The worker co-operative approach to engagement

Due to their structure and organisation, worker co-operatives are prone to have a different approach to employee engagement. With workers being the ones owning the business, the lack...

Due to their structure and organisation, worker co-operatives are prone to have a different approach to employee engagement. With workers being the ones owning the business, the lack of hierarchy fosters a better relationship among workers, promoting employee engagement.

The worker co-operative code, produced by Co-operatives UK, sets out what a well-run worker co-operative should look like. The code mentions that members should actively participate in the management of the business and long-term planning.

An example would be Daily Bread Co-operative of Northampton. A worker co-operative set up in 1974, it champions employee engagement by involving all staff members in the decision making process.

The founding members were a group of nine Christians who decided to start a business venture that would put people before profit. Guided by co-op values and principles, particularly concern for community, Daily Break supports people recovering from mental disorders by offering them employment. Some work for the co-op for a short time, while others end up working for a longer period of time. The co-op has an equal pay structure and tries to engage with all of its employees, including part-time staff members and volunteers.

Once a week employees and volunteers take part in a general meeting where everybody has the opportunity to put something forward on the agenda. While giving out information, this gathering also enables employees and volunteers to contribute ideas. They run training sessions on a monthly basis. Every year members elect a manager and a chair and they allocate responsibilities.

“It’s important that you try to engage all employees on every level”, says John Clarke, elected manager of the co-operative. He thinks this type of regular meeting is essential for engaging members. Even part-time employees can be given various responsibilities.

“We are open about everything we do. It is easier to engage because we are all on the same level.”

Since its establishment, Daily Bread has been a pioneer in terms of providing organic products. It has grown to selling from 100 to 5,000 product lines, employing 20 people, including part-time staff. It has an annual turnover of £1.5 million. Profits are either re-invested into the business or donated to the co-operative’s own charity ‘Strive overseas’.

Three months ago Daily Bread launched a new online shopping website. Lord Rowan Williams, who has been a keen supporter of the co-op, was present at the launch to cut the red ribbon. The new website will help Daily Bread to raise its profile.

“We are very well known in Northamptonshire and the surrounding areas, but recognise that our challenge now is to spread the word further afield and create a buzz for Daily Bread across the UK,” adds John Clarke.

Another co-operative that places a strong emphasis on employee engagement, Essential Trading, is now a leading UK organic and Fairtrade product wholesaler. The worker co-operative functions based on an egalitarian structure and is involving employees in the creation and running of their working environment.

“Worker co-operatives have a distinct advantage as engagement is almost built into the very nature and purpose of being a worker co-operative,” says Cara McCann, responsible for personnel at Essential Trading.

At Essential Trading decisions are made democratically, making sure that as many members as possible are involved in the decision making process. The co-operative currently has around 120 employees.

“Where consultation with employees is necessary then the co-operative is able to consult everybody as an equal, without the traditional employer-employee differences,” says Cara. She explains how workers are involved in the decision making, having a direct say on how the business is run, rather than having decisions imposed on them.

“There is also a critical difference in that although the members of the co-operative are ‘employees’, at the same time, they could be taking on the role of ‘employer’ which makes the traditional employer-employee relationship very different. Workers in our co-operative are generally on a more equal footing that in a conventional organisation.”

In circumstances where more formal procedures are needed, elected panels and committees make decisions on behalf of all members.

“Our number one tip for engaging employees would be to convert to being a worker co-operative or at least adopt the co-operative principles as core to your organisation,” says Cara.

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