Colleague engagement is at the heart of the Midcounties Co-operative’s business model, says chief executive Ben Reid.
In November, it announced a colleague engagement score of 80 out of 100 for the year, a result Mr Reid hailed as “outstanding”.
The Midcounties Co-operative came tenth in The Sunday Times’ 2014 Best big companies to work for, up three places from its 2013 position. Colleague engagement played an essential role in making this happen, said Mr Reid.
“It’s a challenge that we took on a few years ago,” he added. “It has been fundamental to our very rapid growth. We’re not just a food, travel, energy and childcare business, we are a co-operative business.”
The colleague engagement strategy began nearly 10 years ago, when the co-operative formed through the merger of two societies – Oxford, Swindon and Gloucester Co-op and West Midlands Co-op. The new co-op developed its own values, including an engaged staff.
The society, the largest independent co-op in the UK, has seen its engagement score rise from 68 nearly ten years ago to 78 two years ago and 80 last year. This is derived from the average score of the 14 colleague engagement index questions monitored by the society over the past six years.
Mr Reid said 98% of the society’s colleagues fill in the annual survey, and staff are also given a say through a colleague council.
Each of the society’s business units elects a member to a colleague council which, in turn, elects a representative to the central colleague council for all Midcounties’ businesses.
Here, colleagues can raise, within reason, any issue they want. “What’s fundamental is the underpinning statement to anybody in management that they must not interfere with the flow of discussion,” said Mr Reid – stressing this was important because issues raised at the colleague council might represent a management failure.
Issues that cannot be resolved at the colleague council are brought forward to a meeting with the chief executive. Once a year, staff members from the different businesses attend the colleague forum, where they can share views.
Sometimes the issues debated are minor problems, such as who has to pay for tea and coffee. While these were free for staff at the travel business, employees of the food stores had to buy their own.
“That matters to people,” said Mr Reid. “They were asking ‘why do we have to pay for it?’ So, from the colleague council came a proposal, and now nobody pays for it.”
But the colleague council can also suggest ways to improve the business. They recently suggested the introduction of a more formal ‘good idea’ campaign, which Midcounties is now adopting to reward colleagues who bring forward formal suggestions.
With 20% staff turnover in the food business, the society takes on 2,000 new colleagues a year, and its new goal is to make sure new colleagues are familiar with its values and principles.
“Next is to maintain the sense that we are a proper co-operative that people join because they understand that we are a proper co-operative. It’s quite a challenge,” said Mr Reid.
But he warned that the high engagement scores should not be taken out of context. “Engagement is a business purpose, it’s to drive the business,” he said.
In recent years, Midcounties has embarked on new business ventures in energy and childcare. “That’s possible because we have people working for us who are engaged and believe in what we are doing – 10,000 people who understand what the co-op means,” added Mr Reid, “so there’s a really positive sense at Midcounties about the essence of what we are trying to achieve.”