If you had complete freedom, what would your people strategy look like?

international convention centre sydney

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written on December 7, 2016

The new International Convention Centre is a world-class facility – and one that’s putting Sydney back in the business-events game. Even though the building takes centre stage, behind the scenes is a people strategy worthy of the same acknowledgment and investment.

With the clock ticking down on the opening of Sydney’s massive new International Convention Centre (ICC), Mathew Paine, CPHR, appears incredibly calm. As the centre’s director of human resources and responsible for some 1800 employees, Paine could easily be excused for feeling stressed as the launch draws near.

Sitting in a conference room overlooking the new venue in the city’s Darling Harbour precinct, it’s clear that this HR veteran is not only relaxed about the massive task he has taken on, but relishing it.

“It’s going very well,” he says with a smile. “I’ve had two years of planning and strategy-creation to get to this point and now it’s all about the execution. Working on something like this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I’m excited to be involved in what will be a legacy for Sydney.”

Building a people strategy from scratch

International Convention Centre Sydney is designed to replace the obsolete Sydney Convention and Entertainment Centre. The $1.5 billion facility is large enough to host three major events simultaneously, and features 35,000 square metres of exhibition space and three theatres.

Once fully operational, it will be staffed by a workforce of 300 permanent and 1500 casual staff, operating in areas as diverse as hospitality, food and beverage, customer service, events, finance and live entertainment.

Paine, who is an AHRI Certified HR Practitioner, successfully interviewed for the HR director role and joined the organisation as employee number 10. He was then given the enormous task of creating an HR department from scratch – and he was given carte blanche about how to proceed.

“When I started, I was given a blank sheet of paper and told, ‘right, now you’ve got to write your strategy, come up with a staffing plan and how you are going to run this HR department’,” he says. “I had to develop policies, procedures and systems, and decide how we would attract and recruit 1800 staff. It was also my task to create and build a culture and an employer brand that didn’t exist.”

Paine says he was excited by the challenge. His first decision was to create a distinct organisational structure for the HR division, which he chose to divide into four parts: talent acquisition, learning and development, workforce planning and rostering, and employment relations. He next devised an HR strategy for the business and hired a talent acquisition manager to help him recruit staff.

Fresh thinking about creating a diverse workforce

“We didn’t use a recruitment agency. We knew where we wanted to attract talent and the market we needed to tap into,” says Paine. “Being a new business, we had no legacy and no diversity-inclusion strategy, so I sat down for a week and researched other organisations and what they’re doing in the diversity space to get a sense of best practice.”

Paine did a lot of planning to make sure the recruitment strategy could accomplish his diversity objectives. The plan was to target mature-age workers and youth workers, parents and carers returning to work, and members of the LGBTI community.

“We took out ads on websites or magazines that those people frequently read, such as FlexCareers and Working Mother, for those who want part-time or casual work around childcare.” The ICC has also established a mothers’ room to meet their needs while at work.

To attract youth workers, a partnership has been established with Sydney TAFE that will see staff trained at work and receive nationally recognised qualifications. Mature workers, meanwhile, have been targeted through strategies that allow them to transition into retirement rather than leaving employment in one go.

A stand-out focus is on LGBTI workers, with International Convention Centre Sydney providing unpaid leave of up to 12 months for workers wanting to change gender. “They can go off and come back as a different gender,” says Paine. “We can then get together with that employee to work out the communication strategy with their team and educate them – and then help get the employee back into the workplace. As far as I know, it’s a first in Australia.

“It was also important to make sure our internal policy, procedures and enterprise agreements were inclusive with terms for those specific diversity segments.”

Recruitment will continue until March 2017 with assessment centres dealing with short-listed candidates from the hundreds of applications for casual roles. From its small beginnings, the HR team within ICC Sydney has now grown to 15, including managers for the four key sub-divisions.

For the massive task of onboarding and inducting new employees, Paine turned to outsourcing, finding companies that could supply mass-recruitment and learning-management systems.

What makes a great place to work?

Paine says the start-up process has so far run smoothly, but challenges have included getting up to speed with the convention and exhibition industry – a sector he had not worked in before.

“I also had to learn about public-private partnerships, as I didn’t know much about them. This is a State Government asset and we manage it on behalf of the state.”

Another challenge was creating an employer brand from scratch. “Initially nobody knew what International Convention Centre Sydney was,” Paine says. “[Now we say] that it’s a really world-class convention centre with a bold vision to be an employer of choice and a great place to work, offering long-term careers across many sectors.”

While the first concert and first exhibition will be staged at the International Convention Centre Sydney in mid-December, Paine says there still remains much work to do following the opening. He sees the next major challenge as maintaining staff engagement.

“At the moment everybody is absolutely excited and you can feel the buzz,” he says. “But once we are open and from early next year business as usual will start to set in and then we’ve already begun to work on our engagement strategies. I’ve been conducting team member Net Promoter Score surveys already for the past seven months and we’ll continue that.”

Save the date for the biggest HR event of 2017: the AHRI National Convention and Exhibition 2017 at the new International Convention Centre Sydney on 21 – 23 August 2017. For more details, click here

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