With a remarkable 95% staff retention rate, Grace Foods UK in Welwyn Garden City is widely considered to have a model approach to employee engagement. Much of this has been spearheaded by its passionate Managing Director Adam Reader, who joined as a financial controller in 2000, and has recently taken the company through a highly successful period of transformation and growth.
Employee engagement relies on a strong knowledge of your workforce. Where do you start?
I see two sides to this – understanding your company culture, and understanding how your employees feel about working there. I’m lucky to have been with Grace Foods long enough to understand the culture well, and we use a range of formal and informal activities to gather feedback about day-to-day employee attitudes and concerns. For example, most important to me is interacting one-to-one with as many employees as possible. I spend a great deal of my time walking the floors and talking to staff members, and encourage an open-door policy for anyone in the business to come and see me.
What strategies have you used to improve employee engagement?
The last 18 months have seen us move away from a traditional annual employee satisfaction model towards continual engagement. We began with a very frank employee survey that helped us to benchmark opinion, and discover what employees thought was and wasn’t working. Since then, we’ve been making improvements in line with feedback so everyone knows we’re listening and acting.
Hand-in-hand with this is encouraging a strong level of cross-departmental collaboration, even as far as building a communal canteen. We also pay close attention to keeping staff members informed about our business strategy through team meetings and our annual all-staff conference. Never forget that a successful business needs every employee rowing in the same direction, so make sure they know which direction that is.
Grace Foods has always been a family-orientated business, so we also use a lot of fun activities to keep that spirit alive. For example, we have an Employee Appreciation Week featuring competitions, learning sessions, a visiting barber, massages, pedicures, yoga classes and a big cook-off on Friday to finish the week. We also have a summer family fun day, where we take over a local playing field for an afternoon of food, drink, music and activities. Finally, we know our employees are our biggest brand ambassadors, so we organise tastings for them, and let them take new products home to try.
What challenges have you faced, and how did you overcome them?
Resistance to change is always an issue because it’s part of human nature. We’ve recently remodelled our offices as open-plan, and this initially caused a great deal of concern. In this situation, keep people informed – not just about what is happening, but also why. Six months after the change, the feedback was extremely positive as teams discovered how much easier it was to work together.
It can also be a challenge to get employee motivation mechanisms correct. For example, remuneration is more of a ‘hygiene’ factor – an increase in salary can certainly increase motivation, but usually only for a limited period. More important is to focus on the employee perception of career path. I think I’m testament to the opportunities at Grace Foods, having worked my way up in the business over the last 17 years.
How do you ensure managers and team leaders contribute to employee engagement?
Successful employee engagement is top-down, so it starts with me. I make sure my managers are informed about strategies and initiatives and, in turn, it’s part of their role to flow those messages out to their teams.
Another key aspect of our culture is to ensure those strategies and initiatives have a strong HR consideration. Employees are essential to every aspect of our business, so impacts and opportunities need to be identified and addressed early on. As you can imagine, we needed an extremely efficient HR team to support this.
Our HR team also supports managers throughout the recruitment process, as we place a strong emphasis on recruiting people who will fit in with our culture. For Grace Foods, personality is often far more important than technical knowledge, which can be taught. A candidate’s second interview is always in front of a cross-departmental panel.
How do you measure the success of employee engagement initiatives?
We have formal measurement mechanisms such as an employee survey twice a year, and find that the number of employees taking part is just as much a measure of engagement as the results themselves. Performance measurements across the business also say a lot about the success of our engagement activities, so we pay close attention to how we meet targets and deadlines.
Personally, I think gut instinct is equally important, which is why I spend so much of my time talking to people across the business. Some directors see this as an added burden on an already time-poor day, but you’ll find successful leaders have their finger on the pulse at every level of the business. By walking around the offices and distribution centre, I can quickly see who is and isn’t engaged, and find out why. This isn’t something I do in addition to my job – it is my job!