As the sixth most valuable brand in the world (Forbes, 2020), Coca-Cola needs no introduction. Founded in 1886, it’s an iconic company full of history and a familial vibe, which it has managed to maintain – an impressive feat for an organisation that has a presence in over 160 countries globally.
Digital Visioneers is supporting Coca-Cola’s digital transformation and cultural change by staying transparent and inclusive, seeking for progress rather than perfection. This is the digital arm of Coca-Cola Europe, responsible for how the brand communicates and engages with consumers. Digital Visioneers is also leading the e-commerce revolution.
Through this interview, Damien Bernard, head of people at Digital Visioneers, tells us about his journey into the world of HR, the rise of mental health initiatives, tips for success and an often forgotten fact about HR teams.
The road less travelled
“If you’re looking for inspiration for people moving into HR who don’t have background in it, I’m the right guy,” Bernard tells us.
Currently based on the outskirts of North East London, Damien is a Frenchmen who spent little of his adult life in France but is holding on to his accent with pride. Having launched his own business aged 24, Damien is a natural entrepreneur and businessman. After a successful few years, he sold his company and moved to London. It was there he kickstarted his career in recruitment, before again igniting the entrepreneurial fire inside him and setting up his own recruitment agency and coaching programmes. These involved advising startups on employee management, organisational design and talent development.
With the arrival of Brexit and a newborn, things got a bit more serious. He joined VoucherCodes for a short stint before being snapped up by Comdata and Coca-Cola, which were looking for someone to grow their team from 40 to over 100 people.
“You know, when Coca-Cola – one of the top brands in the world – comes to talk to you, you don’t really say ’no’.”
Two and a half years down the line, he has successfully built out the people team and is responsible for the creation of the Digital Visioneers brand – the name, colours, training, employee experience, management strategy and implementation.
The heart of every business
Bernard’s people team has 150 employees in its remit, spread across 23 European countries. He sees them as a forward-thinking function at the most central part of the company.
“There is no team in any business that is more central than HR... maybe finance.”
Communication takes up the majority of his day, mostly supporting the managers – mentoring, coaching, advising and often influencing senior managers to implement new strategies to benefit their teams.
They’ve recently undertaken a large employee experience project centred around improving their EVP and employer brand. This has been an important step in solidifying their people’s purpose and feeling of belonging.
An often overlooked point of business is that HR is one of the few sections of a company that has dealings with everyone in the business. For example, sales and operations might have no overlap, marketing and production the same. Therefore, if you want to get into a role that has full exposure to every part of a company and has an impact on everyone working there, HR is for you.
“The most important thing is not to launch projects because it would look good; it is to have an impact and to be proactive.”
Mental health matters
Coca-Cola hasn’t strayed too far from other companies in terms of nurturing its people’s mental health and wellbeing. Fitness, yoga and mindfulness sessions have all proved popular. The company has also made a nutritionist available to staff to ensure they aren’t slipping into bad eating habits or making one-too-many trips to the snack cupboard between calls.
A struggle for some has been having meaningful conversations with team members to find out how they’re really doing – a difficult metric to gauge through a screen. Sending a text or an email will never trump having a real human conversation with someone for the simple reason that text can be so easily misinterpreted.
The business also prioritises respecting the boundaries of working-from-home hours. It has become all too common to receive an email at 10pm and feel obliged to respond – one of the pain points of home working is not allowing yourself to switch off.
“Some of them have kids. Some of them live in a crowded flat. It’s not easy. So we had to really coach the managers to be a bit more mindful of all this.”
An interesting initiative the company has launched to tackle all of this is a ’mental health day’, which an employee can take without being questioned or challenged. They are encouraged to switch off everything, check out and chill out, and it has proven to be a massive hit.
The company has also introduced mental health champions who are provided with training to further understand mental health issues and spot the signs of someone who might be feeling down.
The main message from Bernard here is to listen to what people are saying, ask them how they are feeling, what’s going well and what’s not going so well, and to then proactively try and improve the experience for them. Nobody is going to put their hands up during a company call and admit they’re not feeling in tip-top shape, so it’s important to be a bit more direct and check in with people regularly and make sure their environment is the best it can be.
“I think it’s about making sure that we are mindful of everyone’s circumstances. It’s not one solution for all any more. I think you have to be a bit more bespoke or individualised in your approach to mental health.”
There’s no HR for HR
Performance and engagement levels at Digital Visioneers have remained consistently high throughout the pandemic, which is something Bernard is proud of. People taking responsibility and ownership of their work in difficult times is encouraging and the camaraderie between staff has not faltered.
He expresses particular pride in his team, as well as HR teams globally, for staying motivated despite the hurdles they had to overcome this past year – having to tackle issues that were not a priority before and managing to still get pleasure out of their work.
“There’s no HR for HR. The work that HR teams have done over the past nine months – not only in the Digital Visioneers or in the UK, but all over – has been tremendous.”
How to get ahead
“If you wanted to go into HR, I was quite a good example of someone who used my background as an entrepreneur to develop. For me, it’s about common sense and being confident in how you have conversations with people and, obviously, being an entrepreneur, you learn that.”
Reflecting on his entrepreneurial background, Bernard credits his progression in HR to the skills and attributes that come with growing three businesses. Having to work for himself and adopting a never-give-up attitude became crucial to his overall success.
Having recently read an article that states 40% of chief HR officers come from a finance or entrepreneurial background, Bernard knows he’s not the only one. He also recognises that the people in his team who have come from a recruitment background settle much more quickly, as they are used to being proactive and communicating with a range of different people.
“I think the number one quality is to be able to have a conversation with anyone and to treat that conversation in the same way,” he says. “So, if you have a conversation with the director and you have a conversation with an intern, you have to tackle it the same way, with the same approach and the same speculations”
Wiser words for anyone considering a career in HR
“You have to understand your work on both sides – you’re working for the employees, but you’re also here to support the business. If you only go one way or another, you’ll probably fail at some points or have some issues.
“If you want to have an impact on how people work and live for your business, then yes, I think it’s a career for you. Be bold and be ready to challenge things. And if you don’t think it’s going to have an impact, challenge it. Be creative as well – think outside the box.”
Alan Stanton, special projects at Wiser.