adaptable leadership in HR

In this crazy and ever-changing world we now live in (due to the pandemic) the People function across every organisation is at the very core of business enablement. Whether your business is growing or downsizing, HR is in demand.

We have focused our attention in this Leadership Series on adaptable leadership and although this is a continuing work in progress, for most organisations it is a valued, resourced and funded objective.

In this article, we turn our focus to a sector that has been hit harder than most by the pandemic, the travel industry. Although adaptability is valued, the HR function is perhaps not so well resourced and funded.

I reached out to talk to Alex Trifonidis, GM Human Resources at Helloworld Travel about what has to be one of the hardest periods of his HR career.

The travel industry has been hit especially hard by the pandemic with no quick recovery in sight. What has it been like working in the industry?

It's like a raging storm in the travel industry, wherever you look there seems to be dark clouds and no sunshine on the horizon and all travel companies are in the storm but in different boats. We are lucky that we have very strong leadership and highly experienced and seasoned travel professionals in our business and they really are the lighthouse. There is a trusting culture that senior leaders working behind the scenes are navigating through the unknown and  preparing for the bounce back. That is the message we are sending but it’s been hard. We lost 89% of our revenue in the last financial year, we have had to restructure, stand down people and reduce the workforce across the US, Philippines and India, New Zealand and Australia. Team members roles have been made redundant and others have reduced hours or changed roles and some are doing multiple roles. We have had to rethink our skill sets and provide opportunities for development and growth to people where capability has been depleted.

The one thing in our favour is people who work in travel, love it. This cultural aspect has seen us through some turbulent times as people in travel are customer obsessed. When you book someone’s travel, they trust you will get them there and home safely. 

We reinvented the business during COVID as much as we could – we redeployed a substantive part of the workforce to the Department of Health and Human Services to do contact tracing. We were very proactive in looking at redeployment opportunities for our people with the view that they would come back to us with at least 50% of the workforce  back in the domestic sectors of the business.

So tell me a little about what attributes your leaders are displaying to keep your team aligned and believe in that bounce back.

It’s really about stability and showing resilience but also humanity. We have built trust by being honest and having high empathy for each other. We see our leaders as pillars of hope and strength. Leaders are constantly asked questions and they just don’t know the answer as there are so many variables beyond our control, but what they can control they do and what they can’t they communicate. That level of frankness makes us trust them and believe that they will be able to bring us through this.  

How are you managing the morale?

It’s become a very pragmatic and accepting culture. We can’t change what we can’t change and those that want to work through this and continue to have a career in travel are just taking it a day at a time. Along the way people have become tired, exhausted in fact and some have left to pursue other ventures and we have helped them with that. Resilience has been tested.

What are some of the things you have done to cope through this period?

The environment has changed dramatically, and we are now absolutely focused on the must have not the nice to have. We don’t work on 15 concurrent projects or system implementations; we look at everything through the lens of customer and revenue. We are all accountable for reducing costs and creating efficiencies and from that perspective when we do bounce back, we will be lean, efficient and very effective. Further, the HR team is tight and strong. We look after each other’s mental welfare given that we are face of the organisation when stood down or former employees make contact with us and request support or assistance. 

What have been the most challenging HR issues?

Logistics, managing cost, focusing on what is absolutely necessary and not having a long-term agenda. Our people plan has moved from years out to next month and there is a real immediacy in everything we do.

We have had to become operational and previously we were strategic, but we know this is what’s needed. Keeping connected with people on stand down has been challenging and managing some of the IR issues but we take one issue at a time, and we are open and transparent in our communications and this has helped us along the way.

We have been learning to do a lot with little, limited resources and limited spend. It has forced us to think outside the box and innovate, collaborate with other areas and in some cases, suppliers. We have had to become very visible and bring human interaction to all our dealings. For those people that are stood down, we understand the financial impact this had had on their livelihoods and we have provided various avenues for government support and assistance. 

As you said people are very connected to the travel industry, so I imagine there is long tenure and loyalty. Do you think that having that basis of trust in your culture has helped through this period?

It is a strong aspect of our culture and we have seen that time and time again. A lot of the people who are in our business have been here for a 15-20 year tenure and are industry veterans. The leadership has shown genuine care for the team members. They spent time in operations just talking to people, sharing their stories, and giving people an outlet to express their emotions.  

What is next for you?

Our focus is on the domestic market and potential bubble countries, so we are preparing for a big bounce back. We are commencing marketing campaigns around showcasing Australia, bringing back core skills, renegotiating supplier agreements and reconnecting with our stand down employees as means of building a connection between home and work.

We believe all the work we have done in driving efficiencies across the business via consolidation and collaboration will help as the world eventually opens up and people are once again able to travel.


Alex Trifonidis is General Manager HR for Helloworld Travel. He has spent the last ten years in travel however has worked across a range of industries including retail, telecommunications, utilities and professional services. 


about the author

Jeannette Lang - General Manager VIC/TAS/SA

Jeannette has over 20 years experience as a senior HR leader. With a strong network (nationally and internationally) of HR practitioners she is focussed on the placement of senior and executive HR professionals.

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