10th Aug 2020
3 Min Read

Supporting age diversity at B&Q. An interview with Gavin Buckle

Kate Went
Kate Went
Culture & Change

If years have themes, 2020 (and let’s face it, there’s still time for it to throw us more curveballs) must feature vulnerable people and diversity pretty heavily.

Shielding and quarantine of elderly and/or ill people, swiftly followed by the explosion into the mainstream of the BLM movement could prove to be a double blow for older workers. In the first case, the risk that employers might view them as less reliable, while in the second, the (much needed) focus on race could risk leaving any other diversity initiatives in the shade.

As part of our 2020 World Changers trend report, ‘9-5 until 95’ explored an ageing workforce, the opportunities leaders may be missing to engage and learn from older generations of employees, and internal communications’ role in supporting and promoting age diversity.

Mention support for older workers and B&Q is often hailed as a prime example of a business getting it right.

So, in the dramatically different landscape Covid-19 has created, we spoke with B&Q’s internal communications lead Gavin Buckle to find out how that reputation came about, and whether recent events make it irrelevant.

Gavin, B&Q’s culture is one that sees all age groups across the workforce as equal. Will the government’s narrative of categorising older people as ‘vulnerable’ change this?

It has had an impact on our older workers and we were very aware of this when the guidelines came in. But older or not, it was a personal choice for people to make based on lots of factors, not just age.

From a B&Q perspective, it’s just not our mindset. Whether you’re 25 or 75, we support you. We’re a family.

B&Q is often praised for hiring an older workforce, is that a conscious strategy?

Historically it was. It was a badge of honour that we once [in the late 1980's] opened a store with only employees aged over 50. That legacy perception and credibility has grown into the fabric of who we are.

If we’re hiring for a role, older people aren’t afraid to come and apply, because we have the reputation for being inclusive and supportive. The groundwork done a while ago has laid that foundation, but we certainly don’t predefine who we’re looking to hire now based on these types of characteristics or try to tick boxes. We look for colleagues who can best serve the customer.

That being said, we did recognise that we didn’t have much data on the make-up of our workforce. So last year we sent out our first ever inclusion survey to capture the true story of who B&Q is.

Does having such an age-diverse workforce affect IC messages and channels at B&Q?

I don’t think it changes our messaging. My view is that we should be communicating in as simple and clear a way as possible to everyone. To make sure the feedback we gather is as representative as possible we talk to as diverse a range of colleagues as possible.

In terms of channels, we’ve recently seen improved uptake across the organisation. I think that’s simply because there’s been a marked improvement in the technology and systems available.

It sounds like there’s a real culture of feedback at B&Q, and a sense that acting on this information is important?

Absolutely. Everything is about listening, measuring and adjusting. We run quarterly listening groups to bring colleagues and the board together to explore and discuss new product ranges and gather on-the-ground feedback. We also have a people’s forum that meets three times a year.

Both our annual engagement survey and more regular pulse surveys give us personal feedback and we also capture sentiment across channels such as Yammer to give us as much holistic data as possible.

I think there can be an obsession with ‘numbers’ – of capturing only quantitative information to prove something. My feeling is that listening should focus just as clearly on conversation. Our team creates platforms for our board to have those meaningful conversations, but it’s up to the senior team to make the best use of them. If they don’t listen actively, our people will soon tell them.

Before the pandemic hit, what was the B&Q internal comms team’s focus?

In a nutshell, it was all about connecting colleagues to our overall plan.

I stepped into my role just over a year ago, at a time when the team was needing to be redefined. We were heavily involved in operational comms at that time and I saw two distinct functions – one was to focus on the hearts and minds, the other the day-to-day.

When we split the teams, operational colleagues looked after daily support while our remit became re-engaging, measurement and listening to colleagues.

We support a lot of strategic activities and events designed to make sure our board members are visible, human and communicating our shared goals, challenges and progress regularly.

In our report, we talked about the risk of skills being lost as older workers retire out of a business. B&Q was widely praised for recruiting former plumbers and carpenters to act as in-store experts. Is that still relevant and what do you do to mitigate your own skills gap issues?

We have skill academies where we bring colleagues together when new products are introduced. The information is then passed back to store, so we have a continuous loop of learning and knowledge sharing.

There’s definitely a perception that older workers have more intrinsic knowledge about a product or a process. That creates a sense of trust, but our hiring process looks for people across all generations who have a passion for DIY and then provides the product training they people need to help them support customers. We want B&Q as a whole, not just a segment, to be known for expertise.

What have been some of the biggest communications challenges you’ve faced in your role?

The biggest thing we’ve undergone in the last four years has been the cultural shift. We had to unpick a legacy of ‘this is how we’ve always done things’. It’s a mindset which makes it hard to bring in fresh ideas and thinking.

Secondly, the volume of change, across systems, people, leadership and ways of working. All at the same time as major change at Kingfisher, our holding company. This amount of simultaneous change creates a lot of uncertainty – always a challenge for internal communications. There were so many moving parts to align.

I’m a change practitioner and I have strong views on it. I don’t believe in labelling every single change, because you risk turning them into source of anxiety, rather than a constant evolution. If we build each change up so it feels like a big wave, we can imagine there’s an instinctive reaction to duck under and let it pass you by.

What has been a proud moment?

Being able to introduce lots of listening has been a massive win. And it meant that when we hit this year’s crises, our people felt safe sharing exactly how they were feeling and knew that leaders were – and are – listening.

I’m also incredibly proud of the inclusion survey. Having the investment to launch a campaign like this, get the responses we did, and actually do something with the survey is fantastic. We have this reputation for inclusivity and now we can really drive that forward.

As we make tentative steps to re-open and return, what’s the focus for the weeks and months ahead?

Having been on the furloughed side, I’ll be going back to the team with the aim of connecting our experiences. It’s almost a marriage counselling scenario. I understand they will feel like they’ve carried the business while we’ve been off having a jolly, whereas sitting out of the business, I’ve felt frustrated and keen to return. There’s awkwardness on both ends to talk through and a balance to reset.

Then, it’s about setting up the rest of the business to do the same thing. Helping our teams to refocus after so much disruption as we work through the 2nd half of the year.

We’ll be capturing the big stories and hero moments to continue to foster that sense of pride and achievement as we go forward, alongside a continued focus on wellbeing.

This interview was inspired by our look at '9 - 5 until 95', one of ten trends covered in our 2020 World Changers report

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