Advancements to modes of transport, mechanisation of equipment and changing workforce pools have enabled the government-owned service provider to adapt and expand throughout its 207-year history. But the digital era has smashed what was once the pillar of the organisation – its letter delivery service.
In 2008, the same year Apple launched the first smartphone, Australia Post delivered more letters than at any other time in its history. Within six years, its letters service had plummeted by 32% in real terms – or 1.2 billion fewer letters being sent. And forecasts were dire.
Of course, urgent reforms of the business were necessary for financial survival. However, as a core provider of jobs across rural and regional Australia, with one of the largest retail footprints in Australasia, Australia Post was confronted with a significant challenge to protect its workplace – and its trusted reputation.
Houghton says managing the necessary changes in a way that was fair and reasonable for its workforce of 37,000, which includes the StarTrack courier service, meant showing them trust, commitment and transparency.
Australia Post made a commitment to its employees that it cared about their careers, says Houghton.
It launched initiatives to help people transition to the growth areas of the business, and obtain much more information about what was happening within.
She says the large numbers of people entering the company at the same time as large numbers of people were being retrenched "morally didn’t stack up", so Australia Post set about developing an internal labour market.
We took half the external recruitment team and turned it into an internal recruitment team,” says Houghton. “We made all our jobs visible to everyone, gave them a reasonable time to apply and promised to give them priority.
Previously people in entry-level jobs would not be shown vacancies for other entry jobs based on the theory that people would only want to go for promotion, she says. It overlooked the desire for family harmony and work-life balance.
“Career thinking has changed from ladders to laterals,“ says Houghton. “In the ‘80s, the ladder was everything but the modern way is that careers are much more fluid.”
The ‘Post People 1st‘ initiative flipped the recruitment process on its head and protected jobs for its employees. Previously only 25% of jobs went in-house, now more than 60% of positions are filled internally, statistics that have surprised even Houghton.
The skills strategy
To open more doors for its existing workforce, Houghton leveraged the learning and development team to help people get the skills they needed to pursue other career opportunities.
‘Post People 1st’ offers free online training courses to help people upgrade their skills and introduced a free phone coaching service, so people could call up for assistance on everything from writing a CV and interview role plays, information about where to get pre-retirement financial advice or what other Australia Post jobs they might be suited to. The trained phone coaches are now taking about 500 calls a month.
Houghton also established a fully mobile website in September 2015 to make the program accessible to everyone across the Post Group, which included making workbooks and resources accessible around the clock and in one place.
“We are trying to teach people to manage their careers in a more modern way and start moving them into a more mobile environment,” she says,
The program also rallied together a ‘virtual army’ of frontline staff who take time out of their day jobs to help spread the word about opportunities, run demos and hold coaching circles.
The risky ‘trust’ factor
One of the more controversial elements of the ‘Post People 1st’ strategy is that it offers job opportunities outside Australia Post as well as internally. Houghton says making a promise to employees to talk to them about their career was hollow if it only restricted them to what was available in-house.
“We wanted to be progressive, trusting and engaging, and to hide people from jobs outside Australia Post is ludicrous,” says Houghton. “It is about transparency. We said we would tell you everything we can to help you make the right decision but you can’t make a decision in a vacuum.
“Yes, we tell you about salaries, about job content and what else is out there, and we are comfortable to talk about that.”
Houghton believes they offer a mature talent management approach that shows its people they are valued. “We are a confident employer, so to show our people those things wasn’t really risky at all,” says Houghton.
“We are one of the biggest employers and we have jobs all around Australia, so we can compete on career options or convenient locations and a variety of working conditions.” There has been no change to the attrition rate.
The first phase of the program was to help people find the jobs they were suited to by giving them better access to those jobs. The next stage is to put more focus into talent pipelining to give those who may need some bridging skills the necessary qualifications for the role.
Australia Post has a number of different pilot programs currently running in several states for various pathways. Motorbike riders, for example, are among the largest category of employees at Australia Post, but with the diminishing need for letterbox deliveries, they might want to consider driving trucks or vans.
Houghton says the excellent safety standard of its motorbike squad made sense as a talent pool for hiring truck drivers, with ‘Post People 1st’s help to transition them to trucks by arming them with the necessary qualifications and experience.
“It is nice to be able to give people choices – careers are not about ladders, but about having options,” says Houghton.
Secrets of success
Listening to their people was key to Australia Post’s change processes, says Houghton. “We have a strategy that is alive and responsive.
"We rolled out, we asked, we learned and we rolled it again.
“Our strategy is largely led by the users, not the other way around.”
Big and medium-sized organisations, says Houghton, have a tendency to be broadcast in their communication approach rather than two-way. The annual staff survey or token feedback form is not enough. A more modern crowdsourcing approach can be effective.
“How often do you ask your people what the issues are and what can you do about it?,” says Houghton.
“The answers are there – your people know, you just don’t think to ask them.”