Leap of faith: the evolution of employee engagement at Reach newspaper group 

Oliver Blackwell

Written by:
Oliver Blackwell, Business Writer at Meaningful and EFS Virtual Content Team volunteer


For the organisation now known as Reach plc, 2018 has been a year of transformation, inside and out. In the first half, the Trinity Mirror newspaper group acquired several major UK news publishing titles (including the Daily Express and Daily Star newspapers) and rebranded as Reach. At the same time, the organisation adopted a fundamentally different approach to monitoring employee engagement, increasing the frequency of their engagement survey from annual to monthly.

This change has driven new life into employee engagement at Reach, shaking things up for the better and challenging the organisation to radically renew its relationship with engagement. This journey has not always been an entirely comfortable one, and is far from over, but healthy progress has been made and many important lessons learned.

This revolution is the vision of Julia Warren, Group HR Director, who joined Trinity Mirror in November 2016. Julia is developing and implementing the people strategy for Reach, as well as the delivery of HR operations. Prior to this Julia was Divisional HR Director for Serco in the UK. In this interview, Julia shares experiences and insights from leading employees, managers, senior leadership and the Board in a leap of faith into a more engaging future.

Transformation and transition: the strategic case for monitoring engagement in real-time

The opportunity for transition from an annual to monthly ‘pulse’ survey was set in motion before Julia joined the company. Whilst seeking a new Group HR Director, Trinity Mirror was also exploring options for a new engagement survey provider. For Julia, this was an opportunity to steer the organisation in a new direction:

“I already knew that I wanted to help them move forward into reviewing engagement more regularly. Whoever they chose to work with needed to have the facility to survey in real time, not just once a year. I was clear about this requirement, even before I started. Ultimately an up-and-coming new service provider was selected, whose philosophy, methodology and system are perfectly aligned to this approach.”

Julia had been aware of the theory and evidence supporting ’pulse’ monitoring for several years, and was no stranger to the limitations and challenges inherent in the traditional approach:

“When you survey only once a year, the picture it returns can be distorted and disproportionate. With one opportunity to be heard every twelve months, respondents tend to focus on the problems they perceive above and beyond their day-to-day experiences, demanding quick fixes to impossible issues. Another challenge is that between surveys you have no knowledge of whether your efforts to improve engagement are making a difference.”

What really brought it home for Julia was recent experience with her previous employer, Serco:

“We introduced a new supplementary tool for informal pulse surveys and associated dialogue with employees. We weren’t convinced it would be a good fit culturally, but it was massively popular. I was very pleasantly surprised and it got me thinking that regular surveys could be far more effective than I’d realised previously.”

Rather than being put off by the impending transformation at Trinity Mirror, Julia believed the timing was right:

“I didn’t want to wait until after the acquisition – it felt advantageous to do this now. We had not done enough in the past to help our people respond well to change and, knowing massive change was coming down the track, we wanted to improve our understanding of how to support them. To do that, we needed to be able to keep a close eye on the cultural health of the organisation throughout the transition.”

Engineering a different management relationship with employee engagement

The new system functions like a traditional engagement survey, with similar requirements for set up and results processing (e.g. employee and organisation structure data). Employees are presented with a randomised set of 4-8 questions each month, from a pool of 25. Opportunities for free text comments are also included. Employees have one week to respond. Consistent monthly engagement results are calculated at every level required, all the way up to a single, company-wide engagement score.

To communicate the new approach, a centrally-prepared briefing was cascaded to each part of the business for local adaptation. Behind the scenes, however, Julia and her team have been engineering a much deeper cultural shift:

“Part of challenge we’ve had is that the organisation wasn’t really engaged with engagement before. The relationship between the business and engagement was not a warm one. They were just going through the motions – it was more a hygiene factor than a strategic one. Shifting management perceptions and helping them to see meaningful value in this discipline is a critical success factor for us.”

The need to mitigate the risk of management resistance prompted a conflict of principles:

“I ended up having this massive debate with myself: on the one hand I strongly believe that employee engagement needs to be owned by the business, not the HR department, but on the other hand my instinct was that moving from annual to monthly could be a disaster without more hands-on leadership from HR. People management is often more HR-driven than we’d like it to be, but we shouldn’t expect necessary evolution without providing guidance and support. I hosted a business-case forum with my team and the HR Business Partners to make sure we were all aligned in understanding our roles in making this work.”

Julia and her team approached this challenge from a position of strength. By the end of her first year, the HR function had already established a new foundation of credibility with the business:

“My team are good at engaging with the business, so while I’ve been building trust at one level, they’ve been building trust at the next level down, and that makes a huge difference. Our CEO has confidence in us and the changes we’ve made. We approached him and his team with the business case and they trusted us enough to give it a go. Several are into it anyway because they can see the correlation between engagement and performance. Some are more sceptical but willing to try.”

Julia is also successfully championing the engagement agenda at Board level:

“Our Board focuses on key performance indicators, but they’d never looked at employee engagement that way. They willingly acknowledge that ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’, but we weren’t monitoring our cultural wellbeing. I proposed adopting employee engagement as a KPI for culture and they were very receptive. Going forwards, the Board will include engagement in their reviews of business performance. It’s a major shift in the right direction.”

Winning support, interest and attention from the Board and senior leadership has empowered Julia and her team to drive their plans forward. At the same time, the nature of the new system is helping to keep employee engagement firmly on the radar:

“You can’t ignore it when it’s monthly. Our engagement dashboard reports in real-time and it’s much easier to get the results out there. Our CEO especially likes having live data at his fingertips. With an annual survey the results are static, but monthly is always moving and this changes the relationship with the numbers, keeping them front and centre. As a result, engagement is evolving from a two-dimensional HR exercise to something dynamic that lives and breathes in the organisation.”

Beyond initial teething challenges: better feedback, clearer results and improved organisational response

Early results have been encouraging:

“Our employees are getting better at providing regular feedback. By reflecting on the questions more frequently it becomes easier for them to understand and articulate their answers, whilst encouraging them to think in more practical terms. All of this makes it easier for us to take effective action. At the same time, we can respond to survey results with greater agility. For example: if engagement suddenly drops in one area, we can take immediate action.”

Another key finding has been that long-term engagement is less at the mercy of exceptional, short-term events than annual survey results may indicate. Monthly readings help to put any spikes and troughs into perspective, which benefits strategic decision-making.

The results are also helping to identify and differentiate between needs that are local in nature and those being felt across the organisation:

“Whilst many items relate to specific areas, common themes have begun to emerge that are relevant across the business, including connection to strategy, employee wellbeing and learning and development. In complement to local-led action, therefore, we’re deploying a number of targeted group initiatives.”

This is empowering the centre by providing an opportunity to add meaningful value visibly across the business – an important factor in successfully delivering organisational transformation.

Although clear benefits are beginning to emerge, they have not come easily:

“It was painful at first. We all felt overwhelmed; struggling to keep up. As a manager, you’ve suddenly got feedback coming out of your ears and you feel obliged to respond to every comment, which simply isn’t sustainable. There was barely time to blink before the next survey was live. Meanwhile your employees are feeling frustrated because they keep telling you the same thing over and over without apparent response. Nobody liked it and even I started thinking that maybe we’d made a mistake.”

It was time to stop, take a step back and find another way:

“We’ve had to accept that we can’t respond to every individual comment, but what we can do is acknowledge them and aggregate the feedback so we can respond to the broader themes that emerge. This drives better delegation and sharing of responsibility for taking action whilst managing pace expectations. We’ve all settled down and begun to find our stride.”

Being pragmatic, not prescriptive: getting comfortable with a courageous approach whilst looking to the future

Employee engagement may be experiencing an exciting renaissance at Reach, but specific targets have yet to be set:

“We’re going through significant change as an organisation, so we’re being pragmatic. We want to use it and see how it works for us. Obviously we’d like to see the numbers go up, but we don’t want to be too prescriptive at this stage. We also want to be careful not to emphasise the numbers over what they represent. Keeping the focus on what’s behind the numbers will help our managers engage more effectively.”

Clear opportunities for improvement are on the horizon:

“Some parts of the business have yet to complete the jump to monthly, though they have moved to quarterly. So, getting everyone monthly is on our list. Also, there’s more variation in the monthly response rates than we’d like, so we might set participation targets sooner rather than later.”

How the organisation responds to survey results is another key consideration:

“We have to find a way to make sure our interpretations and interventions align to what our people are telling us and asking for. Correlating the impact of our actions with ongoing engagement scores will be an important part of that, as will continuing to drive the importance of proactive and authentic communication.”

Reviewing and potentially redefining what it means to be engaged at Reach is also on the agenda:

“We want to make sure we’re measuring the right things in the right ways, giving ourselves a true and meaningful benchmark. And of course, we want to keep on top of our questions to make sure they remain fresh, engaging and relevant.”

For the time being, however, learning by doing is the top priority:

“It’s been a bit bumpy, but we’re ok with that because we know we’re still learning. I don’t think we could have been better prepared. Going round and round in research and analysis circles could have convinced us not to do it. There are always plenty of reasons not to do something new. Jumping is usually the best approach.”

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