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Bucking the trend: How to keep employee engagement up when the cost-of-living is getting you down

It's a tough time for business. The economic downturn and the rising cost-of-living are proving just as challenging for organisations as they are for their employees.

According to the latest Office for National Statistics (ONS), almost one in five businesses (19%) listed energy prices as their primary concern, followed by the inflation of goods and services (16%). 

And staff pay is becoming a more significant outgoing too, with more than one in five businesses (21%) with 10 or more employees increasing hourly wages between November and December 2022.

In times like these, it's easy for businesses to hunker down – the leadership team focusing on staying afloat to the detriment of all else, including employee engagement and those activities that can make staff feel valued and confident. They may cut back on learning and development and shelve projects teams are invested in, or inadvertently increase workloads as they introduce a recruitment freeze.

But companies need to play the long game, recognising that prioritising employee engagement and continuing to invest in their workforce can strengthen resilience during tough times and help them bounce back faster. Ultimately, companies with a highly engaged workforce are 21% more profitable (Gallup).

Our panellists are bucking the trend in employee engagement. They all feature in the top 75 in the Best Companies league tables and are three-star accredited, showing them to be world-class companies to work for.

At our Best Companies Live Q1 2023 event, we asked them how they're weathering the storm and what continues to make them employers of choice when so many others are struggling.

This article shares highlights from the conversation. Watch the full session above.

1. A positive workplace culture endures good and challenging times

Renewable energy supplier Good Energy has had a tumultuous two years. It welcomed a new CEO who replaced the first and only chief executive at the company. Next was a hostile takeover bid, followed by the collapse of the energy industry, which saw around 30 suppliers go bust. 

Despite these challenging circumstances, Good Energy saw its employee engagement scores rise.

"It was quite extraordinary," says Chief Operating Officer Fran Woodward. "We put it down to a few things. For years we'd done a lot of groundwork on our culture and values, and the new chief exec didn't seek to change those. He took the strengths and built on them. 

"It was also about leadership communication. We are mindful that when there is a lot of chaos and uncertainty externally, you have to align completely as leaders. At one point, we were communicating daily to 300 employees. We made sure that everyone knew what was going on, not sugar-coating anything and explaining what we were doing to manage the risks."

And for Artificial Intelligence company Peak, values are lived and breathed, not stuck on a wall:

"We have a culture of ownership and responsibility," says Holly Clarke, Chief of Staff." 'Responsible' is one of our core values, and it manifests in different ways. When you join, you are awarded some share options. This means you own part of the business, so everyone is responsible for the culture and maintaining it. And, given that another of our values is 'open,' our quarterly feedback survey isn't anonymous; it's one everyone leaves their name on. We're really proud of it and get some amazing suggestions."

2. Embrace the power of listening

Listening to employees is about involving them in decisions, seeking feedback and incorporating their ideas – making them feel heard and valued (Business News Daily). It must be a fundamental part of the culture, not a lip service activity.

Danske Bank values everybody’s contribution.

"We need to listen to everyone at every level whether that's bottom, middle or top," says Caroline Van der Feltz, HR Director. "Bottom-up drives the ideas and behaviour change. Top-down is about role-modelling and giving permission, being provocative and driving innovation. You need to listen to what's going on outside your organisation too; organisations looking at their own navels are never going to progress." 

Surveying with Best Companies for 12 years, TLC Marketing Worldwide has upped its game to stay a world-class company to work for.

"What we've done particularly differently over the last few years is really invested in the power of listening," says Dipti Shah, Global Group People Director. "It's about adapting to people's lifestyle changes and what they want from this new post-pandemic work-life balance – really listening to what will help them strive and us as a business to grow. I think that's been the key to our success on this engagement journey."

And for Peak, their offices, now turned 'clubhouses,' have been shaped by staff.

"Towards the end of the pandemic, we ran an employee survey and asked people what they wanted from the future of work and their offices. People really wanted social space, collaboration space – somewhere that was flexible and had the same facilities as their at-home desks. Our clubhouses are a physical representation of our culture."

And Good Energy is helping its people communicate well and be heard effectively through its 'Signature Skills' programme, Fran Woodward explains its ‘straight talking’ training:

"We recognise that to have really good teamwork, you've got to have really good relationships. And one of the hardest things in a relationship is having a difference of opinion. We employ a lot of gentle, nice people who care about climate change and having these conversations is really tough. So, this training helps everyone have difficult conversations in a safe way."

3. Cultivate a family feel

You spend one-third of your life at work, and with hybrid working blurring the boundaries between home life and work, businesses that seek to engage with employees' lives can forge stronger connections.

"The 'Danske family' concept is absolutely fundamental to our Best Companies success," says Caroline Van der Feltz. "Our CEO is a mum of four boys, and she very openly talks about the challenges of balancing work and life; in fact, we have a 'healthy boundaries charter'.

"We have family days like our Santa Saturday and zoo days where we hired out Belfast Zoo, and colleagues from right across Northern Ireland brought their families. It's a really good way to connect; it flattens the hierarchy and breaks down barriers. Working in a hybrid way, these opportunities to find out a bit more about each other have become critical."

4. Do what's right for your business and people

It's easy to get caught up in what everyone else is doing regarding how and where to work. The most obvious example is hybrid working, with more than three-quarters (78%) of organisations surveyed by the CIPD saying they offer it in some form. It may seem something you have to do to stay relevant in a competitive market place, but our panellists recognise ways of working have to fit with the business ethos and culture.

Pre-pandemic, we were one hundred per cent office based, and we've returned to that," says Dipti Shah of TLC Marketing Worldwide. "Our business strives on our people being together. To deliver what we need to for our clients, there's so much collaboration that needs to happen, and we do that best when we're together."

But office working does not mean a rigid regime for the company’s employees. "We've never not offered flexibility," adds Dipti. "We've always said we're primarily office-based, but you have the flexibility when you need it, and that's quite meaningful."

And Peak's hybrid working model has evolved to meet everyone's needs best.

"We've moved from disorganised hybrid to organised hybrid," says Holly Clarke. "Disorganised, we were working from the clubhouse three days per week. Anyone could pick any day, and you might get to the clubhouse and not find many people there, or you might find it really busy. Now we've all committed to being in Wednesday and Thursday and doing lots of cool things in person – collaborating."

Our panellists are exceling in employee engagement as they stay true to their culture and values, continuing to listen to staff, and acting on feedback even during the most challenging times. They recognise their people are the key to their success and continue to invest in them, whether through training, creating inspirational workspaces or giving them the flexibility to prioritise family. 

Do you have ambitions to become a world class company to work for? Start your journey towards Best Companies' three-star accreditation by investing in our b-Heard employee engagement survey.  




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