We joined a panel of experts at The Great British Business Show to discuss the importance of wellbeing in the workplace. Our CEO of employee services Scott Read took part in the discussion offering guidance on how to support your employees’ mental health and wellbeing and the importance for your business.
How do you think office culture influences employee engagement and wellbeing?
THOMAS: The culture of the company is very important for the employees. We give the right spirit and the right thinking to our employees. We treat them well, and with respect. I would say it enhances their quality of life and the quality of their work. We have a setting which is pleasant for everybody, and we keep the distances between employees very thin, so everybody’s reachable. We have a culture of not criticising failures but improving personal behaviour, asking people to improve and change, and this always works in a very positive way. So coming back to the question, I think culture significantly influences the well-being of the employees.
ANDREW: I agree with Thomas. It’s important to have a progressive culture within an organisation. I think it’s also important to remember that there’s a lot that makes up an individual’s wellbeing. It’s not just the workplace environment, but it’s the home life and the economic situation. So, when working on the business’ engagement and culture, it’s important to have a broader understanding of your staff members. To get that engagement, you need that understanding on an individual level, what motivates them, and what stresses they may have. That’s become abundantly clear with the pandemic and people working from home. It is important to understand that it’s part of a bigger circle in terms of their personal wellbeing, social wellbeing, mental wellbeing, their physical wellbeing, and their financial wellbeing.
JAN: I agree with both of you. I think the question, how does office culture affect employee wellbeing actually makes up two separate things. You can’t measure employee wellbeing, but the office culture shows you. So, they’re more interconnected than two separate things, they independently influence each other.
SCOTT: Just to expand on the answer, I think, so many businesses think about the culture within the business without thinking about employee engagement and wellbeing, whereas I don’t think you can separate them. I think the same drivers that you would use to drive a positive culture within the business are the same drivers you should be using to look at how you engage with your employees, how you focus on their wellbeing and they in turn feed into a positive culture.
Ultimately, the key levers for me are around communication, leadership, compassion, understanding, and knowledge. I think, if you looked at that from a culture point of view, you would focus on it, but you might not necessarily look at all of those things if you weren’t focused on employee engagement. I think, too often, it gets missed because you focus on a culture – how many businesses have an employee who said “oh the culture in our organisation is great” but actually nothing is being done for either engagement and wellbeing. And I think there are missed opportunities for dozens of businesses out there to really think about the same strategy, but different strands of the strategy.
JAN: It’s like you say, Scott, office culture comes from the top down, but it also comes from the bottom up, as Andrew said. It’s led by the employees, their home life, and what’s going on outside of the office. Companies will focus on benefits like free lunches, which is great, but if people aren’t engaging with that, then it’s a waste of endeavour.
THOMAS: The culture within a company should enable the people to develop. It’s important to ask employees where do you want to go; this is both a personal and professional question. I’m a massive fan of people developing inside the company. I want to understand our employees’ vision so I can help understand where they want to go, what areas they want to develop and how we, as a business, can provide them with what they need to succeed.
JAN: What you’re measuring for workplace culture is the symptoms, not the culture itself. If you’ve got good retention, team cohesion, and productivity, they’re all symptoms of a positive workplace culture.
How can you measure your workplace culture? Can you measure if it is improving over time?
SCOTT: For me, with everything, whether it’s office culture or employee engagement, you have to have a strategy for what you are trying to achieve. If you understand the type of business you want to be and the type of culture you want to set, it’s much easier as a starting point. So many cultures find businesses by accident because one or two leaders within the business almost drive it accidentally. Whereas I would certainly advocate that for smaller, new businesses, it should be part of their strategic thought process in the first place. In terms of how you measure it, what you’re trying to measure is intangible, and if you’re a new start-up, you’ve not necessarily got that base mark to compare it against.
Where it becomes a strategy that you enhance overtime, you’ve got more measurable statistics than you realise, in terms of your staff churn rate and what productivity was looking like a year ago before you implemented the strategy. They become the base marks, but ultimately, they might not show you a massive difference in what you’ve achieved. You may have achieved huge things beyond that, just in terms of the way people feel or feel supported. It’s difficult to get to, but one of the key things is when you’ve got a workforce that has opportunities to go and earn more money, doing a similar job elsewhere, but they’re still with you; that’s probably the most successful and tangible result you can see.
JAN: What you’re measuring for workplace culture is the symptoms, not the culture itself. If you’ve got good retention, team cohesion, productivity, that’s all symptoms of a positive workplace culture.
With a workforce that is becoming more hybrid and more remote, what have you found that has worked well in keeping up that level of engagement with your employees and their wellbeing?
JAN: From my own experience, it’s nice having that flexibility, but, time with employees whether that’s physically in the same place or whether it’s socially over zoom or anything like that can work. Our client base over the last few years has been so hungry to get their teams physically in the same place, to do something together, whether that be a challenger event like a trek or walking up a mountain or doing a mastermind day to get them away from the pressures of work. That’s one way to do it if budgets allow it.
SCOTT: I’m not going to lie; it’s been one of the biggest challenges we’ve had in the last 12 months. The one thing I will say is, you can’t please everybody all the time, no matter what you try and do. The biggest technique you can have is your ability to listen and be prepared to be flexible. One of the biggest challenges I’ve found was how do you keep what I class as that photocopier moment, whereby there’s that moment of opportunity where something gets discussed on the fly, and actually it becomes quite an important part of the business. I’ve found that when people are working from home, we all operate much more on a to-do list basis; therefore, having that conversation at the photocopier becomes something on your list rather than a moment of opportunity. We’ve tried to find a balance with our hybrid working and allow employees to work more flexibly, but we’ve also tried to put in days where we encourage everybody to be in the office.
You then obviously need to look at social interaction and what forms of communication you have to try and ensure the dialogue doesn’t dry up because I think for all the businesses that talk about hybrid increasing productivity, there’s a mirrored version where productivity drops, which isn’t quite as popular to talk about if we’re completely honest, but I think it’s a reality. So it isn’t easy, and it’s something that we’re still working on perfecting, but the only way we perfect it is by the feedback from the employees.
ANDREW: Talking from a personal experience, what we’ve found that works is regular contact, whether that’s once or twice a week. But, as the other alluded to, being able to listen and being able to adapt is key to being able to support the employee.
For companies with micro managers, how do you ensure they are looking after their employees’ wellbeing and following the company’s culture?
SCOTT: For me, it comes down to the leadership right at the top of the organisation. The only way you will instil it is if it becomes one of the key KPIs that every manager in every department has to focus on because it’s the only way it will remain on their to-do list of things they need to focus on. Ideally, you don’t want employee engagement and leadership on a to-do list; you want it to be part of the innate culture that develops naturally and that you develop with your people over a period of time to improve progression within the business. Unfortunately, so many people get lost in their to-do lists because they’re easily forgotten.
So the only way is to ensure every department and manager has an engagement/people focussed objective as one of their key objectives. Measuring can become a management nightmare, but you have to embed it at least; otherwise, it just won’t happen consistently.
JAN: From Action Challenges point of view, we are quite a small business – we have 15 full-time employees. The benefit of that means that director level is directly exposed to the staff, sitting amongst them or on the same open plan floor. The downside of that is director level is exposed to all the staff! You get a really quick indicator of the mood but it also means that some staff will hold back.
How much do you focus on financial wellbeing? What do you do to enforce it within your business?
SCOTT: At this moment in time, financial wellbeing is the hot topic out there from a wellbeing perspective, but it needs to be put into context; you need to have a strategy for all elements of wellbeing. I’m not a big believer that you pay a person more money and assume you’ve done your job. I think it’s about education. I think it’s about understanding not just the education of how things work but how people can access the right advice, the best advice, independent advice and understand the content in which you are providing that support as a business; there’s no business benefit to you it’s purely what’s the right thing for your employees. Therefore, a lot of the work that needs to be done is around trust in the first instance because you can talk about wellbeing in the other areas, and people will trust that you’re looking after them.
When you start to talk about finances, there becomes a little bit more distrust that there must be something in it for the business, and that’s why you’re trying to encourage it, so currently, it’s a really topical and challenging solution, there isn’t one strand to it that will fix it, but it’s trying to let people know first and foremost that you understand the challenges that they’re under and you’re trying your best to support them and go to the right experts across the marketplace that can support your staff much better than you can. The bit that I would link and why I’m reluctant to just talk about financial wellbeing is that billions of people out there will be having emotional challenges due to financial wellbeing challenges that they’re not prepared to face yet. Therefore, it becomes part of a wider strategy rather than just one strand.
THOMAS: I think it’s a very important part of our work. In my company, we usually overpay by about 20% – this is one thing to attract the right people or attract interesting people and give them some convenient living level. The challenges I see now are the increases in inflation and the increase in costs. We are having discussions with the management team at the moment about how we want to deal with this going forward because we can see that bills such as gas have increased from £200-£300 to £800-£900. This is an inflation point that isn’t seen in the official figures. This is one part; the other part is how we can help people progress in their life in all areas. We have a programme where our employees can approach us and tell us, I want to do a university course, I need Fridays off to accommodate my studies, or maybe they want help financially to fund the course, which often we will support. We also offer communication courses to improve their communication ability and always try to be a good example for such a way of thinking.
ANDREW: Full disclosure, we’re a financial advice company – one of the core activities we carry out is financial planning and helping people with financial management. I agree with Scott in that the focus isn’t just on finances because it is about the emotional and the physical, but speaking from not having control or understanding of where you are with your finances can have a detrimental impact on your emotional and mental wellbeing.
One of the things that businesses can do is start off by educating, that’s not necessarily taking on a financial advisor or planner, but it is bringing in the independent expertise to start talking about structure and basic financial plans to help them have some control in their life.
People are often promoted based on their technical ability and put into leadership positions without people management skills. If someone has the right technical skills but lacks the skills to manage on a day-to-day basis, are they the right person for the job?
SCOTT: I think, and I hope, that this is something that is slowly moving out of successful businesses. I believe that if, for a long period of time, you’ve built employee engagement and people skills into people’s objectives, then hopefully, you’re going to promote them into that key position because they’ve achieved those objectives as well as the technical or commercial ones. You’ll find that the businesses that still – and I’m probably going to offend people here – but businesses that play at employee engagement and employee wellbeing are the ones that will continue to have challenges. When people have a clear strategy and a clear job description, then actually, the best candidate for the job isn’t the person with the best technical skills; it’s the person with the best all-around skills.
JAN: From the perspective of a small organisation, relatively flat and wide in terms of structure, that’s less of an issue. We have a pretty good internship scheme where we bring people in, they can try a few things, and we’ve got the flexibility that if someone takes on a role if their promoted to a management position and it doesn’t quite work out, we’re able to quite flexibly move them across. I think, the larger an organisation gets, the more difficult because the structures are quite rigid.
What is your view on where an employer’s responsibility starts and stops when looking after the wellbeing of your employees?
SCOTT: I would have a slight question or clarification on the term ‘responsibility’. I think responsibility is quite a harsh word. If it’s about what level of support a business should provide its employees and where that starts and stops, my answer would be that it doesn’t start and stop. It’s completely continuous, whether it’s inside of work or outside of work. Businesses need to realise that what’s affecting the wellbeing of the employee in any aspect of their life will transmit through to what they see at work, and that’s what you see from genuinely the health of someone, right down to the impact it’s having on your productivity. So, it doesn’t matter if they are in physical tip top condition, because actually someone in their family might not be and that’s having an impact on their thought process, it still is your responsibility, in my opinion as an employer, to try and support them.
JAN: Yeah, I agree with that. Top-down it is the company’s responsibility to provide the framework for that employee’s wellbeing to grow. Still, the employees are responsible as well for what they’re bringing. Obviously, you have got to be aware of what’s going on. I’ve just started a family, so through that, you have to consider, paternity leave, and flexibility, and sometimes they get sick and you have to take time off. So, there’s an awareness of that, but employees have to take some responsibility also, which is where they fill in that framework that the company provides.
THOMAS: The employee is an individual and completely responsible for themselves. We, as an employer, open up a framework. We offer different things; flexibility, a good salary, and benefits. But ultimately, it’s all down to motivation; is the employee willing to work with us? They are free to choose to go somewhere else if the framework is better. So, for me, it starts with having a self-responsible individual in front of us. The motivation and how they work for us is their obligation. Our obligation is to provide a good framework that helps to develop them
SCOTT: It’s the first time someone’s going to disagree slightly. While I understand where Tom comes from, my view is somewhat different. The reason I changed the word from ‘responsibility’ to ‘support’ is that it becomes difficult to be responsible for every aspect of an employee’s life. However, we all employ people with the knowledge or the belief that they’re the right person for our organisation. So, at one point, we believe that they had the right motivation, the right skills, and the right desire to be able to do the job. Now, we’re not always right. We’re proven to be wrong more than we would like to, right? However, if we still believe that they’re the right person, it’s just as much our responsibility to support them to get the best out of them.
What health incentives do you think are important to improve the staff’s overall wellbeing?
JAN: We do active challenges where people can work together outside of the office. On the face of it, you get a HR manager saying it will be fun to get people out of the office to do a marathon or a walk. What they actually report, and this was based on 200 of our past clients that we spoke to, the main thing they got out of it wasn’t that it was ‘fun’ it was that there was better staff retention, increased wellbeing, good PR for the company and they happened to fundraise a bit of money for charity. There are always extended benefits to doing that kind of thing. Whether it is an organised event or a physical challenge, it just needs to take them out of the day-to-day environment to use the mind and body differently. We’ve found for our clients that it’s transformational for so many businesses.
THOMAS: We try to set a framework that provides employees with benefits such as gym memberships, good food, a healthy environment, medical advice, and private health insurance for all employees. That is the framework that we follow.
ANDREW: This isn’t really our area, but I imagine what would work would be analysing what is important to your employees – looking at things that they find challenging in their personal life, whether that be losing weight or giving up smoking, and then having programmes in place that the employer can support. This could even be supported with a financial reward if an individual is able to complete a programme successfully.
SCOTT: I think for me, there’s a dozen of these exhibitions in the UK that you can go to and go down a tick list of things that you can put in place in your organisation that will, in theory, be health incentives to try and drive a greater level of wellbeing. However, I still think the most significant impact and influence on wellbeing is what the culture is in the organisation in the first place. If you can encourage a wellbeing culture as part of your strategy that provides people with the knowledge, experience, and access to all the different things you can buy and integrate, that itself is a start. I think one thing that so many businesses miss out on is that if an employee doesn’t know where to go and get the level of support, whether it be financial wellbeing, emotional wellbeing or physical wellbeing, the chances of them getting the help they need is almost zero!
So as business leaders, and as people who run businesses, it is important to ensure our employees know what we offer and how to access it. Without that knowledge, they simply won’t access it and get the help they need and support they need if they have to do a stage first, which is to go and ask someone how to get access to it. So, for me, it’s a knowledge and education piece that’s the key driver. Other than that, there are a dozen things you can buy off a shelf that will help improve, in theory, the health of your employees.
More support and information
You can read more about Scott’s thoughts on employee engagement and the key to retaining staff or download Scott’s five-point-plan to drive employee engagement.
If you would like help creating an employee engagement strategy, speak to our business growth experts who will be happy to help. You can also read more about our SMART Employment model or book a demo of our all-in-one solution to help make employers’ and employees’ lives easier, happier and healthier here
Scott Read is a results-driven business leader with a proven track record in helping employers strategise key business growth through employee engagement.