How Honest Burgers are keeping their people together through crisis

In this interview we talk with the brilliant People team at Honest Burgers: Chantal Wilson, People Director and Oli Cavaliero, Head of Employer Brand.

Wolff Olins: Can you tell us a bit about your journey with Honest so far?

OLI: ​I’ve been with Honest for around four years. I set up the recruitment department. Before that, there was no structure at all when it came to recruitment. My role then elevated to employer brand. It all started getting serious when Honest grew out of London and went UK-wide. We currently employ around 730 people which is far bigger than when I joined. In terms of the biggest obstacles, Brexit presented a huge challenge for the hospitality industry, and now there’s this which is arguably even bigger.

CHANTAL: ​I’ve been with Honest for 12 months. I came on as Head of People and progressed into becoming the first People Director for Honest which is a role I’m really honoured to do. And it’s been a 12 month adventure! We were very much a start up moving into an expansion and growth phase. When you start opening up restaurants outside of London it starts to get real very fast and we are definitely no longer a business run out of Brixton by three founders. So I came in to help them through that period.

Wolff Olins: How do you approach people and culture at Honest?

CHANTAL: ​When it comes to influencing our culture, I like to think of everything as ‘nudges’ - small actions by everyone, not just us, everyday to build it, empower each other and uphold the Honest brand internally. To do this, we made a decision to embrace tech as a key ‘people’ pillar. In other business’ HR strategies, tech sits outside of it, but we are very much a co-owner of the IT department and we have made a conscious decision to bring tech into the People remit. People want things to be easy. They want to access their rota quickly and get rid of all the clunkiness especially in our industry around the simplest of things. We saw an opportunity to have one of the best tech programmes for staff.

So we made a key hire who’s a learning architect with a tech background. This happened against a backdrop where a new tech learning team and an Ops focused development team were formed. And in terms of how we work, all our connectivity, communications, updates and everything else happen over our Facebook Workplace platform. We use this as the main tool for everything. Someone will post something on Workplace, and everyone in the company sees it. It’s instant and it’s personal and it works well for us. And it’s great because you constantly get reminded of how great our people are.

“When it comes to influencing our culture, I like to think of everything as ‘nudges’ - small actions by everyone, not just us, everyday to build it”

Wolff Olins: What has been the impact of Covid-19 on the business and your staff?

CHANTAL:​ In terms of company policy vis-a-vis employees - 98% of Honest employees have been furloughed, and this is the 2nd week of no operations. Before the government said they’d cover any costs, Honest came out and said they’d pay 50% wages for all hourly staff. This was our ‘corona pay scheme’ that was put in place in early March. The founder announced all this via live video feed. People were crying but not because they were sad, because they were so grateful for the money. There was absolutely no feeling of ‘what about the other 50%’. So whether you’re working or not working, you’re now on 80% with the government money. Throughout the whole process of deciding what to do, it was so comforting and reassuring to know our employees would understand the decisions being made. Knowing that our people were going to forgive us if we made a wrong step was great. It was hugely useful to have established trust and open-dialogue pre-corona. Everything we’ve done pre-Corona to build our culture, we’re seeing now. When it comes down to it, people just want honesty and transparency, which is the Honest brand DNA.

Wolff Olins: How have your staff reacted during this time?

CHANTAL: ​Simply put, we were just amazed by what we saw from our people. Culture isn’t 5 words, it’s just what f***ing happens. We are lucky that the values we’ve developed over the last few years - the stuff Honest is about - set us up so well for this. It’s not about brand guidelines and strategy, it comes down to the relationships between people, and how people behave generally. In a time of crisis. No one goes to grab the brand guidelines to determine how to act. You just follow what feels right.

“In a time of crisis. No one goes to grab the brand guidelines to determine how to act. You just follow what feels right.”

Wolff Olins: Tell us more about the Homefront Programme you’ve developed for your teams

CHANTAL: ​The Homefront Programme is an example of what the tech team are able to do, and quickly for our people, And it is actually part of what we’ve been building for the past 12 months, in anticipation of Brexit, knowing people want better tech at work and being at home standing still is hard for us. We just didn’t expect to turn it on so quickly. It’s a response to us asking ourselves “how the heck are we going to keep our people mentally healthy and sane?” because we’re doers, we’re restaurant people, we like being on the floor.

Wolff Olins: It sounds like you are reaping the rewards of having such a strong culture in place before the pandemic hit. What has enabled you to maintain such a strong culture as you’ve grown?

CHANTAL: ​The founders have been very careful not to lose the company’s soul as it expanded. Company events have been held in personal places like the founders’ wife’s parents' garden, with very little structure and presentations and just good chat over great food. We were sceptical about whether this sort of setup would be appropriate, but it’s worked so well for us as we’ve grown. Crucially, we’ve never wanted to over engineer our culture, instead we let it happen organically.

In terms of the driving force of our culture, it’s been our employees. The ‘Honest Way’ has been adopted and accelerated by our people, who have gone on to use it in ways we never predicted or intended. Our leadership conference is called Camp Honest and leaders have gone on to refer to “the Honest Army”. A crucial part of our character is our silliness - people do stuff like tip their chef hats to look like berets. It’s great. The biggest conversation happening at the moment amongst Honest leadership is to figure out whether they’re demonstrating the culture as well as employees are. What really helps is that the founders (Tom, Phil and Dorian) stay connected to the front line, so they haven’t let the execs veer too far from the rest. They’ve stayed in touch with the work and, as a consequence, the people. They’ve worked so hard not to become removed. The founders will never let the soul of Honest leave.

“The biggest conversation happening at the moment amongst Honest leadership is to figure out whether they’re demonstrating the culture as well as employees are”

Wolff Olins: What advice would you give to other People leaders right now?

CHANTAL: ​Size is something you can capitalise on from a cultural perspective - when you’re small it’s easier to have open and candid conversations. My advice, no matter how big or small you are as a company, is to keep going into those deep dark holes of uncomfortableness. A really important part of the Honest culture is the way people can speak their minds, address difficult topics and call each other out. I will work my hardest never to lose this no matter how big Honest gets. My advice to small businesses: don’t try and make it too pretty. Culture is ugly. Culture can’t be put into a box, or neatly written on a page. Big companies have a harder job because they probably lost it in a couple of places.There’s some salvation in that COVID is bringing people together. You don’t want a tragedy, but there you go. In terms of whether there’s any role for top-down cultural intervention, people do sometimes need structure to find their voice. They need platforms. An element of ‘this is us’ can serve as a way of empowering people and giving them permission.

“My advice, no matter how big or small you are as a company, is to keep going into those deep dark holes of uncomfortableness”

OLI: ​The main thing I’ve realised in this role is that you have to understand a company’s culture properly before you can recruit well. Once you know what the organisation is trying to achieve, you can get the right people on board. For me, a big thing is treating everyone as a human - actually​ treating them as a human. Not just talking about it.

CHANTAL: Ultimately it’s about following your gut. Never in tough times have I said, ‘let me go and get that brand or culture sheet,’ but I have trusted my gut. However, if you were to trace it back, my gut’s inevitably been influenced by the values and principles of our brand. In a sense, brand influences you because it is engrained - it exists in how you learn to function and make decisions in the company. After a certain amount of time, you make decisions on the basis that they feel right. They fit with what the company is about. We literally send pictures of a gut to signal that someone has a gut instinct.

Back