COVID Conversations: Coles & Russell James

Four emoji faces side-by-side wearing medical masks

In the first of our series of ‘COVID Conversations’ with DCA members, Russell James, Head of Indigenous Affairs at Coles, shares with Lisa Annese, Diversity Council Australia’s CEO, his insights on how this iconic Australian retailer is adapting to the radically altered COVID-19 work environment, and the impact on diversity and inclusion.

In contrast to many other businesses who have had to scale back their operations or stand down workers, Coles has had to take on more staff in order to meet spikes in customer demand as fear over shortages led to panic buying.

“We've hired an additional 10,000 new team members over the last four weeks, which has also opened up opportunities specifically from an Indigenous job seeker perspective. We've seen some amazing outcomes in that regard. Another 400 plus Indigenous team members have joined us in the last three weeks or so. It's nice to have some positives coming out of what is a really challenging situation,” said Russell.

Like many other businesses, Coles has had to undertake significant workforce changes by moving 3,500 to 4,000 office staff to working from home. By all accounts, this has gone relatively well.

“Coles, as a large employer, has supported flexible working for a long time. A key learning is our ability to work flexibly en masse and how that's impacted in a positive or negative way for outcomes and outputs.

“The business was really supportive in the lead up to this, getting prepared around making sure that our remote connections have the ability to support that number of team members working from home. The messaging has been really good around let’s be realistic and we all just need to do our best,” he added.

There have certainly been benefits for team cohesion and engagement, according to Russell.

“Probably the biggest takeaway for me, and I look after a small team, is that we've perhaps felt more engaged and connected in the last five or six weeks than what we had before.

“I was managing a remote team previously, but it's forced us to come together more regularly. We've become, I guess, more authentic leaders and team members. I think it's allowed us to perhaps relax and show a little bit more about ourselves.

“Being an authentic leader is something that is a key pillar for improving your leadership style. So I'm hoping that will be something that will continue to be fostered post this,” concluded Russell.

View the full video interview below.

Stay tuned for our next 'COVID Conversation' with DCA members in future editions of Inclusion Matters! 

COVID Conversations: Coles & Russell James

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