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Work can become a pleasure

Encouraging greater staff engagement helps create a happy working environment

Do you know how your staff feel about working for your company? Would they rate it extraordinary, outstanding or would they say it was just a lowly first class?

Getting your people to arrive at work happy to be there, engaging them with your wider business strategy and stopping them from being poached are not easy tasks.

But there is no doubt that the effort is worth it - a content and engaged workforce will perform better and will attract others to your company. Ultimately, your product or service will be improved and so will the bottom line.

Internal communication comes up time and again when speaking to people who have a workforce which is fully engaged in the business.

Melville Knight, executive chairman of care-home builder Castleoak, says: “Communication is key. We have regular staff conferences where we talk about the company, our plans, how we are doing and where we are going. We have monthly newsletters to staff and their families.

“If people feel like ‘I never hear from Mel any more’ that’s when you get grumblings. The big issue is communication - that is the spine that runs through all of this.”

Castleoak has been awarded three stars by Best Companies, an organisation which produces an annual list of good firms: Three stars is for extraordinary, two stars for outstanding and one for first class. The survey is largely based on employee feedback. Best Companies also produces the Sunday Times list.

Inspirational leadership

Leadership values are also vital when it comes to getting your employees to love working for you.
Mr Knight says: “We’ve always had a very strong sense of values and principles and we write them down and apply them as we grow the company. If you have values, make sure that people know they are expected to adhere to them.”

Stella Littlewood, global human resources director at Arup, says that those senior people with vision, passion, compassion and values will obviously inspire others, but crucially, this will affect how people perceive themselves.

The company has what Ms Littlewood calls a ‘spiritual employment contract’ where it encourages its people to put forward ideas and take part in activities outside of work, with some employees given paid sabbaticals of up to a year.

An open management style is also important. People need to feel that they are being listened to by senior people and that they make a contribution to the success of the firm.

Mr Knight says: “Our style is very much to leave the door open. There’s nothing worse than the senior people in the business not knowing what people are there for.” He even goes so far as to send his staff birthday cards.

The personal touch

This is all very well, but what if you have several hundred people working for you? Surely it is impossible to speak to them all? Not so, says Chrissie Chadney, head of human resources at Willmott Dixon, which has been given a Best Companies two-star accreditation.

“The induction is very important. New people meet our chief executive Rick Willmott within three months of joining where he talks about the culture and the business plans and we explain why we are pleased to be private for the last 156 years. We run sessions about five times a year,” she explains.
Knowing people by name is crucial, says Ms Chadney. “We have a strategy where we do not let our businesses get too large.

“The structure we have makes people belong to a business unit, where the managing director and operations director of each division will know everyone.”

Ms Chadney adds that the maximum number per business is about 150 people.

But large companies can be very set in their ways - and although you may have good intentions it might take something quite dramatic to change and provide the open, communicative culture that is needed for employees to fully engage.

Rydon Group, which got a first class Best Companies rating, underwent a management buyout two years ago.

Donna Newell, Rydon’s director of human resources, suggests that a simple step is to get staff to ask questions of management: “We wanted to modernise, so we did a scheme where people could email or go and see a senior person to ask any questions of them.

“One thing people wanted was childcare vouchers, so we introduced them.”

This way, staff feel like they are making a contribution to the business, and that they are being listened to.

But as you grow, the challenge is maintaining that connection. Jane Stanbridge, marketing manager at consultancy Hydrock, which has been voted three-star by its employees, explains: “As you get bigger, people in the company get further away from the boss. So communication is even more vital to engage people.”

How to become a ‘best company’

Jonathan Austin, Best Companies’ managing director, says: “For three-star companies it is about keeping ahead of the game. Profit is not the primary reason for their existence, it’s the productivity – they have to create a product or service and the by-product of this is profit.

“Quality of workplace engagement is directly proportional to quality of internal communications. Get your employees to feed back on you confidentially. Don’t get them in a room and ask them because they may not feel they can be honest.

“Engagement is about how they feel they can play a part in the company. It’s not just warm and fluffy, it’s tough love.”

Wayne Clark, managing partner of Best Companies, says: “A lot of people surveyed we call yellow. It’s when you ask them a question and they are in the ‘neither agree nor disagree’ category. Internal communications reduces indecision or the ‘I just don’t know’. You want people going towards the green, or positive feedback.”