a century later and Eurostar has carried more than 150 million passengers and now links the UK with destinations across France, Belgium and Amsterdam. It continues to be the only high-speed train service between the UK and these destinations.

This unique service involves a surprisingly small setup, Jacques explains. “It’s smaller than people think as we only have around 1,500 full-time employees and 28 trains. But it’s complex in the way we do things.”

He points to the scope and geography of the workforce, which is made up of station staff, train managers and drivers, customer service staff in the contact centres, depot staff responsible for maintaining trains, as well as the administrative functions including HR, all dispersed across the destinations Eurostar travels to.

HR’s makeup is equally varied, with a UK team of HRBPs, resourcing, L&D, an academy (delivering language training to the crews and drivers who must be multilingual in specialist topics such as signalling), and small HR teams based in France and Belgium.

After coming on board in 2015 it didn’t take long for Jacques to understand where the CEO’s poor perception of HR came from. “Some of our processes were quite bureaucratic and long-winded,” he says. “Secondly the team had BPs but their focus wasn’t as directed as it should be.”

Changing HR’s image is something Jacques describes as his “biggest challenge” to date. He says it’s been about repositioning the function “as a value-add part of the business”. This has included a team redesign, making BPs more generalist and positioning them closer to stakeholders to provide a “one-stop-shop” HR service, now able to help drive change.

Despite Eurostar being a “young adult”, Jacques was surprised to discover it had quite an old-fashioned culture in need of modernisation.

One of his priorities has been a push to get the right skills in place and attract talent from outside the traditional rail route. A Develop to Deliver leadership programme has been introduced, as well as an employee wellbeing programme called – in true Eurostar fashion – Joie De Vivre.

There’s also been a fresh approach taken to employer branding. Grads on the graduate general manager programme now join the resourcing team for six months, allowing the organisation to tap into the skills and creativity of Millennials to showcase the employer brand. “It’s all about bringing our business to life and showing the vitality we have here,” explains Jacques. “For every grad that’s come in we see a different style of what they want to do and we’re being brave and allowing them to do it.”

The results have so far been impressive, with “LinkedIn followers going from about 100 to 25,000 in a few months”. Anecdotally, Eurostar is also attracting more diverse candidates.

However, Jacques’ time at Eurostar hasn’t all been full steam ahead. A number of challenges facing Europe, not least Brexit, have threatened to derail the service over the past four years.

In 2015, at the height of the migrant crisis, migrants trying to board trains or walking onto the tracks disrupted journeys through Calais. Then, in 2016, Europe was shaken by terrorist attacks in key destinations Paris and Brussels. Passenger rates and revenues dipped slightly as a result.

But much more critical was the impact on the workforce. “There was concern for all our colleagues,” he says. “We offered counselling to people and tried to make sure everyone was OK and where people needed help, counselling or just an arm round their shoulder we supported them.”

Then 2018 brought another “difficult period”. Strikes among the French workforce kicked the year off, followed by fleet reliability issues, and UK train manager strikes in the Summer over safety and wellbeing concerns.

Thankfully Jacques has seen his fair share of employee relations issues, having started his career at British Steel. “I started in L&D and quickly – as steel was heavily unionised – went into employee relations,” he recounts. Jacques credits “some of the union guys” with being some of his “best teachers in how to deal with people”. With stints as head of HR at Gatwick Airport and interim ER consultant at Southern Railway under his belt, Jacques muses that ER is often seen as his “specialist area”.

“If people look at my CV they see ER,” he says. “People talk to me about it all the time.” That said, Jacques is quick to assert that there’s far more to his passion for HR than just ER. He lists having the right capabilities in the business and employee wellbeing as other “big passions”.

Pulling on his ER experience, Jacques set up a joint monitoring committee to solve the Eurostar staff strikes last year. The committee consisted of employees from operations, revenue management, station management, train managers and union reps. This process of “making sure the right people were in the room” is, in Jacques’ eyes, “the right way to do it” and meant all issues were resolved.

Another challenge has of course been Brexit. With Eurostar’s entire business model resting on the ability to travel freely between the UK and the EU, and with a workforce that not only resides on both sides of the Channel but whose jobs – for some – require them to cross between the UK and the EU multiple times a day, it’s fair to say Brexit affects this organisation more than it does most.

Many warnings have been made about the toll it is taking on Eurostar. France’s European affairs minister warned that trains could be turned back from France if the UK crashes out of the EU with no deal. A UK Department for Transport report said there could be queues of 15,000 people at St Pancras each day in a no-deal scenario. There have even been reports that the organisation may not survive longer than 12 weeks in a worst-case scenario.

“I can’t say it’s not a huge risk for us but we’ve done as much as we can to de-risk it,” comments Jacques. “From 2016 when we woke up and went ‘I’m sure that didn’t happen’ and it did, we’ve been proactive in trying to ensure the business runs as efficiently as it does now – even in the event of a hard Brexit.”

Which has meant contingency planning for every possible scenario. “We have plans in place so if this happens this is plan A, or if this happens this is plan B and so on,” he explains.

“Planning has been done in every area in terms of running trains, our crews and people being able to work within Europe, settled status for employees, and right down to tax and insurance. So everything we could think of we’ve been proactive in making sure we take that into account in the worst-possible scenarios. We have contingency plans in place for whatever happens.”

Jacques points to train drivers as a “microcosm” of the challenge. “Our drivers have UK train drivers’ licences. In the event of a hard Brexit they’ll be required to have European drivers’ licences, which they didn’t have. So we worked with the drivers, unions and French government to ensure that come 29 March every one of our drivers was licensed to drive within Europe.”

Other efforts prior to the original 29 March Brexit deadline included the creation of a new legal entity Eurostar France to ensure continuity of operations.

Practical measures are just one part of the picture though. Also key, Jacques says, has been keeping staff engaged through ongoing internal communications, to drive a clear message that “we’re very clearly a pro-Remain business” and “are ensuring the employees we have are still with us post-Brexit”.

The now uncertain UK departure date has done little to shake such plans, Jacques asserts: “We just ignored the delay and put things in place to continue to operate normally as if things had changed on 29 March.”

As such, he is confident that whenever the day finally arrives and whether it be hard Brexit, soft Brexit, deal or no deal, the workforce is ready: “We’ve done our homework and we’ll be able to cope with anything.”

However, Jacques concedes that such steps only go so far in light of external factors, namely the industrial action by members of the French customs union Solidaires Douanes.

In early March customs officers began a work-to-rule strike, carrying out more rigorous checks to demonstrate the issues that will arise if full border controls are put in place after Brexit, particularly in a no-deal scenario. For Eurostar staff this action meant major delays and long queues at terminals; the company even advised against travel.

“They were trying to demonstrate that in a hard Brexit situation they would not be adequately staffed or recompensed for what they do,” explains Jacques. Strikes have ceased for now, but customs officers have warned of potential sporadic action in future.

While admitting the situation “hasn’t been great”, Jacques notes it “could be the reality for us for at least a time period post-Brexit”. And if it is, the March strikes mean Eurostar is now prepared for such circumstances and ready “to switch plans so we don’t put pressure on staff”.

These plans include recruiting more people, more employees in stations, and providing extra support in the form of an emergency volunteer rota.

“When incidents arise we have a dictate that allows us in the back office – financial, marketing, HR – to leave our day jobs and go and help our frontline colleagues, so we had people going from the UK over to Gare du Nord [during the customs strikes],” Jacques says.

Queue control is a far cry from what most would expect of an HRD, but Jacques is adamant he should be part of this. “As an operational business I’d expect this,” he says, adding that he took a similar approach at Gatwick in the event of delays. “I can’t do an HR job if our trains aren’t running and our customers aren’t getting to where they want to go.

“And the positive thing was that we had delays of up to six hours in Paris but the feedback was that customers saw it as a Douanes issue not a Eurostar issue and saw we were doing our best. That to me shows the loyalty and dedication of the people working here.”

It’s a “united approach” Jacques has worked hard to roll out across the continent, particularly after the 2017 employee survey highlighted a disconnect between the French, Belgian and UK offices.

“Everything we did was seen as being from a UK perspective. Our HR base and comms team is here so the default was whenever we put out comms it was geared towards our UK employees,” he explains. “We can automatically cause disconnect by not thinking globally.” But simple changes such as considering time differences when planning meetings is moving the dial.

“Everything HR does is related to the business’ vision,” says Jacques. “So we’re now not seen as blockers but are helping drive change and delivering a pragmatic HR service.”

And it all seems to be working, if the former CEO’s viewpoint is anything to go by. As Jacques says: “When he left he said to me ‘you’ve changed my mind about how HR works’… that shows how impactful HR can and should be in a business.”

This piece appeared in the July – August 2019 issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk

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