Industry Leaders
Galliford Try
HR Director

Vikki Skene

Ever since the pandemic, businesses have been discovering more than ever the importance of maintaining a happy workforce. A great deal of that, naturally, has to do with respecting the employees’ various specific needs, which includes maintaining a diverse environment where people can feel safe and supported at work.

Co-Host of The Interview Luke James spoke to Vikki Skene, Group Human Resources (HR) Director at Galliford Try (GT), a major construction business in the UK, about how COVID has impacted the way they run things as well as their award-winning approach to Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI).

Vikki’s Journey

Luke: What brought you to your current role?

I didn’t start off my career in HR. I started in retail management at the John Lewis Partnership, within the Waitrose division. I did various roles in stores which I loved. But after about four/five years, I got the opportunity to be seconded to a head office project team work, implementing systems on different projects, from here I was given the chance to move into HR, working in the Staff and Training department for about seven years, which I really enjoyed, carrying out different roles until I left when my son turned two because, in those days, part-time working in the role I did wasn't an option open to me. I was travelling long hours every day for work and wanted to spend more time with him. So I moved and went into a role working for the police in HR. I really enjoyed the work working with the police officers, was involved in projects that you wouldn't ordinarily have the opportunity to do elsewhere, for example relating to Firearm officer recruitment and training, but realised I missed the commercial aspect of the private sector. 

I was approached with an opportunity to work in a construction company as HR manager, which was completely different to anything I’d ever known. That’s when it came together for me that HR can make a big difference to business. It’s a real challenge to see how we can shift the dial from treating people like a commodity to actually seeing the benefit they can bring to a business. I was promoted to HR director after 18 months, and then we were acquired by Balfour Beatty. At that point, I had id a lot of work in re-organisation and restructuring. I relocated to Edinburgh fifteen years ago and did various roles in the company, the last one being UK Employee Relations Director. I loved the role, but I missed the wider breath of a generalist HR role and working with an operational leadership team. The opportunity came to join GT. I met Bill Hocking, our CEO, and after an initial chat went away knowing I really wanted to work for him. He was really passionate about the people agenda and the difference it can make. He was (and is ) really inspirational. And the role was working in the Construction Investments division, which hadn’t had an HR director before. I joined GT seven years ago, and then in January 2020, when we became a standalone construction business, I got appointed to the executive board. The rest is history!

Luke: What would you say are the main changes when it comes to HR post-Covid? What new sort of challenges do you have to navigate?

Even before the pandemic began, we saw challenges around work/life balance and geography. Historically, construction people would move all across the UK for various projects. For the regional business, people could work and get home most evenings, but we also have national business including water and highways, and people had to travel. We’d already begun to address some of the issues through technology and Agile working, but what Covid did was enable us to prove that this sort of flexibility does work. Where we used to have in-person meetings, we’ve demonstrated we can run a business virtually. This also means that we can use technology much more effectively and impact less on the environment in terms of our carbon footprint. 

Another interesting outcome was that some people who were swaying about whether they would retire took the time to discover there’s more to life and left the company earlier than they’d planned. Meanwhile, others wanted to come back but only for 2-3 days a week. The balance shifted in the relationship between employer and employee. Particularly in our sector, which is pretty hot now, employees have a choice. If the employer isn’t going to allow flexibility, they’ll just go somewhere else.

Luke: Earlier this year, GT was awarded the Clear Assured Bronze Standard award for inclusion. Can you tell us a bit about that? 

The Bronze Award is looking at our basics, in terms of our policies, processes, procedures, how we bring people into the organisation, and ensuring we’re as inclusive as possible. We’re trying to encourage people from all different backgrounds — whether that’s gender, ethnicity, neurodiversity, etc — to join. We’re not driven by getting awards and accreditation. What’s most important to us is creating an environment that’s welcoming, inclusive, and flexible, and where people feel valued. 

Luke: What’s been your approach to engaging staff on EDI issues?

For me, it’s kind of subtle. When there is an issue or challenge, deal with that properly, fairly, and robustly so people understand the right way to do things here. It’s making sure that what we say in our policies and how we actually behave is aligned because people watch and see. That’s what actually makes a difference. Even if they’re not impacted, they’ll watch how you deal with somebody else. We also do various webinars and sessions to train people on these topics.

We also want to attract the right people in the first place because if you’re not open to being inclusive and welcoming, we don’t want you here. In our induction, the first half is about the business, and the second is about EDI. We want people to think about the impact they can have on each other. From day one, it’s clear that’s important to us. 

But again, it’s our actions and behaviours that make the difference. When something goes wrong, that’s an opportunity to show that we are true to ourselves, and that we are going to listen and hear. And we’re open to learning. 

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Luke James
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