Return of the Mac: McDonald's director of people strategy on thriving in a pandemic

From tech investments to Twitter campaigns, McDonald's COVID strategy takes the biscuit

Return of the Mac: McDonald's director of people strategy on thriving in a pandemic

You’d be hard pressed to find a brand more iconic than McDonald’s. Since its launch in 1940’s California, the fast-food chain now boasts over 36,000 restaurants across the world, operating in 175 countries. But for Dave Burchfield, McDonald’s director of people strategy, those Golden Arches represent much more than fries and shakes.

Responsible for more than two million employees globally, Burchfield is intrinsic to the organizational strategy - forming brand identity, company culture, and digital employee experience in every restaurant.

HRBP to global people director

“I'm really focused on simplifying the restaurant employee experience,” Burchfield told HRD. “How do we make it less stressful to work in our restaurants? How do we make sure we give employees the information they need to be successful? How do we create a culture that's welcoming – one where people are recognized for their efforts? These are some of the questions I grapple with in my role.”

Having started his career in a traditional HRBP position, Burchfield soon pivoted into consulting - doing a number of HR transformation initiatives and restructuring functions, as well as dabbling in the world of SAS. Around four years ago, Burchfield made the leap to McDonald’s as manager of enterprise change management – and he’s never looked back. However, while the billion dollar, fast-paced world of fast-food industry is seemingly untouchable – no one was safe from the immediate and game-changing effects of the pandemic.

“McDonalds operates in 175 different countries, each with different legislations and interpretation on how to treat the pandemic.” Burchfield told HRD. “As you can imagine, it’s difficult to navigate these waters and offer global solutions that apply locally. I would say, furthermore, we are a franchise business. Franchisees are essentially small business owners – and they have discretion as to what policies they want to enforce.

"From an HR point of view, this is a very complex landscape to operate in. For my team, our focus was really about getting information out to the frontline as quickly as possible – especially when that information is changing continuously.”

And Burchfield isn’t alone in this analysis. The need to over communicate became a core business pillar in 2021 - and companies that failed to communicate well ran the risk of becoming toxic. Research from Gallup found that 74% of employees feel like they’re missing out on internal news because their comms department isn’t living up to par. What’s more, 33% of staff claim that a lack of open communication leads to a diminishment in employee morale. For Burchfield, implementing HR tech that allows for streamlined and effective communication became his overriding goal.

Return of the Mac

“We're really focused on digital tools that enable this kind of fast communication,” he told HRD. “How do we get announcements out there knowing that frontline employees don't have email addresses? How do we reassure our people that we’re here for them – and that we’ll continue to be there when this is all over? That was our core concern in 2021.”

While many industries floundered in the COVID chaos – McDonald’s actually seemed to thrive. During those endless lockdowns, a trip to a fast-food drive through was a major event – and one that many people took full advantage of.

“We had a lot of buzz around ‘Return of the Mac’ [new ad campaign] on Twitter,” joked Burchfield. “The support we had online was phenomenal. As an iconic brand, people were looking to us to lead the way. When the restaurants did reopen fully, we had customers queuing round the block. It was so amazing to see that comradery between our employees too – it really felt like a family. Like we’re all in this together.”

Lessons from the pandemic

The pandemic offered leaders a lens in which to view the needs of their people. While lots of companies boasted that they valued staff ideas and actually used the data they collected in pulse surveys, for many this was just lip service. The chaos of the pandemic forced the C-suite to realistically consider employee opinions – to collect entrepreneurial and innovative ideas of how to drive the business forward and keep themselves afloat.

“Since the pandemic, I’d say the biggest lesson we’ve learned in HR at McDonald’s is the importance of meeting people where they are,” Burchfield told HRD. “We need to recognize that our frontline people deserve to be in the loop and updated with any and all restaurant changes. And the investments we’re making really reflect that. Right now, we’re focused on technology – using that to improve the way we track and manage our employees, solicit input on new ideas, make it easier to schedule and swap shifts, and provide a digital community for employees to engage with their peers.”

Technology investments in 2022

There’s no denying that technology quite literally saved the day for HR leaders over the past year. Overnight digitization helped companies pivot to remote models with ease – making the C-suite finally sit up and recognise the importance of investing in efficient HR tech. Looking ahead to 2022, Burchfield revealed that McDonald’s will be enhancing how they attract new talent using tools like bots and AI. All of which will help redefine the employee lifecycle.

“We recently partnered with Amazon Alexa where people can actually do voice commands to apply for a job in McDonald's. It's all that kind of innovation that we’re super excited about. I want to assess how we can create a stronger alumni network. We know that people come and join our team at different stages of their life - they may join, then go back to school, then they may want to come back. We want to be able to make sure that people, once they've been through the door, can come back to the McFamily whenever they want. That’s how we can not only improve the employee experience but take charge of the entire employee lifecycle.”

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