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Rising to the challenge: Improving against the odds

It goes without saying that in any year improvements in employee engagement should be celebrated. However, for those that have managed improvements so significant that they have made the biggest change to their previous survey score in their size category – it is more important than ever. In this article, we hear from the winners of the Special Award for ‘Best Improver’ at Best Companies Live, where they discussed how they made such an achievement in such a challenging year.

The last 18 months have been exceptional for organisations across the globe, with such unprecedented circumstances forcing change on a major scale. Whilst many have managed to survive such turbulent times – what about those that have managed to thrive?

We’re talking about those organisations that not only managed to overcome the difficulties they faced, but also go on to significantly improve their employee engagement scores compared to the previous year. But just how did they transform their data from their Best Companies Survey into visible results in such a challenging environment?

A world-class approach

For EKM Systems’ CEO, Antony Chesworth, winner of the ‘Best Improver’ Special Award in the small headcount range, it was all about bringing teams together to determine the key areas to focus on and the best course of action to take.

Following their last survey, the company found that whilst they were doing a lot of the things mentioned, they were failing to communicate these with staff.

Chesworth explained: “We were doing a lot of this stuff but not communicating it properly. We’re very humble, we don’t tend to shout about the good things we do whether charitable work or staff perks. So, we made an effort to remind people of what we are all doing and that we’re all world-class. Once you start telling people that, you believe it. This award is a testament to what everyone has done.”

Understanding what needed to be done, the EKM Leadership made time for their people, ensuring there was always time in their schedules to talk to their teams. Regular morning hangout calls provided employees the opportunity to raise any challenges they were facing, or share their successes, whilst monthly zoom games including quizzes, escape rooms and bingo provided a fun environment for colleagues to socialise.

When asked how the organisation will continue to improve going forward, Chesworth explained that the concept of the office is a huge part of their plans. “Now that we’ve told our team they can work from home forever if they want to, that’s going to massively change things.”

“We invested in a fun and collaborative working environment for staff and spent a lot on our offices to create a fun working environment, so if we want to get people back in to do 2-3 days a week, we have to ask ourselves how we can make the environment even better and more appealing [than before].”

In order to strive forward, you sometimes have to move backwards

Having started their journey with Best Companies three years ago and wanting to benchmark themselves against other companies of their size and sector across the region, learning software company, One File, were pleasantly surprised to discover they had been awarded a one-star accreditation.

But after making some difficult decisions the following year, employee engagement levels dropped. Speaking about this, Susanna Lawson, CEO, explained: “We knew we had to make some decisions in the business that might not necessarily be popular with the teams, so we did expect a drop in that second year. It was disappointing, but we know in order to strive forward you sometimes have to move backwards.”

Eager to improve, One File began collecting data from their surveys and conversations with staff, using the feedback they received to implement positive change. During the pandemic the firm went above and beyond to ensure staff felt connected at all times, stepping up communications between the leadership team and employees and hosting an array of virtual events such as celebrations, book clubs, online fitness classes and themed interactive group chats. The company also worked hard to recognise staff, praising individual efforts and good news in a dedicated team’s channel and surprising them with ‘thank you boxes’ delivered to their doors.

Now, One File is already thinking about how they can move forward with a hybrid approach to working and how returning to the office will have an impact on the mental wellbeing of staff.

Lawson continued: “I think we’re going to have more stresses moving out of this than people realise, so we had an occupational psychiatrist do a session with the whole team, who gave us some coping mechanisms. I was amazed by the team recognising not only how they can help themselves but also how they can help their team members when their pockets are overflowing - the compassion has really grown at One File over the year.”

“Hospitality can carry a reputation. We wanted to break the mould”

The world of hospitality has faced many setbacks since the beginning of the pandemic, but the effect it has had on the retention of staff is a big problem – just ask Rachel Woodcock, Head of People at Hickory’s Smokehouse and winner of this year’s Best Improver Award in the Large category.

Retention is hard in hospitality as it is, ”Woodcock explained. “Stick a pandemic in there and that makes it really difficult.”

Understanding the crucial role employee engagement plays in the retention of staff, Hickory’s took action, using the data from their Best Companies Survey to gain a better understanding of their people.

After reviewing comments in their last staff survey the organisation established a clear need to prioritise the welfare of their employees, starting by tacking long working hours by implementing a maximum shift policy of ten hours. Hickory’s then turned their attention to ensuring a fair deal for their people, boosting team benefits such as the ‘tip jar’, which sees both front and back of house staff receiving up to an additional £3 an hour in pay.

With 13 restaurants and a 14th in the pipeline, Hickory’s continues to seek new ways to improve.

“We have actually been shut for a very long time, so we're now at risk of losing our team of people who aren’t used to working 40 hours a week if week if we don’t keep improving,” continued Woodcock.

“For me, it’s about how to make sure we keep work-life balance going and make adjustments for those coming back into work again. We’re constantly looking at what others do, researching businesses and talking to our teams.”.

Championing the workforce

For leading e-commerce firm, The Hut Group, the journey to driving positive engagement started in 2019 with their first Best Companies Survey.

It was the first real meaningful data set that we had to really understanding engagement, and it was my job to sit down with the senior leadership team and positively challenge them as to how we could make this happen,” explained Richard Nolan, Group People Director at the firm, which scooped the Special Award in the big category for 2021.

Being a very dynamic business operating in areas from hospitality to operations and tech, the organisation quickly learned that the improvements required for each area of the business varied drastically. So, the team got to work going through the data and figuring out where they could target incentives.

Listening to the requests of their employees for more better resources for development the company focused on improving the training it offered, setting up a training programme designed for managers and providing all employees access to a brand-new online training system. The Hut Group also underwent a complete benefits overhaul, introducing enhanced maternity and paternity pay, company sick pay and an uncapped benefits package, as well as flexible working hours and a daily wellbeing hour to encourage staff to take time for themselves.

During the pandemic, the organisation faced the challenge of providing the same upbeat atmosphere and energy usually associated with working in the office to ensure people still felt connected and engaged.

“One of the things we're really passionate about is that during our peak period when a lot of our sales go out, we have a very party atmosphere,” Nolan continued. “But we had to change that, we couldn't have people on site this year, so we did a remote event and got everyone around the globe to dial in. We had live celeb DJ's, hosts, games, telephone calls and Mr Motivator even did a motivational speech and workout that we could stream out to staff. Little things like that have gone a long way to drive the engagement we see today. We want to make sure we champion our workforce and make the right decisions to drive our people forward.”.

The full lists of winners across all list sizes and categories can be found here and full recordings of the day can be accessed here.

To return to the Insight hub for more articles from Best Companies please click here.

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