How employee engagement helped to create EE and turn it into the number one ‘best big company to work for’
- Achieving change objectives through workforce engagement must originate at the very top of the organisation and be driven determinedly down through every level, consistently and continuously.
- For a stronger return from their investment, employers need to improve their ownership of engagement and delivery of their engagement promises.
- HR must hold the business to account and help it do the right thing.
In 2018, the mobile network operator EE reached number one in the Sunday Times ‘Best Big Companies to Work For’ index[i]. The company began its journey up the index in 2009 as Orange UK, under the direction of then Vice President for People, Linda Kennedy-McCarthy.
Prior to Orange, Linda was Group HR Director for the international service company Serco. She led the merger and integration of Orange and T-Mobile in 2010 as Chief Change Officer for EE and, more recently, spent several years as Group HR Director of SIGplc, a FTSE 250 company with operations across the UK and Europe.
Linda’s 20+ years of HR leadership covers a range of industries and geographies. With extensive experience in company turnarounds, business mergers and re-organisations, she specialises in Organisation Design, Change Management and Engagement, and believes them to be inextricably linked.
“Employee engagement is integral to the implementation of change,” Linda explains, “but it’s one of the hardest aspects of change to manage effectively.”
“During periods of stability, your approach can be quite straightforward, and many organisations cover the basics perfectly well. But I’ve seen change go horribly wrong because employee engagement gets forgotten or approached inappropriately. It’s easy to lose sight of your people whilst focused on reducing costs, squeezing numbers and driving new philosophies.”
Securing a seat at the top table for employee engagement
Linda joined Orange UK in 2009, the year before the merger. The company had no employee engagement strategy and no survey history. For Linda, this was a significant gap in the business strategy.
“My CEO, Tom Alexander, and I could both sense something was wrong. It felt as though the company had lost its edge and momentum. Success didn’t feel as successful as it had before. Competition was growing. Innovation was stalling. Morale and motivation were down.”
A clear strategy to restore Orange UK to its former trajectory was required.
“We wanted to become the industry leader, but it’s hard to separate yourself from the competition when you’re all doing the same thing. We realised that our people could be our differentiator. Their engagement could make all the difference. We needed to re-energise and restore pride. Becoming the industry leader became synonymous with becoming the best company to work for.”
Linda’s first move was to secure approval to enter the Sunday Times index.
“We lacked data. Intuitively we knew something was awry, but we couldn’t see what was going on. We needed a line in the sand to measure performance and track improvement.”
With the green light given and an ambitious target in place, Linda launched Orange’s internal ‘being the best’ campaign, driving a 78% survey response rate.
“Across the company we’d been doing great things for our people but there was no line of sight for them to all the benefits we were providing. The campaign helped encourage participation, but it also helped us show our employees what we were already doing for them.”
Orange UK entered the index at number twenty-four, “and the data gave us strong evidence and ideas to work with.”
Primary drivers for focussing on employee engagement during the merger
Becoming the best company took on a whole new meaning with the announcement of the merger.
“It all had to happen very quickly – massive change at incredible pace. To minimise the risk of failure we needed to integrate fast. The newly combined entity had to be able to hit the ground running. The only way to achieve that was to make sure that everybody was utterly aligned to that goal.”
The foundations were already in place. The transformation programme adopted Orange’s ‘being the best’ engagement campaign, adapting the core message into ‘better together’.
“We needed everyone to connect to the new organisation with purpose, pride and loyalty. Ultimately, we needed Orange UK people and T-Mobile people to become EE people. We were building a new brand, setting a new tone and defining a new company culture – it had to be different. Everything was changing and ensuring the workforce had clarity and faith in the future was our priority responsibility. We needed them to know that we’d emerge successfully.”
That year the organisation dropped to thirty-five on the index.
“Given the circumstances it was an incredible achievement. The anecdotal comments from the survey were fantastic, even from those who knew they were leaving.”
The benefits of integrating the engagement strategy into the transformation programme were just as clear closer to the bottom line:
“Our approach was critical for retention. Everyone was at risk during that period. We took 1,700 heads out in the first six months and at the same time, we had no industrial disputes – not a single one.”
In 2011, EE climbed back up the index to number twenty-one.
Achieving change objectives through workforce engagement must originate at the very top of the organisation
Certainly the 2009 campaign helped to build the momentum that would carry the morale of the organisation through the merger, but for Linda, the secret of success sits right at the top:
“Leadership from the top is the single most important factor in driving engagement through significant change. You need senior leaders out there, constantly and consistently engaging the whole organisation. The only person who can get the leadership team on board is the chief executive – if they’re not actively championing, leading and engaging their own team, it will fail.”
During the merger, Linda explains, Tom Alexander did everything right and EE reaped the reward:
“He genuinely wanted to make it work. He said, ‘tell me what to do,’ and he did it. He accepted that he no longer spoke with his Orange UK voice, role-modelling the new direction and leading from the front. And he understood that, as an industry leader, we all had to behave differently. He addressed the questions and concerns of all stakeholders, contextualising and convincing them of the need for change. People responded extremely well to his honesty and integrity. He proved to them that they had a voice and could be involved.”
Alexander’s trust in his immediate team and personal engagement in the change programme was equally important:
“Tom liked to keep things simple. He surrounded himself by good people, gave them a framework and let them get on with it. But he didn’t take his finger off the pulse. He wanted to stay fully informed and able to make timely decisions when necessary. That level of engagement helped build a great sense of urgency and momentum, installing a culture of driving change quickly with accountability.”
Achieving change objectives through workforce engagement must be driven determinedly down through every level, consistently and continuously
While strength of executive sponsorship was essential, Tom Alexander’s impact would have been muted without an effective communication strategy.
“The communication piece was critical. During change, employee engagement needs to link heavily to internal communications.”
But getting change communications right is rarer than it should be:
“Some organisations launch change communications, then stop as soon as they think the change is over. Others start strong then fade away. One of the most common causes is cost reduction. When their backs are to the wall, many companies simply start cutting everything that’s not ‘business critical’. Inevitably, the first things to go are the people things. Internal communications and engagement, for example.”
As far as Linda is concerned, there is no greater mistake:
“Cutting communications and engagement during change is one of the worst things you could possibly do. You can’t switch it on then switch it off. You have to switch it on, leave it on, keep it running and see it through. You have to drill your message into the workforce consciousness and keep it there. During the merger our mantra was, ‘tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them’. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Anything that saps momentum will cost you engagement and allow cynicism to creep in. If you drop the ball, even for a few months, you may never pick it up again.”
Communications reach is just as important as continuity.
“The pace of change is so fast, and the distribution of stakeholders so widespread, you’ve got to figure out how you’re going to get to everyone as close to real time as possible. Even in a truly technologically-enabled organisation with a white-collar-only audience it’s still challenging. In some organisations all you can do is watch your perfectly-crafted communications roll over the cliff and pray they land properly.”
For Linda, the greatest challenge is pushing through the middle-management layer.
“I call it ‘permeating the permafrost’; typically where the real, everyday power sits.”
Linda also compares this layer to the waterline dividing the tip of an iceberg from all concealed beneath.
“Senior management may jump up and down about burning platforms, but below the surface everyone could be sitting comfortably. If the front line doesn’t understand your message or – even worse – never hears it, you’ll never be able to deliver real, meaningful change. And if you happen to have a deeply entrenched legacy culture, you’ve got to work really, really hard to engage all the way down.”
To help overcome any dilution, hesitation and resistance, clarifying the need for change is important, as is mitigating any sense of threat, but the real key is communicating the individual relevance and benefits.
“You have to help people see that the change is real and that it applies to them – that it won’t go away if they bury their heads deep enough, play along or resist for long enough. And it’s your responsibility to make sure they understand how the change will benefit them or how not changing will cost them.”
Fortunately for EE, the value of comprehensive change communications was clearly recognised.
“The flagship for our campaign was a series of ten roadshows at Wembley, all fronted by our CEO. We engaged some fabulous partners to help bring our messages to life, working with The Storytellers[ii] to engage and energise people about the change, and with Lane4[iii] to help us explain to our leaders what their role would be in delivering it.”
The roadshows were a huge success, but the communication didn’t stop there:
“We used every tool we could to keep our messages consistent and ever-present. We even put up posters in all our toilet cubicles! And we monitored closely whether the roadshow messages were being cascaded effectively. People were held accountable. Tom would turn up to a site unexpectedly and start asking people. His team followed his example. Meanwhile we issued an update every two weeks. Even if there was nothing to tell, we told our people that. We didn’t allow it to tail off. And throughout the message was: ‘yes, this challenging, but we’re going to do it right, and we’re going to tell you everything’. Total transparency.”
For a stronger return from their investment, employers need to improve their ownership of engagement and delivery of their engagement promises
Looking to the future, Linda believes that employers need to own engagement better – ensuring a firm and practical grasp on what engagement means to them, how it fits in and why they’re doing it.
“People aren’t always getting it right. There’s a risk that engagement becomes a silver bullet or huge lightning rod, but it’s simply what you get if people are aligned to a common purpose and working together towards a common goal. It’s about how people work and contribute. Measuring engagement is important for how the business supports its people and helps them to help the business. You’re not measuring engagement for its own sake, you’re measuring it to help improve performance.”
For Linda, employee engagement needs to be accepted as a critical business measure, not an HR initiative held at a distance.
“During business as usual, employee engagement is often led by HR. But it can’t be the same during change. We needed to engage with the business and make it not about HR.”
The key to achieving that, Linda explains, is understanding how to use this tool to optimal effect.
“It’s got to be seen to deliver meaningful results, otherwise you’ll never prove the value. Very few companies measure engagement in a meaningful way. First and foremost, be clear about your outcomes. What does employee engagement mean for your organisation? What do you want it to look like? What impact do you want it to have? Then you can ask yourself what you need to measure and how you need to measure it. Make sure you’re asking the right questions from one year to the next. Adapt and align. It’s also critical to identify where your points of engagement are. Who are you engaging with? What do you want them to engage with? Do you want front line employees engaged locally or with the corporate centre? Which is more likely to drive the outcomes you want? You’ve got to pinpoint very clearly where and how you can shift the needle to deliver performance improvement.”
At the same time, employers need to get better at delivering on their engagement messages:
“Many companies have a long way to go until what’s behind the scenes is totally aligned with what’s on the stage. They talk good talk, but the best change campaign in the world will fail if your systems and processes are not aligned. Everything you promise has to be translated into reality and integrated into the organisation. People aren’t stupid and they’re far more tech- and transparency-savvy today. You’ve got zero opportunity to convince them the rhetoric is real unless you make it real. You need them to believe that what you’re asking them to accept is authentic. Cynical managers scoffing at change comms in front of their teams is a disaster.”
HR must hold the business to account and help it do the right thing
Throughout, Linda has been guided by her belief that the role of HR is to maintain the integrity of the business.
“When I first proposed that Orange UK enter the Sunday Time Best Companies index, we had no idea the merger with T-Mobile was just around the corner. We received a lot of advice not to enter in 2010. Everybody knows somebody whose engagement scores plummeted during difficult change.”
Linda was not so easily discouraged:
“I said, ‘we have to do it – there’s no better time to do it’. You don’t get to pick and choose when to listen to your employees, especially after you’ve already run an engagement survey. You can’t give them a voice then take it away. If nothing else, we said, it will provide an excellent measure of how well we’ve engaged people in the change.”
Looking at EE’s index performance since the merger, it’s clear that sticking to their guns paid off handsomely in the long term.
“With experience you develop an instinct for what’s right,” adds Linda. “I believe that HR is there to hold the business to account and help it do the right thing. That includes how it treats its people and how it approaches change. It’s not always easy, of course, but you’ve got to hold your ground and provide counsel in language the business understands. It’s much easier to make the commercial case for integrity today than it was thirty years ago. For sustainable employee engagement, continuity and consistency are key. It only adds meaningful value over time. If you understand that and believe in it, you’ll find a way to achieve it. Keep going. Repeat, repeat, repeat. The more you do something, the more people will accept it, and that’s as true for your senior leaders as it is for your front line employees.”