Leaders share tips on how to build and motivate teams at Best Employers launch
Speakers from diverse backgrounds explained how they built happy, healthy workforces, as the Best Employers scheme kicked off. Mark Shields reports.
The journey to a more motivated workplace starts with a single step, and can lead to a happier and more productive workforce to prepare your business for whatever the future holds.
That was the message from some of the region's outstanding companies at the launch of Best Employers Eastern Region programme for 2018.
More than 150 business leaders and HR professionals braved the snow and the cold to attend the event at Tattersalls in Newmarket, where they heard from Lynn Walters, executive director of recruitment firm Pure, and Dr George Sik, a consultant psychologist at Eras, the two companies which founded Best Employers.
Speakers included Ian White, chief executive of Beckett Investment Management Group in Bury St Edmunds, Minnie Moll, joint chief executive of the East of England Co-op, and Ian Watson, the chief executive of Start-Rite Shoes in Norwich.
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More than 100 companies have already signed up to take part in this year's survey, which can be tailored to each organisation, and allows for benchmarking comparisons with other regional companies.
'It's been a fantastic response – it's really surpassed our expectations,' said Ms Walters.
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'It's really appealing to the SMEs but also a lot of the larger organisations in our region. They are attracted by seeing this as a tool to increase their engagement levels but the additional feature of the accreditation, which is new this year, is really attractive to employers who know they need to focus on their employee brand if they're to retain and attract the best people into their organisation.'
Dr Sik said there was 'a clear link between engagement and success in an organisation'.
'It can be little things – having a staff party, offering a parking space, having access to senior management – but that's what works. They can be strange bedfellows, but sometimes what works for the business is also what is right for staff.'
The programme this year is once again being run by Pure and Eras, with support from Archant, the publisher of the Eastern Daily Press and East Anglian Daily Times, and regional law firm Birketts.
Introducing the panel discussion with the three speakers, Birketts employment law partner Jeanette Wheeler underlined the importance for all businesses to think about how they motivate and energise employees, particularly in light of Brexit.
'There's a war for talent,' she said. 'There's going to be increased competition to get the right people in your organisation and keep them there.
'If you engage your people, as anyone on the panel will tell you, it will develop your business growth and productivity.'
• 'We were a little bit sleepy' - Start-Rite Shoes boss on turnaround
Arriving in East Anglia from a career in the cut-throat world of private equity, it didn't take long for Ian Watson to realise he had a culture problem on his hands.
On his first morning at Start-Rite Shoes, the new chief executive turned up at 7.45am – and waited more than an hour before the next employee appeared.
'Where I had been working in Germany, if you weren't in the office by 7.05am, then you were sick,' he said.
'At 5pm in my first week at Start-Rite, I got locked in the building. So I got the picture: we were a little bit sleepy.'
Mr Watson described how he had needed to change the culture at the company in order to enact his turnaround, which should bring the company back into profit this year.
When he took over 'the end was near', he said.
'In a private equity environment, you are only as good as your last quarter results. But in this family business, we are now trying to build a performance culture,' he said.
Injecting a sense of urgency was key, said Mr Watson, as well as being unapologetic about focusing on profitability, investing in training for staff and holding regular staff social events to revive team spirit.
Start-Rite has installed a pint-sized pub in the office – the Jolly Cobbler – and brought in pool tables and break-out areas to encourage staff to socialise together.
And he said companies had to hold their nerve when looking to engender a new culture.
'It's repetition for reputation,' he said. 'Just as you sick of saying it, that's when people start getting it. And when people start getting it, that's when you are getting somewhere.'
• Small things, big difference
Minnie Moll, joint chief executive of the East of England Co-op, tackled the question of 'what is culture?' in her presentation.
With the goal of increasing engagement among the retailer's 5,000 staff, Ms Moll explained how the Co-op had devised its Small Things, Big Difference campaign as a way of communicating its ethos both to customers outside the business and colleagues inside it.
'It's all about the small things that our colleagues do every day: being warm and friendly and authentic,' she said.
'We've really got momentum now. We bring our 250 managers together twice a year and a key part of it is asking for Small Things, Big Difference stories - what colleagues have been doing - and we are building up a library of them.'
The campaign had also involved overhauling the 'stiff and formal' management structure, and showing the five joint chief executives leading the way.
'It's important that these things are being led from the top,' said Ms Moll. 'We've learned a lot about humour.
'Love him or loathe him, Richard Branson knows that. He might be pictured wearing a wedding dress, and it'll make good PR, but it's also about being a good leader.'
Ms Moll said employee engagement, when done correctly, had the power 'to increase sales, improve margins, and reduce sickness, absenteeism and the churn of talent'.
• 'Employee engagement is hard work' - finance leader
Employee engagement is not a destination but a journey, said Ian White, chief executive of Beckett Investment Management Services in Bury St Edmunds.
His team of 50 staff complete an engagement survey every 90 days so that their wellbeing can be monitored throughout the year.
'Employee engagement is hard work,' said Mr White. 'We've spent three or four years building up to a level but we understand that it's only temporary. It can go quickly, but it takes a long time to build.'
He said a focus on engagement had helped to overturn tired stereotypes about accountants and improve staff retention.
'Our staff are on a career journey, and we never consider that they will stay with us longer than two years: that keeps us on our toes,' he said, adding that engagement began from day one.
'We never recruit the A* student or the captain of the football team: we go for the person who turns up on a Tuesday night for training in the hope of getting on for the last five minutes. They have to want to be involved in what we are doing.'