GSK's Michelle Strong on the journey towards 'the end of this chapter'

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In the second part of the series on the 52-year legacy and contribution of GSK Boronia, human resource site lead Michelle Strong discusses the company's journey following confirmation of its decision to exit the manufacturing site.

As a people and culture specialist, I am passionate about working closely with business leaders and teams to help them achieve meaningful outcomes. It’s something I’ve proudly been able to do over the more than four years I’ve been a part of the GSK Australia team at its Boronia manufacturing site in Victoria.

I didn’t realise how critical my work could be until in 2020, the company made a strategic decision at the global level to close the Boronia site at the end of 2022. Leading the people stream for a site closure was never something I anticipated (or specifically wanted to do!). It’s difficult, sensitive, and incredibly complex.

However, this has been an experience I’ve learned so much from, professionally and personally, as driving meaningful outcomes is never more important than when trying to navigate a difficult transition. So, I wanted to share some of the things I’ve been proud of through this journey.

Meeting the site closure challenge head-on has provided me with the opportunity to grow as a human resources professional and as a leader. And, perhaps surprisingly, I’ve found it to be personally rewarding and meaningful.

These past two years have been extremely valuable for my career development and has enhanced my people leadership skills. But most importantly, it’s given me the opportunity to help everyone at the site thrive through this transition and make a great contribution to the site’s legacy.

A people-centric program

The announcement of the closure of the Boronia site came at a time when people and companies around the world were already on a steep learning curve with the arrival of a scary new virus called COVID-19.

Difficult news is difficult news.

There’s no polishing it up. However, having worked on continuously improving GSK Australia’s ways of supporting its people, our Boronia team knew they could trust the business to support them through this transition, no matter what that transition looked like.

We initiated a two-year program of closure, with a significant priority to allow all employees, contractors and casual staff the opportunity to plan and prepare for their next phase of life – and all while accounting for the change, uncertainty and safety implications around the pandemic.

Putting our people first has been at the heart of the program. A program underpinned by respect and transparency. We gave our people a safe space to respond to this major news via ‘Let’s Talk’ sessions where our managers could freely express themselves and represent their teams and ‘Let’s Listen’ sessions with senior leaders listening to employees across the business, in addition to the normal communication feedback channels.

This also included the development of our site purpose – ‘Value the Past, Focus on the Future, Finish Strong’. This was voted on by all employees and provided the lens through which all decisions were prioritised and made.

Thriving not surviving

We introduced a three-phase 'Capability Plan' to deliver clarity for our people. In the first phase, the resonance of “Focus on the Future” with all employees, saw it become a key driver for creating and executing our longer-term plan.

This was a detailed plan that included career mapping, building job searching skills and supporting skills to transition to retirement or semi-retirement.

The timing of each element was quite deliberate. The formal outplacement sessions through 2022, and a Careers Fair three months prior to the end of production, ensured employees were ready and connected to new employers at the right time. The plan also offered onsite workshops in career planning, career coaching, resume writing, interview skills, networking and new LinkedIn headshots.

Naturally, closing a site and knowing that you will almost certainly lose your job is a stressful time for employees. It’s also a really challenging time for people managers who are also supporting their teams through the transition. We upskilled our People Managers at Boronia to ensure they had the tools to manage emotionally charged conversations. This focused on wellbeing and resilience to help people to thrive through change, rather than just survive it.

While a site closure can appear to close some doors, through the detailed and deliberate program we put in place, it also opened doors that some employees did not anticipate. We have achieved the strong finish we were working towards for both our people and the patients we serve, and I’m confident I’m not the only one taking a lot of learnings into the next chapter.

Michelle Strong