One of the lessons learned the hard way during lockdown is that a Zoom call is no replacement for face-to-face contact. No industry knows this fact better perhaps than hospitality, especially the UK’s nightclubs.
Though crowded dancefloors, a thumping bassline and the odd vodka-Coke spillage isn’t for everyone, the ability to be with friends, at any sociable distance you like, is certainly something that many will have missed in the pandemic.
For Zoe Pacyna, HR director at nightclub operator Rekom UK, it’s one of the things she can’t live without.
Hospitality during and post-COVID:
Through 20 years in HR, Pacyna has never left hospitality. And, although she admits it takes a certain kind of person to work in this sector, it seems she certainly has those qualities in her DNA.
“It’s that fun, outgoing social aspect that really does flow through all our veins. It’s vibrant, fast-paced, and different every day. I love it. I can’t see myself doing anything else,” she says.
Rekom UK’s brands include Bar & Beyond, Atik and Pryzm. Since reopening in July, the clubs have bounced back with trade at levels usually reserved for the festive season, or in freshers when new students start university.
“The guests that have been coming into our businesses have been fantastic, everybody’s come out in force,” Pacyna says. “The staff are really loving the atmosphere and the different scenery and just being back together. At the moment everybody’s on a high.”
Reopening has been a long-awaited sigh of relief for the chain. At the beginning of 2020, Pacyna was HR director of The Deltic Group. Deltic filed for administration in December, but thankfully the group was saved and bought by Scandinavian nightlife group Rekom shortly after. Over this period, the company went through a restructure, making many of its staff redundant.
“Anybody that’s had to deal with administration knows it’s a big piece. You’re there with the administrators and you’ve got to deal with the formal legal side as well as the people and the empathy side,” says Pacyna.
“That takes its toll on anybody, no matter how many times you’ve done it. But our priority was coming out the other side with as many of our businesses and people as possible, supporting them and keeping real, open, honest comms with everybody.”
Prior to restructuring, the business tried to save jobs through furlough. Encountering the scheme for the first time put extra pressure on the people team says Pacyna, which at the time was made of just three people.
Not only did they have to learn about the terms of furlough and pass the information on to staff, but they found their payroll system was not built to work with it.
“The big hit for my team was about processing all our statutory payments and doing everything manually because the system was not designed to run furlough,” she says.
After employee consultation, the team changed the company’s pay cycle from weekly to monthly at the start of lockdown and introduced a new platform to give staff better access to track and manage their salary.
At the same time as manual furlough calculations this caused some hiccups with payroll, but Pacyna is confident the process is now a lot smoother.
“When clubs started trading again, we found that there were some odd staff hours not processed correctly due to system glitches,” she says. “All such issues have since been corrected and we have found that our new pay system has helped to create a smooth system for all employees, whether working part-time or on a freelance basis.”
Although it has been a rocky year, now trading has restarted Pacyna is able to focus on the positives that have come out of it, one of which is that the HR team is closer to finance than ever before.
“I think where HR or people and culture sits has come such a long way from where it was. It is part of the strategic team, it’s big on supporting with financial reviews and working so closely with finance,” she says.
This new side of the role is not something that Pacyna ever envisioned coming out of a career in HR though.
“I fell into HR. I just liked the thought of working so closely with people, I love being around them. I didn’t look at that strategic level, I didn’t even know if I would stay in HR and grow.”
Before HR, Pacyna worked in operations, which she says helped give her the insight needed to be successful with people and culture now.
“I’m adapting my team and how we work as a support function while keeping in tune with the business and operations. Coming from that area myself, it really makes you see how everything works, how it needs to link together like cogs.”
"What kept my team together was knowing that we were respected, and we were so supported"
Keeping so many plates spinning is a reality familiar to all HR leaders thrust into the eye of the coronavirus crisis. But while employee wellbeing has certainly been at the forefront, HR’s own mental health hasn’t always been the priority it should be.
Since March last year, Pacyna says she hasn’t stopped.
“I’ve tried to take a few days here and there, but I’ve not had the breaks that I would normally have, like half term or the summer holidays. I’ve had home schooling, with two children in completely different year groups.”
Though she has been mindful of burnout of herself and her team, she says it has been challenging.
“The hard hit for any HRD or senior HR person was carrying their team and the impacts of what was going on.
“You really had to be conscious of your own wellbeing.”
Being adaptable and working flexibly helped, she argues, but sharing the experience with the rest of the leadership team and growing closer as a result is what gave her the most support.
“I was very fortunate. I work closely with the CEO. We check in daily. In the core group of senior leaders that worked, we all checked in with each other.”
A lot of staff members HR contacted throughout the pandemic, Pacyna felt, also had a new-found appreciation for the effort the team were putting in which kept people going too.
“People were so lovely, saying ‘you’re doing a great job, we appreciate everything you’re doing'.
“I think what kept my team together was knowing that we were respected, and we were so supported. It’s always HR with its arms around people, but everybody was supporting us as well. It was great that we were all in their minds.”
Visibility throughout the business is something Pacyna says she has always worked hard to develop.
“I’m very open. If people want to call me or email me, they can and they did,” she says.
A lot of the comms sent during the pandemic were sent by Pacyna and she took part in online socials with furloughed staff. Such a hands-on involvement in the day-to-day running of the business is, she believes, vital to challenge conventional ideas of HR.
“I sat there and engaged with them and had a laugh and I think that’s really important to help you break down that old fashioned ‘HR are there for dealing with the bad stuff’ idea. No, we’re here from the beginning,” she says.
“We’re not that authority department. We’re here to support everybody, not just to pick up the pieces, we shouldn’t need to get involved in that.”
With aspects of the pandemic now behind them, Pacyna and the people team are now heading into the next big project for the company and integrating the pre-pandemic company culture with Rekom’s strategy. The first big event bringing the two teams together is this year’s annual company conference, which Pacyna hopes will help continue the momentum they’ve had since the reopening.
“It’s needed, because everybody wants to come together, and it’s to say we love you, we appreciate you, thank you so much for sticking by us and supporting us.
“We work hard, we play hard, we love to give back, and everybody should have a good time.”
If all goes to plan, a busy festive period will follow the conference, after which Pacyna predicts the sector will see
the usual lull.
Though mindful of the ‘blues’ that might come after a rollercoaster year, Pacyna is hopeful that the connections the group has made throughout will see them through.
“One of the good things to come out of the last 18 months is that it’s made us appreciate each other more, look out for each other, have each other’s back and be more in tune with wellbeing and mental health and just putting an arm around each other.”
In January or February perhaps, when others swap the clubs for a cosy night in on the sofa, Pacyna might also get the time to recharge with some much-deserved dancing and downtime of her own.
This piece first appeared in the September/October 2021 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.