HR Insights
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January 8, 2024

Q&A with Sobeys: How the role of HR is changing

Sobeys SVP HR Operations and Chief Technology and Analytics Officer talk about their unique partnership, the changing role of HR in a tough market, and building a change-ready workforce.

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Sobeys knows that creating a great customer experience starts at their stores, with their people. Attendees at our Executive Forum event in Toronto in November got a front row seat to hear about how Sobeys executives Sandra Pasquini (SVP HR Operations) and Julia Knox (Chief Technology and Analytics Officer) employ their workforce philosophies and strong partnership to tap into the potential of their workforce.

Sobeys is part of Empire Company Limited, which includes grocers such as Safeway, Farm Boy, FreshCo, Longo’s, and Foodland under their banners. The Canadian group employs 130,000 across Canada, with 80,000 retail workers in stores with their own requirements and employee needs. Managing a diverse workforce can be complex, with a variety of both union and non-union workers distributed among warehouses and corporate offices, as well as franchise and non-franchise locations.

In a competitive, high-turnover labor market, staffing efficiently and keeping workers engaged is just the baseline. When Pasquini and Knox came in, they saw the opportunity to reexamine old ways of working and build something better. “We started thinking differently about the employee experience and planning for the future of our workforce.” Their unique partnership of HR and Technology has allowed them to transform the way their operations run.

We sat down with Pasquini and Knox to learn more about their unique approach to the new world of work.

What do you think will be the biggest challenges and opportunities for HR leaders in 2024?

Pasquini: “The nature of work is changing, and we need to keep teammates engaged so at the end of the day they can focus on delivering a great customer experience.

One opportunity is to simplify and automate. It makes it easier for our teammates to do their job. When you reduce the amount of low value work, you can re-invest in driving higher impact people strategies to move the business forward. This can also free up people leaders from more administrative tasks so they can spend more time coaching and driving the high performance of their teams.”

Many companies are shifting their employee offering to attract and retain their employees. How can organizations provide flexibility to non-office workers and improve retention rates?

Pasquini: “Flexibility and choice are increasingly important both to office workers and especially to teammates on the front lines supporting our customers. Elements of work such as shift swapping, predictable shifts, pay when I need it, and income insurance are all highly valued by team members. The ability to have “work that fits your life” as a key tenant of the value proposition is critical.

There’s no one size fits all. It’s about providing leaders with the tools to personalize the experience more and meet the needs of all the diverse segments of the employee population. This is becoming more and more critical for our business.”

Knox: “The store and feeding Canadians is the heart of our business. How can we remove friction? We want to meet people where they are. That means mobile-enabled on devices our teammates are using on a daily basis.”

Companies are under pressure to grow in a tough labour market. How do you see the role of HR changing in organizations, and what do you feel HR leaders should focus on to continue driving value?

Pasquini: “HR leaders are business leaders and like any leader in the organization, we need a growth mindset. We need to be adept at driving change and leading transformation. We need to set a vision for the future and help paint a path for our organization to get there.

We need to lead the way in driving automation and digitization to streamline and simplify work, remove friction for our teams, and free up our leaders and teams to focus on what matters most to our customers and key stakeholders. 

In addition, HR leaders need to help their organization reduce labour costs to reinvest in high growth areas. Finally, we need to help the organization differentiate their employee experience to better attract and retain diverse talent as well as critical skills for the future.”

Technology is changing fast and it presents a wealth of opportunities to help organizations plan for the future. How are you thinking about the role of technology in Sobeys’ future?

Knox: “Grocery retail runs entirely on technology. No one in the company can do their job without a core foundational system. You’re basically getting married to this partner for 25 years. Is this the platform we want to hitch our wagons to? For us, it was all about the partnership. We want a partner that can lead us there – we can’t innovate on our own.

First and foremost, we have to think about, are we reliable, accurate and secure, so that we can continue feeding Canadians.

When it comes to planning for our future, we have to think about the transformation that digital progress can bring, whether that’s next-gen platforms, infrastructure, or AI. We have to be there – and do it all within a budget.

We looked further ahead. We are making an investment to support core foundational values, transform how we work, and unlock more value.” 


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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