‘It was an incredible shock to the system’: Queenstown Airport’s HR leader on the impact of COVID-19

Queenstown Airport's HRD shares her three lessons from lockdown

‘It was an incredible shock to the system’: Queenstown Airport’s HR leader on the impact of COVID-19

In the last 18 months, the world has discovered certain industries are more vulnerable to a global pandemic than others – and the aviation sector is arguably number one.

When an airport loses the bulk of its passengers almost overnight, how do you handle the mammoth task of looking after your people? That was the question facing Queenstown Airport’s people and culture manager in March last year after COVID-19 arrived in New Zealand.

Speaking to HRD, Donna Webb said as the government closed the country’s international border and then paused flying within New Zealand, the business came to a grinding halt.

“It was an incredible shock to the system for the business and clearly there was a need to immediately look at how we should respond to ensure that we could stabilise the business, not only from the financial perspective but also to ensure that our people were supported,” she said.

“Naturally we all gravitate towards the airport as a way of connecting with people. It was really challenging to determine how we would have to pivot from working physically at the airport to home working - that was certainly a key challenge for us - and then how we would be able to mobilise that workforce to keep them engaged and supported, especially when a lot of their jobs really rely on them being there physically.”

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The business set up an Emergency Response Team to deal with the rapidly changing situation, determining the organisation’s immediate priorities. As the country entered level four restrictions in line with Jacinda Ardern’s hard and fast response, protecting the wellbeing of their people was a key objective, and it started with communication.

They established regular channels of communication between the business’s decision makers and the wider employee network to allay as much fear as possible, while also encouraging regular checks in between leaders and their teams.

Webb said they used various touchpoints, like email updates as well as self-service through the company’s intranet, and made sure to mix announcements with lighter content like team quizzes and fun activities like a lockdown playlist competition. They also focused on the here and now, rather than projecting too far into the future.

Technology played a crucial role in enabling Webb to do her job, especially as she swung from big picture strategy-planning with board members on one end of the spectrum to how they could support individual employees who were struggling on the other. Thankfully Webb had the support of third-party HR platform, My HR, which helped take on the administrative burden as well as provide a team of experts she could turn to. Being cloud based, the platform also enabled Webb to move to working from home seamlessly and with the knowledge that the company’s data was safely protected.

As it became clear a restructure of the company would be necessary to mitigate the drop in passenger numbers, the support from the My HR team again proved invaluable, she said.

“As a sole standalone HR practitioner, it was really important that I had the support of a really strong technology solution to help me with that,” she said. “But I guess the beauty of the platform was that it extended beyond just the pure technology to offering a really human, people centric approach to the support on offer.

“Having easy access to reporting also meant that we could still focus on celebrating the small things like birthdays and work anniversaries because it's at times like that when people are feeling isolated that those milestones are even more important.”

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Looking back, Webb said the pandemic has driven home the importance of supporting one another through challenging times and she can’t wait to see Queenstown Airport become the hub of connection, emotional reunions, adventure and travel that it was pre-pandemic. For her, and many other HR leaders across the globe, it's been a once-in-a-lifetime learning experience.

Webb’s stand-out lessons include acting quickly in times of crises, leaning in to challenging conversations and being inclusive of the business community beyond your immediate organisation.

“You learn a lot about your people through a process like a global pandemic in terms of what truly matters,” she said. “It does allow you to really go back to the heart of ensuring that our people are at the front and center of what we do.”

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