How Honest Burgers is preparing furloughed staff for the future

Matt Rakowski /

The coronavirus lockdown has hit the hospitality sector hard, with thousands of employees currently unable to work. But restaurant chain Honest Burgers has been using tech to deliver fun and informative videos to keep staff connected and prepare them for what their roles might be like post-pandemic. Ashleigh Webber reports.

It has been one month since strict lockdown and social distancing measures were put in place, forcing many businesses in the retail, hospitality and leisure sectors to close completely.

Hundreds of thousands of workers at pubs, bars, restaurants and fast food outlets are currently on furlough, with no indication of when things might return to normal – or if the “normal” they knew before the coronavirus will be the same in future.

Burger chain Honest Burgers is no exception. Although many other food outlets are just about surviving by operating takeaway and delivery services with a skeleton staff, Honest Burgers took the tough decision to completely close its 39 outlets last month in order to protect its employees’ health. This meant that 98% of the organisation, 721 people, have been furloughed.

The company put its own plans in place to support employees’ jobs and protect their income a  few weeks before chancellor Rishi Sunak announced the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, head of people Chantal Wilson tells Personnel Today.

“We knew something was happening in early March. We could see our sales going off a cliff. You feel when tourism starts to dip a bit and people aren’t eating out or picking up lunch like they used to,” she says.

“What I didn’t want is a single mum asking ‘how am I going to buy groceries next week, because I live on my tips?’… so we secured this coronavirus retention package that we called ‘Corona Pay’. It meant everyone would get 50% of their wages regardless of whether they were working. We were all going to take a pay cut together, whether you work or don’t work, and we would rotate people on and off shift. That was our thinking pre-lockdown.

“Before ‘furlough’ was even in our vocabulary, we went to our people and explained how we would deal with the situation. Essentially, we were building the same thing as the government had announced, before Rishi announced it. We didn’t want to lose all of our people, but we couldn’t see when this would be getting better.”

The scheme was quickly shelved when the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, which allows employers to claim 80% of staff wages from the government, was announced. Honest Burgers has secured its wage grant and expects to pay employees their backdated wages next week.

Honest Burgers has not simply told staff to take some time off and ceased all communication with them during furlough. It is using technology to keep them informed, run fun social events, support their health and wellbeing and equip them with skills to help them in their personal and professional lives.

Before ‘furlough’ was even in our vocabulary, we went to our people and explained how we would deal with the situation.” – Chantal Wilson, head of people

Using Workplace by Facebook, it has launched a programme of events called Home Front. When Home Front was launched around the time of the lockdown, 100% of its staff were engaged with the platform. This has since dropped to 90%, but this is still an extremely high proportion of staff to engage with while they are not physically present at work.

Every week co-founder Tom Barton hosts a HIIT (high intensity interval training) fitness class in 80s-inspired outfits for employees, while other virtual events have included a session on healthy eating during lockdown, delivered by an internal nutritionist, and a live seed planting event delivered by a chef and gardening-enthusiast. Employees are encouraged to host videos that they think will be informative and entertaining for their colleagues while they are at home.

The HIIT classes are especially popular, with around 30% of the workforce taking part either live or later, as the videos are available on-demand.

“That’s the option we really like because we don’t want to intrude on people’s lives – it’s a difficult time with family commitments and childcare. But in Workplace, people can log on and watch later. People have been working out at 2 in the morning!” says Wilson.

“We’re trying to get the right balance between getting momentum and being able to control the programme, but also giving it the space to organically grow with people coming to us with ideas to go live with. It’s a real jump to go live in front of 700 people – to have people who are interested in doing this is a dream.”

Opportunity for learning

As Workplace also houses the company’s LMS, a number of personal and professional training sessions are also on offer. One example of this is its Knife Skills and Life Skills programme; ‘Knife Skills’ covers what employees need to know be a great restaurant employee, while ‘Life Skills’ includes sessions on budgeting and mental health.

“Yesterday there was a session on how to start a business online. We’ve got a lot of really talented people that are trying to make money via Instagram, so we want to give them skills on how they can amplify their personal side-businesses during this time,” says Wilson.

Under the government’s furlough scheme employees are allowed to engage in training, but not any activities that generate revenue for the business. Wilson says Honest Burgers is careful to ensure that the personal and professional activities delivered via Workplace do not cross the barrier between work and personal development.

“Everything we do is optional and there’s no policing or consequences if you don’t participate, which is a really key differentiator to consider,” she says.

“A lot of our learning is for them as a person. Staff should all be able to learn something or explore a passion during this period. What we’re not offering training on is how to make a great burger.”

The organisation is now looking at ramping up learning opportunities, particularly as it is unclear what the hospitality sector will look while the UK recovers from the coronavirus pandemic and whether restaurants will be able to operate in the same way as they had a few months ago. Some employees, including “front of house” staff, may have to reskill.

She says: “We now need to look at how to operate in the new norm – at some point, lockdown is going to ease and restaurants will open up for deliveries. How does that change when some of your workforce are working and some of them aren’t?

“I don’t think we’re going to be operating in the world we left. The casual dining industry has been in freefall over the past couple of years; this was before a major crisis. We know there’s lots of competitors already who are losing their businesses.

“It’s a bit scary to think we can only operate with takeaway, which is a third of our business. That’s the challenge we’re trying to think about; if we only partially open it could be a year or longer before we’re back up and running.”

“We’re thinking about more formal professional training. Secondly, we’re looking at something like a TED talk panel – we work with some really great external speakers and culture experts for our internal training. I think our people would love the investment in being able to just listen to inspiring people talk about what they’re doing.

“This will really shift the thinking on Workplace from socialising and staying connected, into the future of work and how we get ready.”

At some point, lockdown is going to ease and restaurants will open up for deliveries. How does that change when some of your workforce are working and some of them aren’t?” – Chantal Wilson, head of people

Wilson also wants to focus on how the company can help staff with redeployment. Before the furlough scheme was launched, Honest Burgers developed a chatbot that helped staff identify other job opportunities in essential services to temporarily switch to to earn an income. She recognises that the furlough scheme will not last forever, so the company may have to begin promoting the chatbot and redeployment opportunities at partners including Tesco, Ocado, Asda, Amazon, Age UK, and in roles in farming and care homes.

She says: “Every job counts and whether that’s with us or someone else, I don’t really mind. I care that that person is able to work and care for their family and remain financially safe.

“We will really engage with that programme over the next few weeks, so if we’re not able to allow people to work, we have an option for people to be seconded into other businesses. The redeployment programme will become a really crucial part of keeping our people safe and happy.”

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