Merivale CHRO reflects on monumental year for Australia’s hospo industry

Merivale's HRD reflects on a monumental year for Australia's hospo industry

Merivale CHRO reflects on monumental year for Australia’s hospo industry

When news of the nationwide lockdown broke last year, Australia’s hospitality industry ground to a halt. With bars and restaurants shuttered, the country’s much-loved eating and drinking precincts grew eerily quiet. For those on the ground, the impact was devastating.

As one of Australia’s hospo heavyweights, Merivale operates 70 venues across NSW, including Sydney favourites like Totti’s, The Newport, ivy and The Beresford. But in March last year, Merivale’s owner Justine Hemmes confirmed all the venues would shut to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

Looking back on the monumental challenge of last year, Merivale’s chief human resources officer Jessica Furolo said the most difficult aspect was operating in total uncertainty.

“We had never experienced anything like this before,” she told HRD. “Our operations were closed and our workforce was stood down overnight. In addition, government policy was constantly evolving and changing in real time, making decision making challenging.

“To provide a framework to our own initiatives as a people team we anchored ourselves to two key objectives. The first priority was caring for and providing support to our employees. Secondly we needed to enable business continuity and diversification in order to provide ongoing employment.”

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By May, Merivale had rolled out its first home delivery service in Sydney, bringing signature beverages and beloved dishes like Totti’s puffy, wood-fired bread to the comfort of customers’ homes. Like many businesses impacted by lockdowns, pivoting at a rapid speed was imperative. Delivery services provided employment for chefs and bartenders – those most impacted by the shutdown.

With a workforce that comprises 50% of international workers at its peak, Merivale rolled out tailored support. Being ineligible for JobKeeper support, hospitality workers from overseas who opted to stay in Australia faced a tough time.

Merivale offered a one-off financial assistance payment of $550, as well as immediate access to annual leave and the option to access leave in advance. The company also set up the Merivale Employee Hardship Programme to distribute extra financial support to those in need, like employees who did not qualify for JobKeeper. Care packages containing food staples were also distributed to help team members and ensure they had essential items.

“These employees had limited support options available, not being eligible for JobKeeper or having family close by, and the realities of their situation really hit home for us,” Furolo said. “How we would support and retain these valuable employees was always front of mind.”

Read more: COVID-19: My employee refuses to come into work – now what?

By October, all permanent staff members had returned to full-time employment. As well as managing employees’ mental health throughout the lockdown, the HR team focused on robust health and safety training on the company’s new COVID safe protocols. Delivered both online and face-to-face, training was key to keeping both staff and customers safe once venues reopened.

Having weathered the COVID-19 storm, Furolo said she’s learnt just how powerful communication is during times of uncertainty.

“We were also reminded of what an amazing team we have who, in addition to our group-wide programs, went out of their way to care for and look out for each other,” she said. “This element of our team culture really has to be our proudest and most important reflection.”

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