Take your place at the table: profile Una O’Reilly, Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield

Bring your whole self to work – HR’s well-worn mantra. All people leaders ought to practice what they preach when it comes to authenticity and Una O’Reilly, group director of engagement and director of HR UK/Italy at Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield (URW), is no exception.

Despite living in England for most of her career, for O’Reilly Northern Ireland is still home. Representing the organisations she has worked for abroad has at times made her adapt her accent, but it is still one of her most distinguishing features.

“I always say be yourself and be really proud, not of who you are, but of what you do,” she says.

The youngest of eight children, O’Reilly learned to be herself early on (all the bigger sister roles were taken.) Not that it has been without its challenges, though. At times, sticking true has meant making difficult decisions: moving away from home at 18; working all hours at TopShop to pay her way through university; balancing her career with being a mother.

"Be really proud, not of who you are, but of what you do”

On the first business trip to New York after her son was born, O’Reilly remembers being reluctant to go, but also feeling she should be grateful for

the opportunity. “It was allowing myself to have a balance,” she says, which taught her to have more confidence in her decision-making.

“It’s about making the choices you feel comfortable about because if you feel good about yourself then that’s going to become how you are with everyone else,” she says.

A sense of pride and the ability to stand up for what you need are qualities O’Reilly advocates for among staff at URW. Attributes that will be even more vital, she argues, in a post-pandemic world.

“I think employees should be more challenging of employers and ask ‘what do I want to say to my children or my neighbours that I do for a living?’” HR’s role then, she says, is giving people reasons to be proud to work at their organisation.

“Asking that question [of pride] is what I think keeps us relevant and keeps us at a place where people want to come and visit, and people want to come and work.”

Having by her own admission ‘grown up in retail’, O’Reilly is aware of the need to stay current. From 2003 until its dissolution in 2009 she was senior HR manager for UK and Asia at the once-beloved entertainment, homewares and pick ’n’ mix champion Woolworths.

“For me, Woolies was such an institution. It just shows you can have the best people in the world, but the strategy was wrong at the time – you need to stay current,” she says.

The rise of homeworking and lockdown taking workers out of town and city centres has renewed cries of the ‘death of the high-street’. All retailers and property companies have to consider this threat, says O’Reilly, and it is about the customer experience. The same can be said for keeping employees happy.

“It’s making sure that your people practices are not just good, but relevant and thoughtful,” she says.

More of our interviews with HR leaders:

A clear mind in turbulent times: profile James Glover, HRD Mind

Sticking to the fundamentals: Helen Giles, St Mungo's

A critical mission in a time of crisis: profile Kessar Kalim, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

Over the past year O’Reilly and the HR team at URW reviewed maternity and paternity policies at the company to provide better support for employees’ work-life balance. These policies have now been recognised by Working Families in its Best Practice Awards.

In 2020 the company also took home the HR Excellence Award for Best CSR Strategy. One of the three pillars of its Better Places 2030 strategy encourages employees to contribute to their surrounding areas through regular Community Days and charitable events.

In a series of dedicated initiatives throughout the pandemic, Westfield Stratford City employees were encouraged to volunteer for Age UK’s telephone befriending service. In addition to financial donations for essential supplies, the group also provided logistical support to deliver to vulnerable residents both in Stratford and around the Westfield London site in Shepherd’s Bush.

“You have a responsibility to the community you work in. You can’t just build a shopping centre and then forget about the world around it,” says O’Reilly. “Without a community we don’t have anything.”

As an employee and leader of URW’s people strategy, O’Reilly has many anecdotes about the initiatives she has taken part in at the company to give back to the community. She relishes the opportunities it has given her to make a difference.

“I think those days at work are really special, you actually go home and think ‘I feel as though I’ve had a good day today’ and being able to manufacture getting people to do that as part of your business is very rewarding,” she says.

URW people practices are also designed to uphold the group’s sustainability goal to cut carbon emissions across its value chain in half over the next 10 years. Far from revolutionary, O’Reilly says she believes such goals are the foundations of any good company. Without them she questions how organisations motivate their people.

"Without a community we don’t have anything.”

“If you don’t look after your people and if you don’t give them a purpose, how do you direct people? How do you keep them together and how do you keep them passionate?” she asks, “You have to give people a real reason to be passionate whether it’s in their personal life or professional life.”

Given the change in shopping habits, the collapse of some of the high street’s biggest names and working across multiple sectors ground to a halt in parts of 2020 and 2021, it is unsurprising that O’Reilly describes the last 12 months as the most challenging of her career.

“I know it’s a very HR thing to say that people are your most important assets, they always have been, but when your business stops you realise your people are just so important,” she says.

Furlough, restructuring and implementing new COVID-safe plans for the workplace may still be a marathon for her and the people team, yet casting her mind back over the past year, O’Reilly is still proud of the things HR has been able to achieve.

The people plan for the organisation is centred on caring, communication, connection and culture, and the team had to deliver.

“Caring for people, checking that life was okay for them… communicating has never been more important, and not about HR strategies,” she says, “People wanted to know that they were safe, and they had a job.”

With non-essential retail in England now reopening, some operational aspects of URW will be able to restart. Going to a ‘new normal’ however is a myth according to O’Reilly.

She argues: “There’s not a new norm. It’s let’s see what happens and adapt – adapt every week really.”

Due to the critical role HR teams have had in keeping employees healthy and motivated, many organisations have seemingly begun to count on the relevance of their people directors as strategic allies to business. If this change in perception is concrete or not remains to be seen, but it is one thing about which O’Reilly is already resolute.

“People say ‘HR should have a place at the table’ but – why would you wait? We’ve always had a place at the table, you just sometimes have to talk a bit louder,” she says.

“I’ve always just sat at the table until someone told me to get up.”


This piece appears in the May/June 2021 issue of HR magazine. Subscribe now to get all the latest issues delivered to your desk.