A driving force: HR at Addison Lee

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The taxi firm’s first-ever HRD talks self-employment models, global expansion plans, driver diversity and the ‘U’ word

“You can learn everything you need to know about London from this screen.” So says Addison Lee’s HRD Mathew Davies, as he gives me the grand tour of the control room at the company’s HQ in Euston.

It’s a tantalising prospect. The screen resembles a gigantic Excel spreadsheet with names, locations and journey statuses all in mesmerising real time.

“That code tells the computer how high priority someone is,” says Davies, pointing to one column. “So it’ll know Simon Cowell is higher priority than me.” With the possibility of tracking celebs’ movements the screen becomes even more hypnotic.

Equally mesmerising is a second screen awash with thousands of different coloured dots, indicating where each car is at any given moment and its status: empty, in a rank, allocated, on the way, at a pick up, passenger on board, drop in 10, drop in five, on a break, or going home.

Each agent in Addison Lee’s buzzy control room also has these screens at their desk. And there’s a large rolling news screen. “Then our guys can see if there’s an incident somewhere that the computer can’t know about,” says Davies, explaining that this group of around 30 car controllers and car co-ordinators can then intervene to let drivers know and reroute them.

The control room, explains Davies, represents the perfect blend of automation and human skill: “We complete 25,000 jobs a day in London; obviously that can’t be managed manually,” he says.

Just one job gone awry is bad news: “Every one of those jobs matters. If any of those go wrong you can bet your bottom dollar it goes on social media.”

So seamless (a word that crops up a lot in our interview) customer experience is the name of the game. “What we do is logistically challenging, but other people could do it,” explains Davies. “What we do – moving people around – isn’t that hard really, but it’s hard in that you have to do it to a brilliant standard every single day.”

The human element of ensuring such standards are met is critical. Davies arrived at Addison Lee in February 2017 as the firm’s first HR director. With the business at the cusp of a significant expansion journey – still ongoing – it was high time for some senior-level HR.

The company has come a long way since being founded in 1975. While still by far most active in London – with 5,000 cars here – it also operates across the UK, and will make £400 million in revenue this year. In March 2018 the Addison Lee Group won a contract with Emirates airline to supply executive car services to Manchester, Birmingham and Newcastle airports, meaning its presence in Manchester has now trebled.

It also has its sights firmly set on global expansion. In June 2016 it acquired Tristar, an executive chauffeur business based in London and Boston. In December 2016 it acquired car service provider Flyte Tyme, now re-branded as AL North America. “What we hope to do over the next 18 months is make the US business the same size as the UK business,” reports Davies.

This represents a steep HR challenge. There are 87 vacancies when HR magazine meets Davies, spanning chief marketing officer, customer service advisors to work at Addison Lee’s Peterborough site, software developers for the HQ in London, and driver experience centre staff to work at centres in Hays, Middlesex or Manchester – where drivers go to swap old vehicles, for routine maintenance and for all manner of services to keep them roadworthy.

The last year has been about getting HR up to speed. “We spent the first six months scrubbing, scrapping and updating,” says Davies.

His prior experience in senior HR roles at large corporates including BT and at IT and services company CGI gave him a solid foundation. But it’s been the freedom to move faster and try things out at Addison Lee that’s been particularly rewarding.

“It’s introducing process, governance, decision-making… all of the things that large organisations have as part of their DNA,” he says. “I describe the business as a bit like a teenager; we’re going to grow up but we’ll go through growing pains.

“But here I have great freedom to do things and introduce things for the first time… The speed at which things got done was much slower [at previous employers] and the pace of change is significantly greater here.”

This pace is imperative, explains Davies, and something more established corporates could learn from: “Often organisations go at the pace of change they think they should go at. What I’ve learned here is we have to go at the pace of change of the competition, or faster.”

Which brings us, inevitably, to the ‘U’ word: Uber. And to the still highly topical issue of gig working. Davies, however, is firm that Uber isn’t as much of a competitor or threat as you might think. And that – having enlisted drivers as self-employed partners since 1975 – Addison Lee isn’t a ‘gig’ company.

“I won’t comment on Uber because I don’t need to,” Davies states. “We have a very clear way of doing things. The people we use to recruit drivers have been working for us for a long time so they’re very familiar with the standards our customers expect.”

This stringent recruitment process is an important differentiator. “We background check, knowledge test and interview all our drivers,” says Davies. “So it’s not that they turn up, we give them a piece of kit and then they’re away.” The company also offers a range of training and development for drivers, again ensuring high standards, says Davies.

One example is advice to drivers on how to ensure they’re getting enough jobs: “It is a challenging environment; there are 124,000 PHV licence-holders in London. Congestion in the city means where drivers may well have done two dozen jobs five years ago, they’ll only do a dozen today.

“What we try and do is help people understand how they can get jobs. I can advise them on the city and where the work is. What I can’t do is instruct them to go and do that.”

Today’s climate of increased focus on employment status and ‘modern ways of working’ does still present challenges though. Last September a tribunal ruled that three Addison Lee drivers, who claimed they earned the equivalent of about £5 an hour as self-employed contractors, should have been treated as workers entitled to the minimum wage plus holiday pay.

This followed similar rulings such as in October 2016 when Uber lost a tribunal case brought by two of its drivers, who also argued successfully they should be treated as workers. This February a group of Addison Lee drivers also stormed the Business Travel Show in London to call for workers’ rights.

Davies is sympathetic to these drivers’ viewpoints, but keen to highlight the need for balance in any legislative change. “If our offering to drivers needs to change of course it will, but we wouldn’t have got to where we’ve got to without drivers liking working with us,” he points out.

The danger is a heavy-handed regulatory response that ends up limiting driver flexibility, which many hugely value. “That hasn’t come out as strongly as I’d like,” Davies says.

He cites the example of a driver he regularly uses who drives for Addison Lee between his work as a director, producer and actor. “We have asked a lot [of our drivers] if they’d be interested in becoming employed and we don’t actually get a great deal of take-up,” says Davies. “At the heart of what we [as a nation] are trying to do is stop bad employment practice. Stopping bad employment practice is a good thing. But limiting people’s choice I’m not sure is a good thing.

“That balance between all the competing factors is probably part of the reason [policymakers] haven’t gotten to a simple answer yet. Because there may be no simple answer… Where we’ll move to is probably more of a blended workforce. How we’ll get there is less well known at the moment.”

Davies is keen that focus on the hot topic of employment status nonetheless doesn’t detract from also improving the experience of Addison Lee’s 1,800 regular employees.

A key focus over the last year has been building line manager confidence. Two training programmes have been rolled out: one for those thinking about becoming a manager, so they can gauge if it’s for them, and a core programme to upskill existing managers.

The firm is still small enough that it can offer quite bespoke development for more senior managers, reports Davies – crucial at such a fast-moving business. “We’re quite a flat management structure so therefore we’re able to afford those opportunities for coaching,” he says. “You can go from being a line leader thinking London is it to suddenly you’re ‘it’ for the rest of the world. That’s a big challenge.”

The flip side is the opportunity to attract the kind of top tech talent that the firm increasingly needs to support its growth. Addison Lee can’t compete with the likes of Facebook (just across the road from its HQ) on salary and benefits. But it can on opportunities to take ownership of projects.

“At Facebook or Google you’re a cog in a much bigger machine. Clearly they provide a fantastic employment experience, but they may not as readily be able to give someone hands-on experience in an agile environment where your code quickly becomes a product,” says Davies.

“Our global app is just about to go into the app store. I would think for a coder that would be something where they could say ‘I did that, that’s tangible’,” he says, adding the example of a clever snooze functionality in Addison Lee’s app that allows people to defer their pickup time by 30 minutes when they’re not quite ready to leave yet.

Similarly, Addison Lee is still agile enough that employees can have a go at different jobs. “Whether that’s customer service agents moving into procurement, or finance people into marketing, we can enable that,” says Davies. He explains that ensuring people have the opportunity to become agile learners, and to not become too entrenched in one discipline, is a crucial part of being a responsible employer in today’s quick-moving, AI-fuelled world.

Another key HR focus is diversity and inclusion. With transportation historically male-dominated, Addison Lee’s gender pay gap (announced in March) is 18.04%.

The leadership team is highly aware they’re a “predominantly white male team”, says Davies, and that concerted effort is needed. “This is not about me turning up to a conference and saying ‘we’re a good organisation really’, but about day-to-day processes: who hires, how they hire, how we train, how we onboard, how we exit, how we performance manage – every single intervention has an impact.”

Getting more women to drive for Addison Lee is in large part a matter of smart rostering. “It’s: how can we use tech to provide opportunities for people who want to work school hours for example?” he says, adding that there is still inevitably a challenge, however, around supply and demand: “I can let someone work at 3am but it’s whether I can get them enough jobs…”

But despite such challenges Davies is confident his HR function is now in a strong place to support growth. Customers might not always think too hard about their journey with the firm. But they’ll certainly appreciate the huge amounts of thought that go into this at Addison Lee’s end.

“When you’re going on holiday you’ll worry about the plane, about the hotel. How you get to and from the airport is probably further down your consideration list,” muses Davies. “We know that. So we want to make sure that journey is a good one.

“That point when you get off a plane, you’re exhausted, you’re walking through the gates and see your car, that moment when you can relax... that matters enormously.

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