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Start with your culture and the rest will follow: how to put employees first & win.

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“Success is born from within”. One of several possible interpretations of this is: get it right for your staff and you will get it right for your customers. It’s an old truism, but still gaining ground as employers compete to retain the best staff in an incredibly competitive global market. But with new generations of employees whose expectations, wants and needs may differ from those of the Boards hiring them, how many employers are prepared to take a risk by scrutinising their culture to work out whether they can do better? Can any employer afford not to?

I’m writing this as a co-founder of a business. It’s a subject that is very close to my heart and something I spend a lot of time thinking about. I would like to try to demonstrate that flexibility, trust and a focus on the wellbeing of staff can pay dividends and truly, measurably deliver success. The best way to do this is by offering a case study. And there’s only one business where I can be confident of writing such a case study. Ours!

Context

I know from countless conversations that the recruitment industry is tarnished with a certain reputation: full of sales animals driven to succeed at any cost, working long hours and hamstrung by punishing, often pointless KPIs that don’t drive the right behaviour. The key to a successful professional services organisation is quality of service, and it is culture that drives that. Culture is not a list of benefits packages, though benefits help and I will talk about those.

Culture is about how you look after all your stakeholders so the internal ones take care of the external ones, and how the environment you create translates into your brand. For some businesses, their culture is their business strategy. When we built Gerrell & Hard, we believed that time away from work and team wellbeing were key to retaining staff and delivering great customer service to our clients. We believe that even more strongly today.

Our employee benefits timeline

We founded Gerrell & Hard in 2011. Before April 2015 our team worked a regular five-day working week with a flexible monthly leave allowance, a basic health cashback plan and an allowance of £250 per year to spend within sports, wellness or wellbeing. This could mean anything from a new pair of trainers to gym membership to a spa day.

I won’t go into our full benefits package because this is a demonstration that flexibility and trust can work, not an advertisement for working for us! But suffice to say that our biggest milestone was in April 2015, when we cut down work time and introduced medical cover.

This was in part a cultural milestone because it reflected our beliefs about work/life balance. At that time we started to look in more depth at how we could improve that balance for our employees while maintaining business performance. We adopted a nine-day fortnight, staggered so our offices are fully manned on a Friday, and rolled out a full private medical vitality health insurance scheme.

Another key aspect of our culture is that we have never operated a KPI-based environment. Our objective is to make sure we deliver to clients in a way that fits our value and purpose. It’s a simple model that involves a weekly catch up and a clear understanding of our values. In a similar vein, some much bigger organisations have ditched detailed strategy entirely in favour of “cultural playbooks” that are proving to deliver. 

After April 2015 we reduced our team’s working week to 36 hours (on average). Since then we have been so encouraged by the results from our increased work/life balance that we’ve tweaked our working hours again and changed our Fridays so staff across the business can finish at 3.30pm, further reducing weekly hours from 36 to 34. We have three different core working hours available (nothing dramatic, all pretty standard hours) and have recently further enhanced our health insurance package.

Every improvement to our benefits and culture was made after I analysed our figures and saw clear trends to show that the more we give our team, the more positive the outcome. No doubt every business has a tipping point for this and I am sure we’ll find ours.

Our results

What’s been remarkable and very gratifying about the changes we have made to our culture over the years is that they directly correlate to an improvement in our business performance.

Over the three years where we made the most changes to our culture to maximise work/life balance, health and wellbeing and flexible working, our turnover very nearly doubled with no increase in staff, and our gross profit increased by just under fifty per cent.

Granted, before we made those cultural changes we were a young business and we’re now more established. But to achieve those figures while reducing the time people spend in the office - quite dramatically if you factor in the remote working we now embrace - is really significant. Over the same period we also grew our client portfolio by nearly 60% whilst successfully retaining existing clients. I strongly believe that this is the result of people being motivated, well rested, and caring about our brand.

If we can make culture a driver of success in the highly competitive and supposedly dog-eat-dog recruitment sector, than I believe almost anyone can.

The caveat: you need the right people first

Our culture works because we have the right people. To a person, our team is passionate about delivering great service. They all believe in our brand and are naturally inclined to pull their weight. None of them would baulk at occasionally taking a message outside their core of hours. They can work from home and understand that trust is our biggest and best currency. It’s the people who make a culture what it is.

We were always clear that if the tweaks we made to our environment did not translate into success we would re-think them, and we rolled out each new benefit or culture change with a six-month review period. But even I have been a little surprised at just how successful our changes have been.

The advantages of low churn

We’ve kept our staff numbers consistent, having had nine employees since 2015. Over the entire lifetime of the business so far we have lost just one person. We haven't only taken on established recruiters. We're open to hiring people we believe have the right qualities and training them. Two of our team joined us as trainees and are now fully-fledged successful recruiters.  

The advantages of a low-churn work force are obvious. Staff retention prevents “brain drain” and long term staff develop close working relationships and deep knowledge of customers, which allows us to sustain our quality of service. This is something that is really important in recruitment, where committing deeply to a client often brings rewards. I believe that even with the same level of benefits, if we didn’t keep our team, we’d have to work twice as hard to deliver the same level of service.

But it’s easy for small companies to treat their staff well, isn’t it?

I can’t help but imagine some people raising this objection. I suggest it is harder for small companies to have an employee-friendly culture than it is for big ones. Companies with significant financial clout risk less by trialling tweaks to their culture; they have the backbone that allows boards to take risks with generosity that pose little direct threat to them. Some of the biggest and most innovative businesses in the world have extensive and inventive rewards packages, some huge employers offer unlimited (or extensive) time off and some of the more forward-thinking countries are starting to pass laws that encourage a healthier lifestyle, better work/life balance and lower stress. It can be done at Blue Chip or national level.

A case in point is France’s legally enshrined “right to disconnect”, a measure to tackle the always-on culture of out-of-hours email checking. This right guarantees employees’ down time outside of work. The six-hour working day trialled in Sweden in a bid to increase productivity and happiness was a success in many ways, and only failed because of the extra cost of hiring more people to cover downtime. I have no doubt we will see more of this sort of thing in the future.

Some staff wellness measures might work for one company but not another, but I’m convinced any company can make positive changes to its culture if they have the will to give it a try. And that will must come from the top.

Management behaviour: the bit of the iceberg you can’t see.

A business can have a great culture on paper. It can have all the employee-friendly policies in the world and a lovely charter on the wall. But it is leadership behaviour that determines whether a good culture exists merely on paper or whether it lives in the real world. If leaders truly care about culture they will participate in it in a way that emboldens staff to follow suit. That could mean, for instance, leaders making the most of flexible working and encouraging others to do the same.

Conclusion

I wrote this piece not to crow about our culture, because all I can see are ways to keep improving. We don’t always get it right and we are always open minded. But we care a lot about our candidates, our clients and our team and we start with that. We’ve certainly borrowed a lot from other cultures when thinking about our own, and I’m always looking to learn more.

There are business consequences to adopting a culture like ours, but we’ve been careful to measure the impact of our changes and are delighted with the results. I hope that in a small way we’ve shown that a responsive, employee-focused culture really works. We need to keep working on it, keep listening to our wonderful team, and keep tweaking. I’m sure this is the best way businesses can address the challenge of retaining good people.

Yes, success is born from within, and there are things any business can do to improve its culture. Surely the risk you take when you try to improve culture pales in comparison with the risk you take when you don’t.  

Feel free to get in touch if you’d like to discuss your culture or anything related to this blog.