The HR transition of North Oil Company has been a tremendous adventure
By Phil Campbell, published on April 3rd, 2018, modified on April 4th, 2018
On 12th Jul 2016, I was working contentedly in the third year of my assignment to the Gestion de l’International department of EP, in Tour Coupole in Paris. I had been invited to attend a meeting about a project so confidential, that I knew it only by its code name – Quo Vadis. On arriving in the meeting, I realized that every métier necessary for the building of a new company was already represented, and we were informed of the electrifying news; Total’s bid to work in partnership with Qatar Petroleum to manage the next 25 years of the huge Al Shaheen field, had been accepted. Everyone present would be expected to contribute to the successful construction of a company which would assume the Operatorship on 14th July 2017 – less than one year ahead. Almost every one of us was in Doha less than a week later, preparing for one of the biggest challenges of our careers – and probably the most intense year of our business lives. I spent three final days in Paris packing up my belongings, and I was formally assigned to the Al Shaheen Transition Team on 1st October 2016.
An enormous amount of groundwork had been prepared by our HR Team Leader, Jean-Louis Pradel and we rapidly scoped out the challenge; the development of terms and conditions of employment, job offers and salaries for approximately 800 current employees of Maersk Oil Qatar. During our initial meetings with MOQ’s HR team, it was immediately apparent that many staff had complex and individual employment contracts. The HR challenge was enormous; the new “North Oil Company” had to ensure that as many as possible of the current workforce were persuaded to remain and continue to contribute their expertise to this vast project. An organization had to be designed, a Payroll system set up, a Company Management System developed, conditions compared and developed, a Handbook written – and an HR Transition organization created, at a time when few internationally mobile candidates were available within Total, and the HR function of EP was itself in full restructuring mode.
Among the key challenges, the MOQ organization was itself in mid-reorganization at the time of the bid, having lost almost 50% of the workforce and broad banded its grade structure. Few detailed job descriptions were available, and terms and conditions were European in structure, whereas we were soon aware that NOC would be more closely aligned with the Qatari Upstream industry. NOC would therefore have to offer and respect certain conditions which were fully in conformity with the local culture, but not at all aligned with typical Total practices – among them, equality of certain conditions between male and female staff. Of all the accommodations which had to be made, this was undoubtedly the most difficult. In addition, MOQ declined to allow direct contact with its staff for many months or to supply staff CVs, fearing that worries about a subliminal selection process by NOC would impact attention to safety during this critical period. As a result, the initial NOC organisation was designed and built based on a ‘best judgment’ comparison of the Matrix-based MOQ organisation with more conventional operational structures.
Who did all the work? We were exceptionally fortunate to be able to engage the support of two experienced “HR spouses” whose husbands had been assigned to the project. We also of course secured a small number of dedicated HR secondees and a handful of dedicated and fast-learning contracted staff. Without them, the Payroll, Recruitment and Job Offer processes would never have occurred on time! The vast databases for our job offers were also developed and continually updated by Excel ‘wizards’ from McKinsey, who also contributed significantly to the ‘professionalization’ of our many, many presentations to QP and to the MOQ staff.
And how did we ensure that the eventual job offers remained confidential, and were delivered on a single day to a workforce which was scattered across the globe? The answer was to embrace technology and communications media. Using the services of a locally-based IT company, we placed individual job offers online, in a password-secured website, and then emailed individual passwords to 782 MOQ employees. Were we confident that the process would work? Not when the servers in MOQ began to jam under the electronic weight of the incoming mails! Nevertheless, the outcome was a remarkable acceptance rate of 90% and 100% confidentiality of the job offers themselves.
But of course this was not the end of the story. As soon as the electronic process was over, the human element had to resume. With direct access at last to MOQ staff, we conducted 600 one-to-one meetings to answer individual questions and provide reassurance to a very anxious workforce which had waited seven long months for this opportunity. Then, from April 2017 onwards, we began the process of ‘Early Onboarding’ as many former MOQ staff as possible so that the final group of 500 could join on 14th July 2017 in as orderly a fashion as possible. Even then of course we had produced only a fraction - but a sizeable fraction! - of the hundreds of policies and procedures that a fully functioning professional HR department requires. In 2018, this process is fully under way, as we reinforce the ‘people elements’ of North Oil Company, and work to resolve the many compensation and intercultural issues which remain.
I could not end the story of the welcoming of the Al Shaheen venture into Total’s growing family of OpCos, without a heartfelt piece of advice for our mergers and acquisitions colleagues; “Next time you decide to buy a company, can you buy the subsidiary first?” It would make life a lot easier for the team that has to bring the staff on board! Seriously though, it has been a tremendous adventure and I will always remember with affection, the long hours but the unfailingly high morale of the diverse, multi-national team that delivered the HR elements of the next 25 years of Al Shaheen from our base in “La Ruche” (The Beehive).
With NOC’s and Total’s grateful thanks to the HR ‘Dreamteam” – we hope to see you all on the next Quo Vadis!