Best Places to Work in HR: The secret to creating a best place to work

Virginia Matthews finds out what it takes to be a Best Place to Work.

“I did an assessment centre dressed as Dracula once and another time, I was put in stocks and pelted by the staff all afternoon. I can’t quite remember what it was all about now, but the team certainly seemed to enjoy it.”

For Richard Thorne, group HR manager at insurance firm Admiral, it’s the firm’s so-called ‘Ministry of Fun’ initiative – where each department in turn organises the celebration of an event in the calendar in the wackiest way possible – that helps make each one of the company’s 2,500 employees feel a little bit special.

“Every day is dress down, nobody sits behind a closed door and the CEO meets all new starters,” he says.

“We positively encourage people to be themselves at work rather than conform to a corporate norm, and if that means they are naturally spectators rather than extroverts, we respect their individuality and don’t expect them to lead the proceedings or even get dressed up.

“Although we aren’t either the best or worst payers in the business, spending time making our staff happy means they will spend time making our customers happy, and that’s got to make for a great place to work as well as being sound business sense,” Thorne adds.

But is a great place to work about more than having a laugh with like-minded colleagues, being on first-name terms with the CEO, or having a boss who doesn’t mind making a fool of him or herself?

Yes, says Richard Banks, deputy director of HR at Broadway Homelessness and Support, who argues that it’s “working with committed, capable and intelligent people you can bounce ideas off that keeps you motivated and creates a fantastic place to work.”

A feeling of belonging

Banks believes that while smaller organisations such as Broadway tend to be more successful at instinctively creating a feeling of belonging, the strength and intimacy of work relationships may be offset by hazy career paths.

“Career progression tends to be less clear-cut in a small place and there may simply not be the job opening that you are looking for when you feel you most need it and that can lead to intense frustration,” he says.

“But although we don’t target talent in the way that a City bank might, we do deliberately offer a bank of junior management positions that allow the brightest and most capable people in the organisation to develop their careers further.”

At Broadway, where 71% of management vacancies are filled internally, well-honed people skills are vital in cementing relations both internally and externally, adds Banks.

“When you’re working with vulnerable and excluded homeless people, good listening skills and empathy with colleagues and clients is absolutely vital, but what really makes Broadway a great place to work is the proactive role taken by managers.”

He believes that good managers should be aware when a member of the team is no longer motivated and discuss other opportunities – whether at Broadway or even outside the organisation.

“A natural leader can initiate difficult conversations around motivation that result in improvements all round,” Banks says.

While both Banks and Thorne agree that it is personal relationships between colleagues that can both make or break morale in organisations (“we expect people who don’t like each other to behave like adults, and if they can’t do that in their current job, we find somewhere else in the firm for them to work,” says Thorne), the feeling that your personal values fit in with those of your employer is equally important.

Whether you work in the voluntary sector or in a more bottom-line oriented organisation, feeling in tune with your employer’s aims and ethics is vital if you want to mesh, rather than clash, with managers, says Banks, regardless of whether the goals are global or more local.

At the 2,500-strong agricultural business Syngenta, which has only recently come out of a major period of restructuring and downsizing, knowing that the organisation’s principal aim is to feed the world’s population more efficiently is a great motivator in itself, says Nick Cansfield, head of UK HR operations.

“We’re not a charity, but nor are we a bank or investment company where money is the only motivator. For most of our people, being in this middle ground between the two opposite poles of profit and philanthropy is a very comfortable place to be.”

But making its mark on the world’s food shortages is only one part of the good-place-to-work equation, he adds.

“In the old legacy days of ICI, this company was known for offering a job for life, good money and a fairly easy ride. Nowadays, we are very performance driven, but we have a very strong commitment to dealing fairly with all our people, and that means that however long people stay with us, we ensure they are far more employable by the time they leave.”

A great place to work

According to Cansfield, Syngenta’s supportive, ‘no-blame’ culture allows staff to both give of their best, and take manageable risk, without fear of wrath from the management floor. This too, he says, helps create a great place to work.

There may be many credit-squeezed organisations on the brink of cancelling their Christmas party plans this year, but for Motability Operations, a not-for-profit public company owned by the five major clearing banks, Santa will most definitely be putting in an appearance for the 700 staff.

“The team spirit we have here is very important to us and to our 500,000 disabled customers. We wouldn’t dream of shelving the annual party, particularly not when we are divided into two different sites for most of the year,” says Anne Downey, HR director.

She adds that the dust has only recently settled after the firm’s recent 30th birthday bash.

Downey says: “Although we’re suffering economically like anybody else, I think it’s even more important at a time like this to celebrate what the staff and the firm have achieved throughout the year and to look forward to the next 12 months.”

Motability Operations has an identity problem, Downey believes, in that it is perennially confused with the charity of the same name.

Several hundred miles away, at the Rotherham, Doncaster and South Humber NHS Mental Health NHS Foundation (RDASH), it’s the cumbersome name that’s the problem for the switchboard staff. But according to many in the organisation, it’s the sheer sisterhood that makes the foundation a great place to work.

Close-knit team

The 12-strong HR team at RDASH are all women, apart from the director – but despite the old clichés about women being natural rivals and even enemies, HR development manager Lisa Earnshaw is pleased to set the record straight.

“In this department, we’ve been through bereavements, births and major life changes, and although there have been a few staff changes, we’ve remained a really close-knit team.

“We don’t have a lot of space, which makes us a bit cosy I suppose, but what’s more important is the fact that we all muck in together when there’s urgent work to be done. There’s absolutely no hierarchy or people being precious about their own particular role and if a job needs doing, we’ll all do it,” says Earnshaw.

But what of the only man in RDASH’s HR department? “None of us mind that the director is a man. He’s been here a long time and he’s very sweet – and he always comes with us on our regular girls’ nights out, when we forget about work and simply have a good time as friends as well as colleagues,” she adds.

“And no, we don’t expect the poor chap to dance around our handbags. That really would be beyond the call of duty.”

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