1-on-1 with James Witcombe: Grill’d harness technology to improve communication & accessibility during COVID spike

This interview is part of a 1-on-1 series featuring TA Leaders across Australia to see how their teams have responded to COVID and what they believe the next 12 months will look like. You can view my first chat here, with Ryan Biggs from AFCA.


We all know there is no playbook for what we are going through currently. It has never happened before, and for the first time many of us have been asked to make significant decisions in a short-term frame with little data that have a permanent impact.

Case studies will start to emerge, but most TA functions haven’t had the luxury of being able to compare their situation with others.

Today we chat with Tim Bartley, Head of Talent at Grill’d Healthy Burgers, to get some insights and learnings into what he and his team are doing to manage through this crisis.

Like the majority of Victorians, Tim is currently “working from home” and he is responsible for ensuring Grill’d’s 140 restaurants across Australia are well-staffed. For the unawares, Grill’d is best known for their healthy burgers (regularly enjoyed by this author!) and they deliberately and passionately aim to differentiate themselves from the “fast food” market aiming to not be the alternative to fast food, but the solution.

Hiring volumes have recovered since April/May, with between 40 – 50 new hires every week and the numbers are actually on track to exceed last year’s targets. That is a massive 2,300 – 2,500 new employees hired by the end of this year.


James: Tim, chain restaurants and stores all set up their recruitment differently. How does it work at Grill’d?

Tim: Volume Team Member recruitment across 140 restaurants is decentralised and managed end-to-end by the Restaurant Manager.

Restaurant Management hiring is centralised however and managed from end-to-end by the recruitment team (each restaurant has 3x managers). Support Office hiring is also managed end-to-end by the central recruitment team.

HR (which Talent Acquisition sits in) really needs to ensure the brand has:

  • A highly regarded Employee Value Proposition;
  • The best Talent (and will retain the best Talent);
  • Industry leading Learning and Development;
  • Industry leading engagement;
  • We will protect and enhance the brand through our people practices.

James: Take us through some of the challenges your Talent Acquisition function has faced over the last six months?

Tim: Like most companies, we entered March 2020 with a lot of trepidation around what we were heading into under restrictions and how this would impact the business that had such a strong focus on the dining experience.

Our team was already working flexibly, considering two in the team are mothers and were working-from-home at least one day per week. We still had to adjust to the new WFH operational rhythm like everyone and April/May required us to take reduced hours while recruiting paused.

The reopening of dining across much of the country in June meant an instant demand for new employees in restaurants as business thrived across dining, takeaway and delivery. Hiring demands escalated to high hundreds across each state. Additionally, we implemented a new HRIS (FlareHR) fully integrated with our ATS (LiveHire) platform.

Current candidate challenges continue to be in convincing good candidates (60+ percent of our hires do not come from advertising) to leave the “life raft” they are on to join a new organisation in such a tumultuous environment.

Onboarding for our Support Office is a new challenge in terms of ensuring new employees are effectively grounded and oriented into the business while working from home – connectivity and rapport building in this new dynamic presents new challenges.

James: What do you expect will be the biggest difference to how your TA function operates in 2021 compared with pre-COVID?

Tim: We are continuing to optimise our function with additional tools to assist in a time that may discourage group interviews and require other ways of assessing EQ and behaviour fit.

James: How are you making sure you best support a national chain of stores when everyone is WFH?

Tim: Communication is key – ensure regular online virtual meetings and “over communicate” action plans via email and phone calls, and having the right systems and tools in place is key to supporting a high performing function.

Fortunately, we have been working towards a paperless working environment for the past 12 months which put us in good stead for the transition.

James: Have you made any changes to your approach to candidate experience this year?

Tim: Implementing our ATS last year was key to upgrading our candidate experience. We have still got more to do but we well on our way into Talent pooling, robust ways of communicating through the system and empowering candidates to manage their own profiles within the Talent community.

A big challenge going forward is embedding new starters into the broader culture without the usual travel experience – we are building a suite of videos and interactive online activities to help create an inclusive experience.

James: What has “surprised” you (in a good or bad way) in all these changes?

Tim: There have been a few things… how quickly we have all harnessed technology to facilitate what we need to do on a daily basis (in the face of perceived hurdles to working from home). A flow on from that has been our improved turnaround times when reaching out to target candidates – communication and accessibility is so much better now than pre-COVID.

I do feel for the many organisations who have not yet evolved their Talent Acquisition functions and will be relying more heavily than ever on agencies to deliver the ever-increasing portion of their hiring considering the increased reduction in advertising response and the need to be more proactive in the competitive candidate market.


If you are an internal Talent Acquisition executive for a corporate organisation, we would love to have you at our exclusive Future of Talent 2020 event series. Click to learn more and register your interest today.

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