Raj Pragji: Transforming Together – QEII’s journey of change

Raj Pragji, HR director at the QEII centre, discusses the concept of the companies ‘Transforming Together’ change management programme, which allows staff at all levels to contribute. 

One of London’s largest conference and events venues, the QEII Centre has been a destination for thousands of high profile events for the past 30 years. Around 500 national and international events are hosted here every year, for up to 2,500 delegates.

Over the past four years, the Centre has undergone rapid change that has seen it completely transform both in physical appearance and in ethos, attitude and ambition. While the Centre had a long-standing reputation for conference excellence, the building had become tired and dated following a lengthy period of uncertainty about its future.

The appointment in 2013 of our current Chief Executive, Mark Taylor, was a pivotal moment for QEII – he had a vision to breathe life back into the building and grow the business, expanding into new sectors and putting us at the forefront of London’s event industry, but it couldn’t be done without the engagement of all our staff.

While we knew that it would be a challenge, there was a real opportunity to review the business model, working practices, including systems and processes and consider the best way to engage the workforce.

The idea behind Transforming Together, our change management programme, was to package all the different aspects of change management into an inclusive programme that staff at all levels would be able to contribute to.

Reflecting our new business philosophy of product, business and people and our goal to be a more versatile events space, Transforming Together was divided into four work streams – people, systems and processes, building, and versatility and communications.

Each work stream had a sponsor (one of QEII’s directors) and a project manager to drive it forward, with the input from a wide range of staff across the Centre to ensure connectivity at all levels. We made a conscious effort to encourage cross-departmental input so that each work stream would have both expertise and creativity but also a fresh perspective to the projects.

To keep employee engagement optimised throughout the project, regular work stream meetings were held to thrash out ideas and progress was reported through our staff forums. One of the employee engagement initiatives we introduced was an internal newspaper, Centre Forward, which provided an additional platform to engage with staff and explain the changes being made.

Transforming Together had an immediate positive impact – by feeling like they had been listened to, staff were naturally more invested in the changes. The physical changes to the building and investment in technology made staff far prouder to work here – previously, event managers had been almost apologetic about the building while giving show rounds, now they are excited and want to show it off.

Morale was raised enormously, helped in no small part by our awards drive. Throughout 2015 and 2016, we entered and were shortlisted for numerous awards celebrating the refurbishment and our excellence in customer service, winning 12 and giving the whole team a reason to celebrate and be proud again.

Other initiatives that really helped with employee engagement were reinstating a decent reward scheme (as a Government Agency, bonus schemes were cut back during the recession) and rewarding staff who really lived and breathed our core values through our exceptional performance and team reward schemes, and our recently launched award for excellence.

We have also invested heavily in CPD and staff have shown great enthusiasm for learning and really becoming the best of the best, attending networking events, becoming members of specialist professional associations with some even studying in their own time.

The aim of our £12 m capital investment programme and repositioning campaign was to attract a wider variety of events, and we have increased non-core business including awards ceremonies, banqueting events and fashion shows by 8% in the past two years. Attracting this type of business has been really exciting for the team and they are now hungry to bring in the ‘ultimate’ big event.

The team have also been able to channel their creativity through the annual showcase events we have held over the past three years. The events, for clients, partners, prospects and the media, have been an opportunity to show how our blank-canvas event spaces can be transformed and staff have been blown away by just how much can be achieved and they now encourage clients to use our venue more creatively as a result.

We have just undertaken a re-assessment by Investors In People (IIP), a people standard that the Centre has proudly held for over 17 years. This has been a fantastic opportunity to look at just how far we’ve come, and our success in employee engagement has been recognised by achieving the IIP Silver Award.

The IIP assessors found that the majority of the workforce is now at the upper end of the change curve; they trust QEII’s leadership team, understand our business values and goals and support our transformation and communication is greatly improved thanks to our staff forums, internal newspaper, workshops, meetings and our new intranet system.

As we approach the two-year anniversary of the Transforming Together project in April, we are looking to the next two years and refocusing our approach for the next stage. Now it’s about building on our successes and focusing on two or three key areas for improvement identified by the IIP assessment, such as training in our event business management software (EBMS) which can be better utilised across the Centre, and reviewing and refining our company values with the input of staff.

If I could offer any advice to companies going through a similar process of change, it would be to be clear, at the outset, about the reason for change and explain the rationale behind the change. Tell your staff exactly what you want to change and why, encourage them to contribute to the process and take them on the journey with you.

Transforming Together encompasses absolutely all that we are doing, and everything is communicated to staff which is necessary to get their support. Now the challenge is to keep the momentum going and keep communicating, so that we retain an enthusiastic, engaged workforce to continue to drive the business forward.

About Raj Pragji

An HR professional with over 20 years’ experience in all aspects of HR and people development, Raj’s role at the QEII Centre is to direct and manage the overall provision of HR services, strategies, and programmes for the Centre. Raj is responsible for leading organisational development activity and sits on the centre’s Management Board and Audit Committee.
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