· 6 min read · Features

Interview: Veronica Kumar, head of people and change at T5


Veronica Kumar, head of people and change at T5, has had to use considerable skill to ensure combative unions don't throw the staffing schedule for the new terminal off course.

Veronica Kumar is twirling merrily like Maria von Trapp. Her mountain top is the concrete and granite expanse of London Heathrow's Terminal 5 (second floor), an area so large it could house Hyde Park. Her arms are stretched wide apart, embracing nothing but thin air but providing a satisfying visual aid, if one were needed, to convey the sheer size of Heathrow Airport's latest £4.3 billion landmark - known as T5.

"There are 96 self-check-in desks," she says impressively. "It's 10 storeys tall, has 160 baggage drops and houses 45 passport-control desks. See those darker tiles under your feet," she adds, pointing below me, "they're to delineate 'decision points' - any area where a passenger has to stop and do something."

Kumar is head of people solutions and change, T5 - a project she has devoted herself to, ironically, for the past five years. As an engineering feat, the Richard Rogers building is superlative, designed to allow fliers to arrive, check-in, go through security and board their planes all in a straight line and comfortably, with none of the getting lost, back-doubling and congestion that characterise the current Terminal 4 it will eventually replace.

For Kumar though, the building being ready (which, as I visit it in December still has an army of builders and electricians working on it), is the last thing on her mind. Staffing it for operational readiness (there is no test phase), has been her sole concern: "Everything is about 4am, 27 March 2008," she explains, "the day when the first plane arrives here from Paris. Everything has to be in place."

Simple? If only. T5 has never just been about headcount, even though 90% of staff will transfer over from Terminal 4. The new terminal, which has been built entirely by BAA (Kumar's ultimate employer), for under-fire airline British Airways, had been described by commentators as the last chance for the two warring businesses to finally put a well-publicised string of working practice disputes that have crippled the airport behind them. T5 has been a tough job to tackle, but Kumar is a slick operator. And with some canny union negotiation tricks up her sleeve, next month's opening day seems likely to run exactly to plan.

"T5 is the big opportunity to solve the BA/BAA issue and bring processes and standards together that were historically causing problems," says Kumar. Issues like having more than 400 rotas that were "not aligned to supply and demand", and a combative relationship between unions and BA management (one BA director described the union reps as "f***ing dickheads who care more about f***ing up BA than serving customers"), have been just two of the long-running issues BAA has had to struggle with. Add in new working practices (for no extra money) - such as passport checking at T5 becoming completely biometric - and there was huge potential for unions to hold BAA to ransom over the immovable opening date.

"Our policy has been to create a context for change, then to apply changes within that context," says Kumar. It is less cryptic than it sounds. Through massive internal communication, her plan been focused on using the newness of T5 to justify more suitable ways of working. "The pitch was that T5 is a totally new terminal so we must do things differently because of the shape and the size of the building," says Kumar. Simple things such as having briefing rooms for each team means staff would now be expected to congregate there for 15 minutes at the start of each day, and not be late. Information desks are also to be a thing of the past in T5 ("We don't want staff just sitting around doing nothing," Kumar says). Today, there are just seven rotas rather than the original 400. In short, T5 is not only big in itself, but big changes have come with it.

"We needed to define a new proposition," says Kumar. Back in 2004 this was what she and her colleagues were grappling with. "We solved it by asking 'what is our nirvana state?' - which was to be non-unionised, to deploy BA staff to BAA processes and vice versa - and then worked backwards to find what was an acceptable level of change." These details (helped with representation from a staff consultation forum) were not even ready for proposal stage until September 2006, but it was from here that the first of Kumar's tactical manoeuvrings with the unions kicked in.

"We didn't want unions giving their version of the 'change' story to staff," she says candidly. "We wanted to tell it first, so we launched an 'Expression of Interest' campaign internally. At 20 months to go before the 'go live' date we didn't want to force anyone to join us but we did want to engage them and excite them about what was available so that we could plan who was likely to come over and who we needed to recruit externally."

Fortunately there are only three types of job the new T5 project requires. Same role transfers were relatively straightforward to manage; as were those who worked in terminals 1-4 who fell into the second type - staff who wanted to try new jobs. Both had assessment days, although, as Kumar explains: "We had to make sure we didn't steal the rest of Heathrow's best people. We also had to work hard with line managers and broker the talent we wanted. There were some people I was told I couldn't have; there were others we took that weren't our first choice, but it was all based on having the right spread of people."

More than 1,100 'Expressions of Interest' were made, 700 of which came from the crucial third job category - security officers. "Security is by far our most important need," says Kumar. Because security staff are so highly trained, having to recruit them in large numbers from outside would have been a major problem. "Seven hundred is approximately the number T5 needs to operate. I didn't care if we had to take 50% of non-security staff from outside, but we couldn't be left with taking on this proportion of non-Heathrow security people at such short notice."

The approach taken with security staff was "far more ballsy", admits Kumar, with 'Are you in?' communications sent to all those who had expressed an interest to turn them into actual applicants. For three months between February and April 2007 30 security guards were released each day and personally seen by Kumar.

"We did with them what we were doing in parallel with the unions," she explains, "telling them what is changing at Heathrow, and where T5 fits into this. We even took them through a 'day in the life' at the new T5, in a state-of-the-art video room designed by agency Team, with a 180-degree 3D computer-generated image walking through T5, projected on three walls. This pissed off the unions at first. But when 350 security guards then applied for jobs we were able to turn what could have been made an issue by the unions (about changes to conditions, pay and so on) into a non-issue. It's difficult for unions to say employees are appalled by the changes when we can show that hundreds want to take up the new jobs."

Nothing was left to chance in wooing the security team. The 'white' projection rooms created were like mini cinemas. Security staff were fed popcorn and given a T5 boarding card that said 'Are you up for it?'. It was brash, and bold, and it has worked. So far 549 have signed up and only 30% of the total security requirement will be recruited from the external market.

Creating harmony has not always been straightforward - and Kumar is the first to admit she faced a similar battle with the change of rotas. However, in total, she says 80% of her staff requirements has been achieved with internal staff coming from terminals 1-4, and, crucially, they have all come on board without being forced to do so.

With only weeks to go before T5 is officially opened (Kumar is hoping the Queen will come), staff are currently being put through a 'fit' strategy. The worst scenario, says Kumar, would be for disaffected Terminal 1-4 staff to simply transfer any dissatisfaction to the new, gleaming T5 that has to be seen as an exemplar of British travel. But here not even Kumar's silvery tongue has totally managed to bring the BA and BAA staff together. "We planned to send all staff on the same course - 'Inside T5' - but I've had to accept that they want to go on their own separate tours."

Climb-down or just being sensible? "I just didn't want to piss people off," she admits. "I would rather have all staff - some 1,600 between BA and BAA - engaged rather than focusing too much on the different things we do."

Kumar's ultimate aim is for employees of both BA and BAA to put the past behind them and work for the common good. "We want staff to be more customer-focused, to go that extra mile, to give fliers an experience they'll remember. Even if it's picking up rubbish, it means they'll be doing something that is outside their job description." She admits: "It's not something I think we're going to crack just yet - that's a line manager and leadership issue - but I think this ambition shows how far we have come."

As for where she'll be as the first plane lands at 4am on a Thursday morning next month, Kumar is more coy: "I want this place open, but I'm not sure. I'll probably still be in bed at that time."

Heathrow's Terminal 5 - History in the Making, is a new book by Sharon Doherty, former HR and organisational effectiveness director for Heathrow and Terminal 5. It tells the story of how the people strategy for T5 was run to plan and on budget.

1978: Born London, BSc hons in psychology; certified management
2000: HR recruitment/generalist followed by HR projects manager, Nortel
2003: HR and projects manager, T5
2004: OD performance consultant, T5
2005: Head of people solutions and change, T5
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