In February 2014, on the back of half-year pre-tax losses totalling $252 million, Qantas announced that it would be implementing a ‘transformation program’, with 5000 full-time roles to be cut over the next three years.
The mandate was never going to be an easy instruction to deliver and manage. HRM online talks to executive manager of human resources, Karen Lonergan FAHRI, about guiding the airline through a period of immense change.
Facilitating a seismic change
Back in February, Lonergan’s team was busy preparing for the next steps once the transformation announcement had been made. “It was an incredibly challenging time for us, both personally and professionally,” she says.
“What we’re going through at the moment is a seismic shift in both our industry and the way we operate. It means that every single person at Qantas has to operate differently.”
The HR department was first in line, so Lonergan’s team had to deal with job losses themselves while at the same time guiding the rest of the business through the change.
Qantas management decided to take a consultative approach to communicating the ‘transformation’ to staff, generally relayed through the line manager. The company wanted employees to hear the news early enough so they could have some input into the changes.
“What we’re trying to do is talk to people much earlier in the process, so that we can get them involved and we can prepare them for the fact that change is coming. The downside of that is you can extend the period of concern for individuals.”
Talking the talk
In order to communicate change effectively, Lonergan insists that all Qantas’ managers need to be across what’s happening, and have both the information and language to deal with the resultant uncertainty and questions among employees.
Qantas ran a series of workshops that equipped line managers to deal with questions that their direct reports might have post-announcement, as well as managing situations where they may not have the required information.
“One of the things that’s really challenging for us is that we don’t know all of the answers to a lot of the questions our people have… but they don’t mark us down for not having the answers. They would mark us down for not having the conversation,” she says.
The workshops are something that, Lonergan explains, Qantas is continuing to run to reinforce those necessary communication skills required by its line managers, and ensuring that conversations are happening with line managers and direct reports throughout all areas of the business.
Helping displaced employees to plan for the future
Lonergan explains that when a company goes through the kind of restructure that Qantas is facing, HR managers have a number of options.
“The card that’s always at the bottom of my deck is compulsory redundancy. That is the last thing that we want to do. Unfortunately, with the scale of transformation, we will have to do that from time to time.”
She says Qantas is also assessing the merit of offering career breaks with unpaid leave and facilitating retraining to allow affected employees to move into alternative job roles, emphasising that the company’s focus is to avoid getting to compulsory redundancy.
There’s still a business to run
Lonergan says that Qantas is aware that it needs to manage the reorganisation without hindering its customer experience.
“We can’t stop this business while we transform it. We’ve got to do both, and the only way we can do both is by keeping our people focused on what really matters, which is delivering great customer experiences.”
Key to this is ensuring staff members are engaged and performing to their maximum; it is a difficult thing to maintain in times of uncertainty. Lonergan is confident that Qantas is keeping its employees engaged, and the company on track. “When you look at all the forward indicators – on-site performance, safety, sick leave, fleet health – they show that engagement continues to increase,” she says.
Reflecting on the journey
Lonergan admits that the past six months have indeed been personally challenging and, some days, tough to work through.
She says it has taught her how important it is for leaders to manage their energy by taking time out in the evenings and on weekends to have a break, so that they can portray the right sort of positive leadership behaviour to their employee group.
“Our people always take their steer from us [management]. It’s about staying positive, it’s about accepting that we’re all people too and we have our own response to change, but you’ve got to manage that outside the workplace.
“You’ve got to show up in the workplace as a positive, confident, forward-looking leader because, if you can’t do that, there’s no way your people can be positive, confident and forward looking.
Read the full story in the August 2014 issue of HRMonthly, out from 30 July.