BIXI: Adapting during a pandemic

BIXI: Adapting during a pandemic

8 min. July 29, 2020
BIXI: Adapting during a pandemic

In the long term, BIXI Montréal will have gained in popularity because of COVID-19, predicts Anne-Marie Battista, administrative and HR director of this bike sharing organization.

This would be difficult to argue. To limit the risks of contagion, the public health officials recommend pedalling over public transit. Consequently, the bike paths of the province’s metropolis have never been so crowded. “Many will realize how fun it is to travel on two wheels,” believes Anne-Marie Battista, who has been working at BIXI since it was founded in 2014. “A bike is much more flexible than taking the bus or metro. Biking is freedom!” You get ready and leave, without having to worry about schedules, bus stop locations, and possible delays.

On the island, spring sales have been phenomenal for bicycle retailers who are struggling to meet the rise in demand due to production and delivery slowdowns. Getting a bike requires patience and the loosening of purse strings… or you can rent a BIXI. If the non-profit organization (NPO) has seen a reduction in memberships due to the explosion of telework and the temporary closure of businesses and entertainment venues, since the beginning of the pandemic it has attracted new occasional cyclists, for a ride on Mount Royal or a quick grocery run.

“Our clientele has changed. Lots of people are using BIXI for the first time in order to avoid public transportation.”

– Anne-Marie Battista, administrative and HR director at BIXI

The City’s new Express Bike Network (EBN), consists of five gigantic cycle highways that are accessible year-round, on Saint-Denis Street, for example. In response to COVID-19, Valérie Plante’s administration announced on May 15th, the temporary addition of 300 kilometres of bike paths and pedestrian streets, which will not be without impact on traffic congestion. “The mayor of Montréal wants a green municipality, which is to the disadvantage of motorists and many have had enough. For us, this is nothing but positive!” says BIXI director happily.

One thing is certain; the coronavirus has disrupted our habits. We buy local, work from home, spend our vacation with our neighbours, in a pool for the more fortunate. Do we really need a car?

Recruiting in the COVID-19 era
The pandemic also impacted Anne-Marie Battista’s work. BIXI bicycles are only available from April to November; each year at the start of the season, about a hundred operators on the road and customer service agents join the 34 permanent employees in charge of finances, accounting, marketing and human resources management. The biggest challenge for Battista is to recruit, train, and retain these seasonal workers, while offering an NPO salary.

Populating the brigade that roams the streets of Montréal to maintain the bike docks is not a problem for her, even during these special times. The turnaround rate for the team of truck drivers is minimal. It is mainly made up of middle-aged and retired men who manage snow removal contracts or travel during the colder season and resume their functions once the ice melts.

Making up the customer service troupe is a different kettle of fish. These positions interest mainly students looking for a summer job. The recruitment process must be done every year because rare are the college or university students who return after their first summer contract. However, this year is a real headache.

“With the pandemic, hiring agents has never been this difficult,” confides Anne-Marie Battista. “We are dozens of employees short and our lines are busy with new users needing assistance.” Why? According to many experts in the business sphere and Minister of Labour Jean Boulet, the fact that the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) has been extended until the end of August is inciting young workers to postpone their job search to 2021. The BIXI director agrees.

“Last year there was a labour shortage and recruiting was a challenge. For five job openings, there was only one candidate and he asked for an exorbitant salary.”

– Anne-Marie Battista

“It is also due to the fact that we cannot offer remote work to our new customer service recruits,” she explains. “Becoming a specialist of our systems takes time, and it takes many weeks for new agents to be able to work unassisted. Their supervisor must be in the vicinity to provide assistance at the wave of a hand.” Alas, a surprising number of candidates wish to work from home; some have taken a liking to the flexibility of telework, others simply fear contact. The few workers cumulating one or two years seniority can work remotely.

Another complication is that even if thirty potential candidates were to knock on the door of the SME tomorrow, it would not be equipped to welcome them. The training room can only hold ten people while respecting social distancing measures. COVID-19 has certainly highlighted the pressing need for virtual learning.

“If our trainer were to catch the virus, we would really be in trouble. With an e-learning platform, we would have online content and videos,” enthuses the specialist, who also cumulates years of experience at CAA-Québec and Atman Co. Now to convince the team, establish a budget and rethink the course format.

To reduce the considerable effort needed for recruitment and upgrade, the NPO could offer its services year-round. The equipment is resistant enough and users are not put off by the snow. This was confirmed when a few early snowflakes carpeted Montréal’s streets in November 2019. BIXI management has already presented to Montréal officials the advantages of offering a year-round service. The decision is in their hands.

BIXI, a story about bike sharing
In 1965, the Provos, a political counterculture movement revolting against the Dutch industrial society, founded the ancestor of BIXI. Wanting to eradicate Amsterdam’s monstrous traffic jams, they suggested that residents paint their bikes white and make them available for all. The project failed because of theft, but the idea was sprung across the Atlantic. In Copenhagen, Paris, Munich, Vienna and Barcelona, notably, this form of community transportation sees the day.

BIXI’s story starts in 2009, when the City of Montréal creates the first self-serve bike fleet in North America. Counting 3000 bicycles entirely designed and made in Canada, the network is managed by Stationnement Montréal. Despite its popularity, it becomes buried in debt, falls under the bankruptcy act, and asks for the City’s support. In 2014, Denis Coderre founds BIXI Montréal, the organization that we know today. He sounds the death knell on the service and gives it a year to get back on its feet.

In 2019, the business saw a record high: 5.8 million trips, an 8% increase from the previous year. Currently, more than 7000 bikes are available in hundreds of stations on the island of Montréal, in Laval and Longueuil. This service has spread internationally to cities such as Melbourne, Washington, New York, Chicago and London.

BIXI’s next project? Going electric to further rival with the automobile. By 2021, it is hoping to add more than 2000 rechargeable bikes, which can cover 10 km in less than 30 minutes.

Relying on employer branding
To attract talent, Anne-Marie Battista intends to reinforce the BIXI employer brand. She believes that describing an exceptional work environment using catchy phrases is not enough to set them apart. No SME will promote a negative atmosphere. To convince candidates, it is crucial to give them a feel of the real thing, the office experience, a tour of the warehouse, as if they were there.

To do so, the director plans on giving the floor to her personnel. Using targeted marketing content on Google or social media, she wills truckers and telephone operators to communicate the joy they experience on the job and fraternizing with colleagues and managers. She plans on sharing these sincere expressions in job fairs, universities, or on career days, during which interested ones would be invited to visit the facilities, view the vehicles, and meet the team – health conditions allowing, of course.

According to the expert, BIXI workers are treated like royalty. Fruits are distributed, there are breakfasts, Christmas parties, barbecues in the yard behind the warehouse. Management is behind the grill at the heart of the SME and hierarchy is put aside; everyone greets each other and gets along.

If Anne-Marie Battista had only one piece of recruitment advice, what would it be? “Treat your employees well!” Employees that are content share the good news in their surroundings, and give clients their best.

“You need an iron fist and a velvet glove.” This strong visual is a reminder of the importance of a listening ear, of being empathetic and accommodating, while keeping in mind profitability goals. This is particularly important during COVID-19. Employees are stressed out about details that didn’t bother them before, like sharing dishes in the kitchen. A quick response, such as proposing that everyone enjoy their lunch at their desk, reinforces well-being and productivity.

Admittedly, Anne-Marie Battista cannot promise a tantalizing salary. However, she gives to those that are committed the opportunity to make a difference. “Working for BIXI contributes to reducing pollution and means encouraging social economy proximity. We would like to discover individuals that prefer thriving in a company that corresponds to their core values over earning a lot of money,” explains the recruiter.

“As an NPO we cannot entice candidates with attractive salaries. Instead, we promise work that is gratifying, allows one to make a difference, promotes a healthy lifestyle and respect of the environment.”

– Anne-Marie Battista

Candidates must take psychometric tests to evaluate their skills, but also their desire to be a part of change. During the interview, they must answer questions that measure their commitment to BIXI.

Without a doubt, Anne-Marie Battista cherishes her employer and her team; no test is needed to confirm that.

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