Tell us about your organisation
There are over 7,000 co-operative societies across the UK, from co-operative banks to housing, agriculture, pharmacies, and food retail – all owned by and operated on behalf of their members.
The Midcounties Co-operative is the UK’s largest independent co-operative, offering a range of services from food and travel to funerals and childcare. With over 700,000 member owners, people are at the centre of everything we do. Our success is all about building great connections – with our customers, member owners and communities.
What challenges were you trying to address?
COVID-19 brought a unique set of challenges across the diverse range of businesses we operate. Firstly, whilst 18% of our retail workforce were in isolation, we were facing unprecedented demand in our local food stores in the first few weeks of the crisis. Our local stores are a lifeline to many in the community and so we needed to keep them open and working effectively. Our staff also faced additional pressures, with PPE equipment and social distancing impacting their ability to be productive.
At the same time, other parts of our business were struggling. Our non-essential services such as travel branches were closed and we had significant staff capacity across our office support roles.
What goals did you want to address?
We wanted to make sure that staff were able to continue working and keep our food stores and funeral services open for the community. Our shared principles and values are at the heart of everything we do – from equality to social responsibility - so those needed to be at the centre of our approach.
What was your solution?
We decided to redeploy staff across the different parts of our business as well as within three weeks, redeployed from low demand sectors such as hospitality, leisure, and administration. A call to action from our recruitment team via social media channels was met with well over 1,000 applications and a rapid recruitment team was set up with colleagues seconded in to conduct CV screening and telephone interviews from across the business. With their support, we were able to start successful applicants within 48 hours and target our efforts in the stores and branches where we had the greatest need.
We also expanded our list of suppliers quickly to help us deliver for the community – including those that had been impacted by COVID-19, including one butcher that supplied Oxford University and the Houses of Parliament!
At a time when 18% of our colleagues were in isolation, our stores were more needed than ever by the local communities in which we trade, whilst we faced the challenge of implementing social distancing measures. Our Travel colleagues, who moved across to Food to support the teams, were invaluable.— Mark Taylor, Head of Store Operations
At the same time we took on over 950 temporary workers to fill the gaps left by those isolating, and the Travel colleagues experience around customer service and training helped support those new colleagues, so that we could maintain our high standards of customer service. Many of our travel colleagues have commented on how much they are enjoying the experience, how they have learned new skills, and some even contemplating a future career in Food Retail.
How did you roll out your approach?
Our guiding principle was safety. We matched colleagues in our travel co-operatives to roles in food retail, but only in cases where they had local co-operative food stores that didn’t require significant travel. Our travel colleagues have high levels of customer service and were a fantastic fit for our local food stores. They’ve helped keep stores open and increased the levels of customer service for the community.
Next, we moved many of our office support colleagues to HR to help process and onboard the 950 temporary workers we were employing during the crisis. Many of these new hires are on short-term contracts from previous roles in hospitality or administration.
All colleagues – including existing colleagues –were given a tailored one-off induction, focused on their safety as well as customer safety. This included guidance on the correct use of PPE such as gloves and masks, as well as social distancing and screens.
Another important element of our approach was two-way communication. At 1:00pm every day we communicate with all colleagues, outlining the latest developments in the business and providing an opportunity for feedback.
With a mix of essential and non-essential business, a can-do attitude, high levels of colleague engagement and the principles of safety and community support behind you – you won’t go too far wrong.
What have the results been?
We’ve been able to better support our food retail and HR functions, keep people employed and continue to advocate for our shared values.
We’re most proud of our new home delivery service, which was set up from scratch during the crisis to provide food to vulnerable groups in our communities. We’ve now got 700 volunteers and have fulfilled 30,000 home deliveries within 12-24 hours from a range of 29 products. This wouldn’t have been possible without the redeployment of our colleagues.
We’ve also had capacity to support 40 food banks, giving them access to food for a balanced diet. We’ve set up two £40,000 funds, one for food banks and another to give discounted childcare to essential workers and we’ve kept 18 nurseries open near essential workers locations, including the Oxford University Hospitals.
What advice would you give to other businesses looking to do something similar?
We’ve learned a lot from this experience.
From a colleague point of view, communication has been vital. We’ve tried really hard to understand what the redeployment journey looks like for them and support them at every stage. Communication has also been important in our recruitment drive. Particularly during the crisis, applicants need answers within a reasonable timeframe and our store managers need to be aware of who is turning up on Monday morning and the level of experience they have.
Secondly, get your ducks in a row on recruitment. It’s vital to maintain safeguards and checks in recruitment, including right to work. Our admin and payroll teams have been the unsung heroes in every redeployment situation, keeping track of all colleagues who have moved roles. This has taken more effort than we realised so we supplemented the team with redeployed project managers to help manage the workload.