The Best Companies to Work For is one of the most prestigious lists of the most amazing employers in the UK, celebrated for the last 12 years – all companies who survey their employees using the Best Companies questions have the ability to feature on the list. If someone mentioned to you about working for Iceland Foods, what would you think? Cool, their food is normally priced at £1, Peter Andre and Kerry Katona featured in their TV adverts or, wow they were the Best Big Company to work for in the UK?
The following is an extract of an interview originally published on the ThanksBox blog
ThanksBox CEO Luke Fisher asked Mairi Probin, previously Head of Employee Engagement and Internal Communications at the national retailer, how do you reach the number 1 spot? With more than 25K employees across over 800 locations in the UK, Mairi had quite a task, so we wanted to find out what was her magic formula…
Luke: With Awards to your name like first place in the Best Companies List, Retail Week HR Rising Star of the Year and numerous ORC Employee Engagement Awards, please tell us who is Mairi Probin?
Mairi: I started my career in Marketing. When working at Iceland, I spent some time working in Innovation - innovation of all things, product, process etc - and during that time, one of the things I talked about a lot was connecting better with our employees to help them improved understanding of the role they play in the business. I’d never heard of employee engagement so I didn’t realise that it had an official title! I then moved into the HR Team to set up the Internal Comms and Engagement function. I did that for about 5 years and worked with some fantastic people - I learned so much! I left a few years ago to start my own business and I now work with a number of businesses, big and small, on their engagement strategy.
Luke: What does employee engagement mean to you?
Mairi: Employee engagement is about connecting the employer and the employee – through communication, leadership, recognition, etc. It’s all about making a connection.
Luke: What did you set out to achieve as the Head of Employee Engagement at Iceland Foods? What were your metrics for success?
Mairi: I articulated the brief as “to build an organisation where our people say they are proud to work for us”. A big part of our success at Iceland was the clarity that the colleagues working in our stores were the key focus for our engagement activity - these were the people serving the customers who put the money in the tills so they were at the centre of all of our thinking and planning. Lots of businesses think that the head office is the centre of the universe and view their other sites as a secondary audience! The reality of life at a retailer is that the people in the stores are the ones working across a 24 hour period, dealing with shop lifting, coping with a member of the public weeing behind the freezer (yes you read that right!), or someone shouting at them as they hadn’t received the refund they expected - there are clearly positives too but that is part of life in a store. Life in head office can be tough, stressful etc but at the end of the day, you can pop to the coffee shop, eat lunch in the restaurant and very rarely look a customer in the eye… and you are closer to the leadership, you have more visibility of the leaders of the business. And so we built our strategy around our front line teams whilst absolutely respecting the role everyone played in the business.
Engagement is a constant - don’t look at it as a project
Communication was a huge part of what we did – we had 25K people across 800 stores. Making sure we could talk, listen and respond - basically have a conversation - was really important. Often organisations get the one way communication working really well, but the conversation is what many struggle with – the essence of conversation is that all parties get to share their views, this is at the heart of a great relationship. It wasn’t easy, some people in more senior positions didn’t always want to hear what was being said – if this is the case in your business, I’d encourage you to remind them that if you don’t facilitate it, it doesn’t mean that it’s not happening, it just means you don’t hear it and potentially therefore feel better about it! I see in my role today lots of nervousness about an open conversation, but flushing out the things you need to know is really important to understand and drive engagement.
Another big part in taking our engagement from good to great, was celebrating everything about the people that work for us. Communication can often be constrained to the things that must be shared, but we celebrated everything in the form of people stories. From a staff member who was a referee and worked with their manager to ensure they got Saturdays off (clearly an unusual request in a retailer!) to other examples, like an amateur triathlete working in one of our stores who was competing for GB in New Zealand – the point of many of these stories was showing the talents of our people right across the business and how the business worked with people to achieve their many and varied ambitions. Creating a habit of telling people focused stories allowed us to authentically present business news and changes through the eyes of the employees too and therefore allowed us to tell these with greater impact e.g. changes to an IT system told through the eyes of the people who have tested it, not through the eyes of the IT Director!
About Luke Fisher
Luke Fisher is CEO and Founder of ThanksBox, a startup launched in 2014, specialized in revolutionary employee engagement programs, built on the basis of a new approach of organizational communication.
I see in my role today lots of nervousness about an open conversation, but flushing out the things you need to know is really important to understand and drive engagement.