Wolfgang Schiller, VP HR Communication, Ideal Standard International, Brussels

Which measures did Ideal Standard take from an HR perspective to keep operating during the lockdown?

From looking at the situation in March, when the lockdown seemed likely, I am rather proud of the speed at which we executed our plan; in early April we prepared for “short time” work, managed the ramp-down of our plants, and shifted all office-based white-collar staff company-wide to teleworking and 3 or 4-day weeks. It was a new experience for our HR team across the region, but they implemented it extremely well.

We introduced a Leadership contribution scheme, in which our senior team took a salary cut while continuing to work full-time. All temp agency and consulting agreements were stopped and all recruiting was halted as part of our efforts to protect the company.

Combining these measures with funding strong focus on cash management, we are in good shape and moving towards recovery.

What particular challenges has Ideal Standard faced through Covid-19?

We have similar issues to other companies including our competitors with a wide manufacturing footprint; underutilized factories have quite an impact on our overall profitability.

Also most of our customers’ warehouses were closed, so we couldn’t deliver stocks – we are B2B, so have store owners or DB’s as customers. We do not yet see a major impact on our business from a slowdown in construction, but it is not inconceivable that it will come. Our e-commerce business represents an opportunity for future growth – while fittings are well-suited to ecommerce, relatively few people buy bathroom ceramics on the web to install themselves.

What impact has the Covid-19 crisis had on your Talent Acquisition planning in the last months?

We have stopped recruiting, but there is relatively little overall impact; over the last couple of years we have upgraded our talent base, especially at the senior level, as well as in our Operations and Commercial departments.

What implications do you see for your resourcing needs due to the coronavirus? 

These months have been a test of strength for everybody – companies have discovered they must make changes in certain functions to survive. We expect to do more upgrading of the capabilities of our existing staff, such as additional technical training for our commercial teams.

How have you managed your messaging and internal communications across the region? How have you maintained employee motivation?

What works very well is that our CEO is very strong communicator, arranging regular video calls with all employees and bi-weekly leadership calls. This is also the case locally by the country leaders. This way all employees are kept informed as fully, personally and directly as possible.

What measures are in place for the return to work (or to the office)?

All our plants are operating again, albeit at reduced capacity. We have implemented strict guidelines on distancing, use of masks and hygiene.

The company has not been at a standstill; most of our colleagues have been working (from home) between 3-4 days per week, with only the senior leaders working Fridays.

A good performer has an intrinsic motivation, so doesn’t need a supervisor’s physical proximity. When I assign work to my team, I am confident of how they will perform; I am really happy about the way they maintained their productivity. Trust is key, and you need to be more clear about expectations of how to work together. I am strongly in favour of giving more freedom.

How do you view the next 6-12 months from an HR / TA perspective

We will remain conservative; as the business recovers we will revisit the question, but overall recruitment activities will remain at a low level.

Will the crisis make any lasting changes at Ideal Standard to the way people work, or the way they are allowed to work?

Yes, the amount of time which can be saved by not commuting is very encouraging. For example, commuting to our office in Brussels can be a nightmare, so I tell my team they don’t need to be in the office every day or they can arrive later, but when we have a meeting, I need them to come in. People shouldn’t be left to work solely from home, but getting more flexibility is very desirable for an employee, and makes an employer more attractive.

We have travel cost savings targets, so a regime of less travel is beneficial for us. We had made big investments in video tools, which were underutilized, but the recent experience has been overwhelmingly positive. One day of meetings sandwiched between 2 days of travel for 15 people can be achieved in a much more efficient way.

What have you been surprised by in a positive way from an HR/TA point of view?

I am very excited that we have been somewhat forced into a test of how to do things differently, and I am really passionate about using this as an opportunity to look at how to work differently together in the future. The model of everybody working in the office all day is a bit outdated, but changing it is all a question of trust.

My main takeaway is that this may strongly impact the leadership profiles of the future. This experience will make employees more demanding with respect to flexibility, but if you maintain your old-fashioned control-oriented leader profile, it will fail.