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Becoming a great place to work

Four of Ireland’s leading companies reveal the challenges – and great rewards – in the journey to become one of Ireland’s Best Workplaces

 

It takes a certain amount of moxie – and a modicum of humility – for a company to decide to embark on the journey to become one of Ireland’s Best Workplaces. After all, most of the companies who sign up with the Great Place to Work programme are already pretty good places to work, says Claire McGeever of Great Place to Work – they just want to be the best they can be.

“Companies want to know how well they’re doing, so this works as a kind of stocktake for them. They may not even particularly want to be on the top list – it might be just an opportunity to make some changes.”

The change begins with a cultural audit, which looks at critical areas in the business and examines policies and practices, and a survey covering up to 21 categories, which gives a read-out of how the employees feel about the organisation and the management. “Companies can then use the metrics and the methodology to build up their people-planned focus and strategy,” says McGeever. “Not only are they getting results from us, but they also have a landscape to work on, particularly with their line managers. That’s where we come in as a consultancy – we go out to them and we support them, how they move with their action planning, what improvements they can make. The bonus is, if they meet the criteria and scoring, they can become a Best Workplace.”

For James Byrne, vice-president of pharmaceutical manufacturers Ipsen, employee engagement was the holy grail the company was seeking.

“We wanted to improve our engagement, and at the same time we were facing a lot of competition for talent, especially in the pharma industry in Dublin, and we wanted to be able to both attract new talent and retain talent, so that was probably our biggest driver.”

With up to €3 billion being spent in expanding the pharma industry, and with Ipsen’s own products growing at a rate of 30 per cent, it was crucial to hold on to the employees it had while being in a position to attract the best and most qualified talent from within the industry, says Byrne.

The cultural survey quickly uncovered a gap which Ipsen may not have spotted.

“We found that although we had a lot of good people skills, good HR procedures and benefits in place, and used best practices, the survey found that not all of our good practices were hitting home.”

Strategy

Ipsen developed a strategy across all levels and functions of the company and created Great Place to Work teams across every department.

“The great thing about the Great Place to Work survey is it’s detailed enough at a function or department level to make improvements at that level,” says Byrne. “We improved our communications, improved our messaging, we certainly did a lot more listening, and really acted on feedback. More celebrations, more acknowledgement, and more patient-customer focus.

“I would honestly say we’ve got a more engaged workforce than we had in 2015. There’s more energy in the company, we’re much more aligned and we certainly have higher levels of trust.”

Blaine Callard, chief executive of Harvey Norman in Ireland, has found the Great Place to Work journey both rewarding and revealing.

“Retail has been going through a lot of change, and at the heart of bricks-and-mortar retail is that you walk into a store and you engage with a person. We’re very much in the people business, and our people are walking ambassadors for our brand. If you walk into a store and the staff are not enjoying their work and don’t like their job, it’ll show. And the reverse is true – if people like working in a place and they’re positive and they’re motivated and engaged, you feel that when you walk into the store.”

Over the past few years, retail has taken a big hit, and Harvey Norman’s people-centric culture has been “forged in the fire of recession”, says Callard. “The last 10 years have been difficult for us, and we’ve only been coming back into profit in 2016. We have a lot of people that are proud to work with us, who have fought their way through in terms of being part of the team and pulling together, so we have a lot of loyalty from people who went through that journey with us.”

Key to coming out of the fire was trusting the staff, and allowing them to innovate, solve problems and come up with ideas rather than follow set procedures and protocols, says Callard, even if that meant sometimes breaking the rules or getting it wrong.

“We want our people to be people and to express who they are through their work. We needed that to help us get through. You’re not going to get magic if your staff is straitjacketed in procedures and processes.”

A number of factors prompted Roy Barrett, chief executive of Goodbody Stockbrokers, to get his company involved with Great Place to Work.

“We had gone through a number of changes in the previous few years, including a change of ownership, and we were operating in a tough and competitive environment, and what we felt was that within Goodbody we had a strong culture and very good people, and we thought that the business had improved, but we were looking for some sort of external benchmark which would really challenge us.”

Goodbody needed a high standard against which to measure its performance, “and Great Place to Work was that standard”, says Barrett.

“What it provided for us was a very challenging but very good framework to try to put in place a mindset and a process whereby a) everybody could buy into it, and b) we could measure improvement and see how far we could go with that.

“Sometimes you can delude yourself when you’re internally focused, but it’s good to look outside and measure yourself against the best.”

For Barrett, Great Place to Work confirmed a lot of the positives about Goodbody as a workplace, but also brought a couple of surprising revelations.

“What came through from that was that there was a really strong customer focus right through the business, and there was a great pride in the business, but as we went through the results it confirmed in our mind that whilst all of that was true, there were large areas that we could improve, and if we did improve, that would have an impact on the working lives of people within the business, and that would enhance our service to our customers even more.”

Barrett admits the process was challenging. “There’s no hiding from it. There’s good and bad in everything, and you just have to take the areas that need improvement and commit to them, and I think that’s what we did.

“It does take courage – or maybe foolhardiness – but once you commit to it, I think the key to it is you have to be relentless in your focus, and realise this is important.”

Feedback

For Barrett, the proof of the pudding was in the feedback the company got from its 300-plus staff.

“We got good engagement, and as we rolled through from 2015, the engagement levels have got better and better. And I think it breeds a lot more trust within the business. All the staff feel a lot more at ease in raising issues, either within their teams or with their managers, or with myself, and that’s the key benefit, that all staff feel that whatever issues or views they have, they feel confident in coming forward with them, and, more importantly, feel that they will be acted upon.

“There’s a higher level of trust, and that lends itself to a better working atmosphere.”

In an industry where there are many ups and downs – and a company can have good years or bad years – instilling trust in your employees is doubly important.

“It’s easy enough for people to feel good about themselves when the trading environment is very good, but the acid test is how people behave when times are not so good. And what we’ve found through this programme is that communication within the business has greatly improved, but communication means that when things are good, you say so, but when things are not so good, you say it too.”

Being honest about both the good and the bad – and being clear about your plans and strategies for dealing with the downsides – will keep your staff in the loop and give them a greater sense of involvement, says Barrett.

“Your staff will feel more part of a team, and have a sense that we’re all in this together, whatever the external circumstances.

“I see the impact of what we’ve done – we’re a better business, the service we provide to our clients is consistently better, we’re more competitive in each of our businesses, and I think they feel a lot more wedded to our business, and are looking forward to the prospect of more challenging and rewarding careers with Goodbody.”

Perfect fit

Great Place to Work was a perfect fit for Ibec because it was a systematic process of assessing the company’s performance, says Ibec’s chief executive Danny McCoy.

“You know, every company wants to be a great place to work, But clearly in any organisation at any given moment, there are good things happening and not so good things happening, so one of the things about the Great Place to Work was to have a process by which you can take the temperature periodically.

“It also gives you a timeline to work towards and a metric for seeing which areas you need to improve on.”

As Ibec embarked on its journey to becoming one of Ireland’s best places to work, it had a goal in sight – achieving better performance management, says McCoy.

“It’s a bugbear for every company – how do you improve your performance management? You can either have the conversation about it, which is awkward, or you can avoid having the conversation, which is also awkward. But this gives you a system for dealing with it.”

It also armed Ibec with the management tools to be able to focus on particular aspects of the business, such as employee recognition, performance, communication.

“The process is a real innovation, and that’s why we wanted to get involved in it. Also, to have a branding, to have a mark, in order to attract people in what is an increasingly difficult market to find quality staff.”

As probably the country’s biggest lobbying group, Ibec advocates for Irish businesses both at home and internationally. It also has 40 brands, including Retail Ireland, Tech Ireland and the Small Firms association, connecting businesses within their sectors. In addition to that, Ibec is a major player in industrial and employee relations across the business sector. So it’s important that Ibec as a workplace is the best it can be.

“We’re a bit like the cobbler’s children – we have to be wearing good shoes.”

Ibec is also immersed in the future-of-work debate, and Great Place to Work ties in well with that ongoing conversation, says McCoy.

Overall, McCoy believes Great Place to Work is getting Ibec to where it wants to be.

“We were coming from a very difficult place, with the downturn, and like many companies, we had to make changes.”

Wage cuts, layoffs and pension scheme wind-downs can create “bad vibes” in any organisation, says McCoy, and it takes a bit of bravery for a CEO to jump into the Great Place to Work programme and commit to getting better.

“There’ll be a few uncomfortable things coming back at you, and it’s brave to confront these things systematically and say we’re going to focus on improving these. But what gets measured gets done, and while you can easily measure things like profit or loss, Great Place to Work was great for measuring those softer things like trust and engagement.”

Of course, once you get your Great Place to Work stamp of approval, it’s easy to sit back and let standards slip again, but McCoy plans to keep Ibec in the Great Place to Work programme for the foreseeable future to ensure the company’s performance is always on an upward curve.

“There’s no point going in and getting a mark, and then letting it fade on the door. This is our third year doing the process, and we’re going to keep doing it. If it was a tidy towns contest, you’d have to keep the standards up, otherwise you’d get a rap from the judges. But even after the judges have gone, you have the advantage of working in a great environment.”