How has Asda mastered the generation game?

Written by
Karam Filfilan

24 Sep 2015

24 Sep 2015 • by Karam Filfilan

Dealing with changing age demographics

It’s no secret that the marketplace is seeing a change in age demographics. The iGeneration – those people born after 1997 – is now entering the workforce, while the Office for National Statistics predicts that 3.7 million more workers aged between 50 and state pension age will remain in work over the next decade. So how is Asda, with more than 500 stores across the UK and 175,000 employees, adapting to these changes?

For Hayley Tatum, Asda’s senior VP of people and stores, it’s all about flexibility, social mobility and sharing knowledge.

“If you look at where people in the population are, you’ll find that many are staying in work and contributing to the labour market for longer than historically. Asda has always employed across the age range, but the area we see most growth is in the older workforce. Either our colleagues are staying with us for longer, or new colleagues of an older age are joining us.

“We’re a very inclusive business and there is no eligibility criteria to get to certain levels or roles. From a social mobility point of view, you can join at any age or
experience and work your way through the organisation until you find a level you’re comfortable at,” she says.

Employees reflect your customer base

At Changeboard’s Future Talent Conference, Tatum told the story of employee Ray Mellors, known as the ‘Grandad of Asda’, who recently celebrated his 90th birthday and continues to work two days a week at a store in Nottingham, as an example of how the organisation employs across the generations.

“Ray didn’t actually join us until he was 80. That’s not a new thing for Asda. We have five generations in our workplace, which is great, because our customers are also of those generations. We’re representative of our customers,” says Tatum.

This desire to reflect the customer base and its needs has influenced how job roles at Asda have evolved in recent years. According to Tatum, the public now shops in a different way, with online and Click & Collect – online shopping with a pick-up service – now accounting for more than 10% of business. Shopping hours are changing too. Asda’s busiest grocery turnover period is between 5am and 6am.

This shift in retailing habits has had a huge effect on the roles and skills Asda requires. In-store checkout staff no longer just sit at a till scanning products for customers. Now, it’s about hosting and talking to them. In short, the job has become a service role rather than a functional one.

For Tatum, all this is underpinned by Asda’s approach to recruitment. “We hire for attitude, train for skill. Doing so means we already have people with the right attitude, regardless of age. Training these people to do something in a different way is a lot simpler for business than having skilled but inflexible employees,” she adds

Social mobility through the generations

As the board director responsible for the organisation’s 175,000 people, Tatum is keen to emphasise both the career mobility the organisation offers and its respect for the HR function.

Asda chief Andy Clarke famously left school at 15 with one O-level in English before forging a career in retailing, which eventually led to him being named CEO in 2010, and it is this ‘can-do’ attitude that Tatum believes helps the chain stand out.

“No one tells you that you can’t keep going. We’re lucky that we’re part of Walmart, which makes it feel like there is no top to the company in terms of where you can go,” she says.

“Mobility through the generations and seniority is about personal choice and attitude, rather than being restricted by things like age, level of experience or qualifications.

The benefits of reverse mentoring

The importance of flexibility – coupled with the organisation’s approach to inclusivity across the workforce – inspired another of Tatum’s ideas: reverse mentoring. This is where Asda pairs up colleagues from varying departments and generations to share skills and experience, with the aim of building a more inclusive team.

The idea began from a discussion on how Asda could create flexible working conditions that apply across age groups, with a particular focus on older generations.

“Our research found that we had often had extremely experienced store managers that ended up leaving the business. However, on speaking to them we found that they didn’t really want to leave, they just didn’t want to be a full-time store manager anymore,” reveals Tatum.

“So, we worked on setting up flexible ways for them to continue working with us on reduced hours or seniority. However, rapidly changing technology and customer shopping trends meant we often had to get younger colleagues mentoring the older ones to keep them up- to-date. In return, they passed on their experience and knowledge down the generations.” 

This dual learning allows both sides to benefit through shared skills, whether customer service, product-based or technological, with Tatum keen to point out that Andy Clarke recently took part in reverse mentoring with a graduate recruit in a pilot called ‘CEO for the day’

Elevating HR

In July 1999, Asda became a subsidiary of American retail giant Walmart and Tatum sees huge benefits to working for a conglomerate, not least access to high-profile individuals such as Walmart non-executive director and Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, as well as talent and opportunities from around the world. 
Her role at the top table allows Tatum to stay on top of global trends and share best practice, but she acknowledges that this can be achieved only with the trust and buy-in of her fellow directors.

“HR is respected as a business partner and strategic thought leader, equal to any other area. We’ve achieved it by having a strong legacy of HR leaders over the years, but also by being very clear on our organisation’s purpose. It’s about delivering business strategy,” she says.

By creating distinct employee profiles through data analysis, then validating them through focus groups and feedback, Asda is able to better understand the motivations and desires of its workforce.

This allows HR to ensure each segment is properly serviced, with the aim of turning them into brand ambassadors. Tatum is clear on the business benefit of this: with more employees in store acting as brand ambassadors, the stronger the correlation with low shrink, better customer service and ultimately higher sales performance.

So how is Tatum steering her HR strategy to respond to the future of retailing? “The main thing for me is making sure my workforce is flexible so it can adapt to what customers want. Flexibility allows my colleagues to come to work and be themselves. 

“If you can be yourself at work, you’ll be engaged and give an authentic level of service by being in the moment.”

And is this something she practises herself? “Me at my best is me being me. Trying to put on a persona and do this job is too much – I’d be falling off the side of the stage. This isn’t an act. 

“By being myself I can concentrate on what I’m doing, rather than worry about my behaviour.” 

How Asda segments its workforce for analytics

New and content: Younger colleagues who enjoy the schedule flexibility and are satisfied working part-time hours

New and ambitious: Younger colleagues who are always looking for opportunities to do more hours, gain as much experience as possible and advance their careers

Experiential: Middle-aged colleagues who have worked in various jobs and are always looking to maximise their hours. The focus for this group is remuneration

Talent pipeline: Middle-aged colleagues who are the star performers and have participated in developmental training to advance their career path

Stationary: Older colleagues who have reached a level of comfort in the company and are not looking to advance their career or work additional hours

Legacy: Older colleagues who are loyal and exemplars of discipline and work ethics in store.