Case Study: How Alaska Airlines transformed their HR department from reactive to strategic

Setting the scene

In 2015, Alaska Airlines was poised for another growth spurt: the company would acquire Virgin America the following year. But the HR department—then just known as Employee Relations—was a purely tactical resource.

The department operated in reactive mode, putting out fires and troubleshooting performance concerns. There was no time to plan for the future or help business partners design people strategies for long-term success.

The HR leadership knew something had to change, that the function had to transform. But how do you add a whole layer of work when there is already so much to do? Where do you start?

Enter PeopleFirm

PeopleFirm assembled a team who not only had HR strategy expertise, but also professional experience working in HR roles. This real-world expertise helped them guide Alaska in creating a plan that was actionable; a customized, flexible, framework, rather than a set of cookie-cutter templates.

Workshopping Workflow

PeopleFirm started by leading a series of half- and full-day workshops. By allotting dedicated time in a workshop setting, the Alaska team had the space to think strategically about their own future. The PeopleFirm team also stressed the importance of involving all employees who would be impacted by the process of reshaping the department and workflows.

During the workshops, the Alaska team members first took inventory of the work they were currently doing and categorized it as strategic, operational, or fire-fighting. They identified what tasks were taking the most time, and flagged places where they wanted to devote more energy. They looked at ways to modify tasks, opportunities to delegate, and areas where work was being duplicated.

Some workshops focused on building RACIs with other teams to clarify exactly who was doing what. The RACIs created a clear picture of the responsibilities that should belong to HR vs. those that should be handed over to another team.

“There were a lot of “a-ha” moments as team members realized just how much time they spent on certain tasks, some of which weren’t even in their job descriptions. For example, scheduling interviews, interviewing candidates and working job fairs were actually the responsibilities of a recruiter, yet were being done by HR.” —Michaela Littman, Director, HR Business Partner and Employee Relations, Alaska Airlines

According to Michaela Littman, Director, HR Business Partner and Employee Relations at Alaska Airlines, PeopleFirm also stressed the importance of using data to communicate with business partners.

“Looking at root cause analytics and using that data to make a case really gave us a seat at the table,” Michaela said. “Being able to tell a story through data positioned us as a strategic business partner who spoke our partners’ language.”

Designing the Future

reading through strategy glasses (focusing on strategy)_smallOnce the HR team leaders had a clear, data-driven picture of the current workflow, they identified what they wanted the future state to look like. The largest change they mapped was splitting the department into an Employee Relations group and an HR Business Partner team designed to focus more on strategy.

As the new roles took shape, leadership shared findings with the full team and solicited feedback. Current employee’s input directly shaped the direction the department was moving. Employees understood the “why” of the changes and the “what” of the new teams. They could, essentially, sign up for their future.

It was particularly useful, Michaela said, to have a partner that could model the skills of strategy development and org design to her team. While leading Alaska through the process of designing their new HR org, PeopleFirm was also demonstrating ways to make the process customized, engaging, inclusive, and focused on tangible results.

“What was awesome about PeopleFirm was what we were supposed to be doing with our clients was what they were doing with us. They were teaching us how to be business partners, they were also teaching us to fish.”

Key Takeaways

  1. Take inventory of the work your team is doing. Which tasks do you need to spend more time on, which can you modify to make more efficient, and what can you stop or give to someone else?
  2. Stop assigning value to checking off items on a to-do list! Make space for the work you really want to be doing, and start defining success on a larger scale.
  3. Work with your business partners to design competencies for the ideal strategic HR partner. Speak their language by using data to back up your ideas.
  4. Involve your current team every step of the way so they have buy-in for the future state and can help design their own career path.
  5. Shift into new roles, understanding that there will be a learning curve if your team has only worked as HR generalists. Train, educate, and support.

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PeopleFirm is a strategy and execution consulting firm dedicated to helping you achieve that ultimate win-win: inspired people driving inspiring performance. We focus on effective tools, measurable outcomes, real results, and getting your people out of their seats and engaged in your company’s growth.

We use best-practice techniques across the five spheres that drive high performance to help you partner with your people to build an organization that excels in today’s new world of work. And, to ensure your organization can effectively embrace and support our solutions, we weave change management and leadership capability into everything we do.

Your people = your success.

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