Every year the Future Co-operatives conference tries to engage delegates in an active debate on a given topic. This year’s theme was “Relationship counselling for co-ops”.
The event gathered over 60 co-operators from across the movement, from large retail societies to small worker co-operatives and, through a series of workshops, explored how to maintain the relationship between co-operatives, members and employees. Delegates also looked at best practices from outside the movement, exploring what co-operatives could learn from other organisations.
Jo White, executive director of Co-operative Futures, said: “Over the years, it can be tough to keep the relationships between co-ops and their members fresh and exciting.”
She explained how this year’s conference placed a strong emphasis on the quality of engagement within co-operatives, rather than the quantity.
Engagement is trust
School Trends, a leading supplier of personalised school uniforms, became an employee-owned enterprise in 2004. Since then, they have faced a number of challenges, which they managed to overcome with support from employees. This year School Trends won the Baxendale Employee Engagement award, which celebrates truly meaningful engagement with employees.
“People are our greatest strength,” said Daran Brown, managing director of School Trends, adding that trust was a key ingredient in building a successful relationship with members of staff.
Being a very seasonal business, it is important for employees to be willing to work flexible hours. Five years ago they were in a difficult situation and did not have enough cash so employees were asked if they could work an extra six hours to save money. Over 98% of them agreed within a day.
“We train people to understand the financials of the business,” explained Mr Brown. Every month the organisation has policy and information meetings between the management and employees, which all staff members need to attend. They also run surveys on a regular basis to make sure employees are happy with the management’s performance. Managers are trained to deal with feedback positively and use these surveys to implement changes.
It is important to have an open, non-personal environment where people can raise issues, said Mr Brown. He explained how they opted for an open-plan working area with no individual offices in order to minimise barriers between staff and management.
Another important aspect of their employee engagement strategy is recruiting staff members that share the values and principles of the enterprise. Throughout the years they had many periods of no pay rises. “People need to understand why this is needed, and trust is crucial,” said Mr Brown.
By encouraging people to work together they also aim to prevent conflicts from happening. In case of disputes between members of staff, team leaders or the enterprise’s human resources (HR) team can get involved.
“The idea is to encourage people to work together to prevent things like this from happening,” said Mr Brown. He added that they have never had to use external mediators.
The enterprise is owned by the employees, thus staff members are never made redundant. If some areas are not productive, they are re-assigned to a more productive area.
While admitting that engagement is “far from being perfect,” Mr Brown said School Trends has a transparent bonus scheme and that managers earned salaries “significantly lower” that somewhere else, with the highest salaries never reaching ten times the amount of the lowest paid workers.
Ben Reid: Engagement does pay
With 245,000 members and 9,000 employees, Midcounties Co-operative is the largest independent co-operative in the UK. The society experienced 20% growth in recent years, reaching a turnover of £1bn last year. Chief executive Ben Reid thinks these achievements would not have been possible without having an engaged workforce. In 2013 Midcounties was named one of the top 25 companies to work for by the Sunday Times.
“Member engagement is the holy grail for all co-operative societies. I genuinely believe that without engaged colleagues you are not going to have engagement with members,” he said.
Midcounties was formed in 2005, when West Midlands Co-operative merged with Oxford, Swindon and Gloucester Co-operative. Under the tagline ‘working together to create a better, fairer world’, the new society sought to promote the core values of democracy, openness, equality and social responsibility – “Midcounties DOES”.
Midcounties’ successful engagement strategy starts with the recruitment of staff members.
“We can train people to do their technical job, but we do need to recruit people with the right mind-set. We start at the recruiting stage that we bring people in that are likely to be supportive of what we say,” explained Mr Reid.
Some employees get trained and can obtain national vocational qualifications (NVQs) while managers also get to attend training programmes. The society employed an Investors in People inspector who visited Midcounties’ units to test members of staff to see whether they understood the core values and principles of the co-operative. Over 95% of them obtained the accreditation.
In a tough, competitive market, customer service is what can make a difference, thinks Mr Reid.
“Customer service can overcome price issues. Part of our colleague engagement strategy is to make sure we have the best colleagues out there in order to win that customer service battle.”
More than 98% of staff members are also members of the society. Furthermore, engaged staff members can then encourage customers to join the co-operative. Employees can also bring issues to the management’s attention through the Colleague Council.
Volunteering activities are an important element of the engagement strategy. All staff members are entitled to take up to three days a year during their normal working time to get involved with volunteering. Last year they spent 40,000 hours volunteering; if this work had been paid for it would have cost over £470,000.
Over the last few years, Midcounties has been expanding to other sectors, opening new businesses in energy, childcare and IT. Members had an important input in this process, through completing surveys about which businesses the co-operative should be in.
“Membership and the wider co-op movement did prompt the move into the new businesses. Our values and trust that people put in meant that those were the businesses we should be in,” said Mr Reid.
In Wales Woodcraft Folk, a movement for children and young people, is introducing young people to the idea of co-operatives while having fun. The project, called Co-op Op, started in April 2013 and aims to address youth unemployment. Young people aged between 11 and 20 are taught what it means to create a co-operative and are asked what kind of co-operatives they would like to be part of.
Although there are no co-operative schools in Wales, Awel Irene, development officer at Woodcraft Folk, thinks co-operation can still be taught from an early age in a different way, though fun and engaging workshops.
“We play a lot of games that introduce the whole co-operative method of playing and understanding why we need to co-operate with each other. That acts as a taster and helps build up interest – and the hope is that young people start mini co-operatives of their own,” explained Ms Irene.
She believes that by sharing their vision of the society, co-operatives could help address youth alienation. Woodcraft Folk is also currently looking at working with co-operatives to help young people gain work experience.
“I’m convinced that young people just need to be given the power and the vision and the inspiration to think about forming their own solutions to the work market,” she said.
The activities are carried out with support from thousands of volunteers across Wales. To keep the relationship with their volunteers alive, Woodcraft Folk designs tailored roles explaining to volunteers what they are going to get out of their role.
Building loyalty is key to keeping members and customers motivated, thinks Rich Hadley, a business psychologist, marketing specialist and management consultant.
At Future Co-ops, Mr Hadley led a workshop that encouraged delegates to think of ways in which members could be kept motivated. The relationship between members and co-operatives needs to be based on loyalty and trust, he said.
He explained how a successful member engagement strategy should try to turn prospective customers into customers, supporters and advocates.
“Loyalty builds over time, it’s not a rational condition. We earn loyalty and trust. To keep members motivated, treat them like we would treat our friends,” he said.
Mr Hadley added that some of the ingredients marketers use to create relationships with customers through brands are affection, feeling of belonging, making people feel good about themselves and exceeding their expectations.
He gave the example of the recent campaign launched by the Co-operative Food, where customers are given coupons, which they can then use in stores. However, he explained how such a campaign can increase expectations and “last week’s surprise can become this week’s expectation.”
Minding the gap
Adam Kennerley, chief executive of Cwm Harry Land Trust, said co-operatives could bridge the gap between the public receiving goods and services and the way in which these are delivered.
Cwm is a successful provider of environmental services, running a number of activities through charities, companies and one worker co-operative.
“There’s a gap between society at large and the services getting delivered. People aren’t connected fully to their energy supply, or their money or the food that gets produced,” said Mr Kennerley.
Cwm Wales is also exploring the role co-operatives could play in transferring rights and responsibilities across to citizens. One of their most important projects, Waste Prestine, enabled the local community in Prestine to take total responsibility for their waste management. The local authority left the town for three years and over 1,800 homes had to deal with waste management themselves. During that time, the community not only hit a recycling rate of 75%, achieving the Welsh Government’s target 12 years ahead of schedule, but also cut their own material usage by 20%.
In light of these achievements, Cwm Harry Land Trust won the Award for Community Recycler of the Year, an annual accolade given by Wales’ Association for social enterprises and community sector waste management companies.
Adam Kennerley thinks that by empowering communities to dispose of their waste, people also got to understand the issues and this leads to a change in their behaviour.
“What we’ve got is a movement of people who understand, who acquired the rights and will behave more responsibly.
“The co-operative movement as a whole perhaps could learn by saying – if you give people things to do they will do things and understand and then half battle is won,” he said.
Engagement is a continuous process
Formed over 100 years ago, Ross Rowing Club has become one of UK’s leading rowing clubs, with over 300 members. In 2005, when current president Ian Howell joined the club, he set out a vision to create a world-class environment where members could enjoy rowing and where success was inevitable.
“Engagement is what drives the club’s performance,” he told delegates at Future Co-operatives. Mr Howells also thinks that co-operatives should set out ambitious goals, just like his rowing club did.
“What the co-operative movement can learn from our rowing club example particularly is: make sure you have outrageous ambition.” To achieve high objectives, co-operatives should ensure that engagement is part of their culture and not just a project or a task to be ticked off. Leaders have an important role to play in improving members’ engagement, thinks Mr Howells. He explained how the club managed to increase its membership from 60 in 2005 to 300 in 2014.
“Members and organisations need to have aligned values, goals and aspirations,” he said, adding that the common objective should be maximising members’ satisfaction as well as their contribution to the club. To join the club, junior members need to pay a fee of two pounds a week, while senior members pay a double amount.
“The rowing club is 100% volunteers, nobody is paid, so you have got to inspire people to want to contribute their time when they are already very busy.”
Engagement is a continuous process at Ross Rowing Club. It starts with efforts to build commitment and continues with equipping members, measuring their results and creating champions. An important element in this process is making members feel that they are part of an exciting, authentic community.
“We are all engaged in making it happen, we’ve embodied the values of a co-operative, just not legally,” said Mr Howells, adding that the club was soon to become a community benefit society. Since 2005, the club has registered 700 event wins and more than 20 national medals.