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Why the perfect HR solution requires deep immersion

Spending time on location early in his career allowed Roland Houareau CPHR to develop an effective and impactful solution.

Roland Houareau believes that in order to make a complex organisational change effective, it helps to deeply understand the workplace environment.

“I’ve previously worked in the field for almost 10 years on various projects all around the country,” says the general manager of industrial relations at INPEX, a Japanese-owned oil and gas company. “In 2006-07, when I was working for an oil and gas maintenance company, I made about 80 trips to both onshore and offshore locations. This was when the resources boom was just starting to take off.”

Houareau has seen the industry change significantly over the last 15 years. “When I started my first role in oil and gas in 2003, Australia had only four liquefied natural gas [LNG] processing trains [liquefaction and purification facilities]. Fast forward to 2018, and we will have 21, making us the second largest producer of LNG in the world.”

The rapid growth of the industry has meant larger-scale projects and operations. These LNG mega-projects have been executed by international teams located across the globe. In mid-2017, INPEX was preparing to sail its two large offshore assets, Ichthys Explorer and Ichthys Venturer, from South Korean shipyards to the Ichthys Field, 220 kilometres off the Western Australian coast. Houareau was tasked with constructing the “employment architecture”, predominantly made up of third-party contractors.

“It was one of the largest, if not the largest, offshore marine spread in the country. We would have people living alongside the offshore facilities in accommodation support vessels, so it was a big undertaking,” he says.

Working it out

To maximise the success of the Ichthys project, INPEX needed to improve the productivity of its contractor base. Knowing the ins and outs of a field-based workday enabled Houareau to develop an innovative and cost-effective solution. “We were facing cost constraints, so we needed to apply new design practices and processes to help us improve productivity,” he says.

Houareau’s deep understanding of life out in the field helped him recognise that ingrained practice around meal breaks was restricting productivity and employee satisfaction.

In an average offshore workday, employees take five formal sit-down meal breaks. Each break requires a change in and out of civilian clothes, a time-consuming exercise. Considering the brevity of the first and third break, Houareau’s initial innovation was to condense the allotted time into two long meal breaks. “We opened up the meal times across a greater spread, enabling people to go when they are actually hungry, rather than the narrow times the meal centres used to be open,” he says.

The next step involved the creation of “dirty cribs” – a place for workers to eat sandwiches, fresh fruit and healthy snacks at their leisure while remaining in their work gear.

“We had no idea what the uptake would be. But it turned out that a significant portion of our workforce chose to make use of the dirty cribs in their breaks.”

Building bridges

Key to the solution’s design was that it was offered rather than enforced. Houareau used the AHRI Practising Certification Program framework to help him manage the complexities of the proposed change and develop a workforce-focused solution.

“Our first principle was to find ways to give back to our workforce,” he says.

“If there was no value for the workers, what would be the incentive? They wouldn’t engage with the change as readily.” And the proof was in the pudding when it came to the increased productivity levels. After implementation, there was a measured enhancement of approximately 45 minutes per person per calendar day across 1200 workers. “The redesign of the meal and break architecture introduced a level of empowerment that was intrinsically motivating and structured to engender workforce trust. That really shone through in our increased productivity levels.”

Houareau credits his knowledge of the field and his cross-cultural experience for his ability to develop out-of-the-box, design-based solutions. “Working across countries and cultures is a positive, life-enriching experience,” he says.

“In my opinion, HR leaders who are culturally dextrous can make effective and significant contributions to both business and society.”

These days Houareau is moored a little closer to home, back in Perth, with his wife and two children, and within reach of the small town of Wongan Hills, where he spent his youth.  He is, however, no less busy. “I value learning,” he says, and he means it.

After completing the certification program, which he describes as “a valuable framework to develop baseline skills and knowledge of the people management discipline”, Houareau has opted to undergo further study at INSEAD’s Singapore campus to broaden his design perspective. He is the embodiment of one of AHRI’s key pillars: a commitment to lifelong learning.


Build the strengths and diversity of your HR knowledge with the AHRI Practising Certification Program and become an HR partner to the business. Enrolments for the August intake close on Monday 30 July.

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