We sit down with Mairi Probin, to talk about winning the number one spot in Best Big Company to work for in the UK (in 2012 and 2014), how to build an effective engagement strategy and some of the common things that trip people up.

Learn what it takes to secure the number one spot of the Best Companies List, along with top tips to boost employee engagement in your organisation.

The secret formula to success

The Best Companies to Work For is one of the most prestigious lists of the most amazing employers in the UK, celebrated for the last 12 years – all companies who survey their employees using the Best Companies questions have the ability to feature on the list.

If someone mentioned to you about working for Iceland Foods, what would you think? Cool, their food is normally priced at £1, Peter Andre and Kerry Katona featured in their TV adverts or, wow they were the Best Big Company to work for in the UK?

Portrait of Mairi Probin who helped Iceland become Top Company To Work For
Mairi Probin

Our CEO Luke Fisher asked Mairi Probin, previously Head of Employee Engagement and Internal Communications at the national retailer, how do you reach the number 1 spot? With more than 25K employees across over 800 locations in the UK, Mairi had quite a task, so we wanted to find out what was her magic formula…

Luke: With Awards to your name like first place in the Best Companies List, Retail Week HR Rising Star of the Year and numerous ORC Employee Engagement Awards, please tell us who is Mairi Probin?

Mairi: I started my career in Marketing. When working at Iceland, I spent some time working in Innovation - innovation of all things, product, process etc - and during that time, one of the things I talked about a lot was connecting better with our employees to help them improved understanding of the role they play in the business. I’d never heard of employee engagement so I didn’t realise that it had an official title! I then moved into the HR Team to set up the Internal Comms and Engagement function. I did that for about 5 years and worked with some fantastic people - I learned so much! I left a few years ago to start my own business and I now work with a number of businesses, big and small, on their engagement strategy.

Luke: What does employee engagement mean to you?

Mairi: Employee engagement is about connecting the employer and the employee – through communication, leadership, recognition, etc. It’s all about making a connection.

Images showing Iceland employees at Best Company award ceremony

Luke: What did you set out to achieve as the Head of Employee Engagement at Iceland Foods? What were your metrics for success?

Mairi: I articulated the brief as “to build an organisation where our people say they are proud to work for us”.

A big part of our success at Iceland was the clarity that the colleagues working in our stores were the key focus for our engagement activity - these were the people serving the customers who put the money in the tills so they were at the centre of all of our thinking and planning. Lots of businesses think that the head office is the centre of the universe and view their other sites as a secondary audience! The reality of life at a retailer is that the people in the stores are the ones working across a 24 hour period, dealing with shop lifting, coping with a member of the public weeing behind the freezer (yes you read that right!), or someone shouting at them as they hadn’t received the refund they expected - there are clearly positives too but that is part of life in a store. Life in head office can be tough, stressful etc but at the end of the day, you can pop to the coffee shop, eat lunch in the restaurant and very rarely look a customer in the eye… and you are closer to the leadership, you have more visibility of the leaders of the business. And so we built our strategy around our front line teams whilst absolutely respecting the role everyone played in the business.

Engagement is a constant - don’t look at it as a project

Communication was a huge part of what we did – we had 25K people across 800 stores. Making sure we could talk, listen and respond - basically have a conversation - was really important.

Often organisations get the one way communication working really well, but the conversation is what many struggle with – the essence of conversation is that all parties get to share their views, this is at the heart of a great relationship.

We created a closed Facebook page (Workplace wasn’t available then), and I always thought of it as our virtual staffroom.

It wasn’t easy, some people in more senior positions didn’t always want to hear what was being said – if this is the case in your business, I’d encourage you to remind them that if you don’t facilitate it, it doesn’t mean that it’s not happening, it just means you don’t hear it

It wasn’t easy, some people in more senior positions didn’t always want to hear what was being said – if this is the case in your business, I’d encourage you to remind them that if you don’t facilitate it, it doesn’t mean that it’s not happening, it just means you don’t hear it and potentially therefore feel better about it! I see in my role today lots of nervousness about an open conversation, but flushing out the things you need to know is really important to understand and drive engagement.

Another big part in taking our engagement from good to great, was celebrating everything about the people that work for us. Communication can often be constrained to the things that must be shared, but we celebrated everything in the form of people stories. From a staff member who was a referee and worked with their manager to ensure they got Saturdays off (clearly an unusual request in a retailer!) to other examples, like an amateur triathlete working in one of our stores who was competing for GB in New Zealand – the point of many of these stories was showing the talents of our people right across the business and how the business worked with people to achieve their many and varied ambitions. Creating a habit of telling people focused stories allowed us to authentically present business news and changes through the eyes of the employees too and therefore allowed us to tell these with greater impact e.g. changes to an IT system told through the eyes of the people who have tested it, not through the eyes of the IT Director!

One people story that always made me smile was that James Arthur’s (X-Factor winner) dad was a Home Delivery driver!

We made sure we had a fun, friendly tone and had a license to do funny things. We created a tone of voice for different leaders – HINT: make sure you don’t have one person giving all the good news and someone else giving all the bad news!

There was an absolute expectation that every Store Manager would have an engagement action plan, that was visible (in the staff room) and progress was measured and communicated

Something else we very consciously did was to show the executive leadership team in very human situations - our communication for our Charitable Foundation often showed the leaders visiting the charities and interacting with the people the charity was supporting. It was grounding for an employee to know that the leadership team were still human, as often the larger a company becomes, the more abstract their leaders become. If employees see their leaders as more human, they can often have a better appreciation of the tough decisions they have to make and believe that they have an understanding of what people at the ‘coal face’ think and feel.

The secret sauce was facilitating the communication and sharing of best practice between stores and head office, using grounded and relevant examples.

I was not from an operational background so I saw my job as to facilitate the sharing of best practice across stores. If there is something you aren’t great at or you find hard, don’t try and reinvent the wheel, just hear what someone who works in a different store does that really works. When responding the our engagement survey, we gave absolutely clarity that its better to do 3 things well than 10 things badly.

Screenshot of the Glassdoor stats for working at Iceland
Glassdoor report for Iceland

We did our employee engagement survey every 6 months then to make sure we were constantly listening and there was an absolute expectation that every Store Manager would have an engagement action plan, that was visible (in the staff room) and progress was measured and communicated. Everything we did was bottom up - looking back, at times, I think perhaps we didn’t do enough at the top.

We created tools for managers and teams to make things easier for them. None of it was rocket science, it was about making it as easy and straight forward as possible for very busy operators.

We used the following metrics:

  • Employee Engagement Survey – monitoring response Rate and the overall score, monitored every 6 months
  • We also considered some indicative metrics – for example, the amount of money raised through charity week, this was a good indicated of their engagement (was it better than last year)
  • Another was the active rates on Facebook and how many people were regularly sharing
Luke Fisher Pardon me, Luke here. I hope you're enjoying this blog post. Want to build a better company? Book a demo with ThanksBox and we'll share with you how we are helping organisation such as the NHS, InterContinental Hotels Group and one of the fastest growing law firms in the UK to transform their employee engagement strategy. Your employees will thank you with a place on the Top 100 list.

Luke: Why did you want to make the list and what does it take to get on it?

Mairi: The reason Iceland wanted to take part initially was to boost change and shape the employer brand. It was felt that people didn’t necessarily grow up wanting to work at Iceland, but and we wanted to get people being open to thinking about a career at Iceland.

What’s involved? You have to run the ‘Best Companies survey’ and unlike some of the other providers, 100% of your ranking is driven by the responses that your people say. It can either be 100% of your people or Best Companies can choose a subset. There are a few other administrative bits you must do, but this does not influence your score.

If you’re thinking about taking part in the Best Companies process, I would absolutely encourage you to look at your engagement through the prism of what is the right thing to do for your organisation and your people and then use Best Companies to measure it. Don’t let a desire to do well at Best Companies drive your engagement.

Engagement is a constant - don’t look at it as a project. People don’t necessarily remember that you were nice to them 12 months ago!

Aim to create consistency and a great environment for your people and the listing will come. Something to think about is that you don’t always need to focus on making your best, better. Are there any pockets that let you down? Working with the middle and lower ranges of your engagement scores to bring everyone up to the level of the best will bring great results.

Help your people understand why are you doing the Best Companies process and please, not just because you are competitive and want to win, - although most businesses are competitive and that can be celebrated – make sure your motivation is genuine - to better engage our people to make our business a great place to work. We kept ourselves honest by asking the question - Is that what a best company would do? For us it was a good shorthand for making sure our people are considered.

Luke: Did you set out with winning an award in mind, is this what you were hired to do?

Mairi: We didn’t set out to win the award, but it was an indicator for our success. Be clear on why you are taking part in the process and make sure you do it for the right reasons – Best Companies is a measure of doing the right things for your business – it’s not just about the badge!

Luke: What are the 3 things that you feel contributed most to winning the awards?

  1. I didn’t win the award, our Managers did – we gave them with the right tools and we had good managers who were well led. 

  2. Create consistency – you need to drive consistency across all of your managers, trying to lift everyone to the same level. Ensure that if feels like every single employee feels great – every person only has his or her own experience of your organisation!
  3. Keep it on the radar all year around. In many ways I was the conscience of the business making sure we considered the impact of our actions on our people at all times - people weren’t always delighted to see me!

Luke: What are the 2-3 most common mistakes you see from HR or Engagement teams in your role as a Consultant?

Mairi: One of the biggest issues I see is the assumption that people understand what we are doing and why we are doing things – Having clarity and sharing it with people in a language that makes sense to them will bring you results. People don’t know automatically know what’s going on and why decisions are made in a business with 50, 100 or 1,000 or more people and be aware that if you don’t tell them what’s going on, they will make up their own story and this may well not be yours!

We had 25K people across 800 stores. Making sure we could talk, listen and respond - basically have a conversation - was really important

People often miss the gap between performance and engagement – they are absolutely related. Giving people clarity on what is expected of them, what good looks like and recognising what people do well is a fundamental part of engaging people. Making sure there are consequences for people who don’t play their part is also important - think about the impact on someone who looks at the person next to them and sees they aren’t pulling their weight and getting away with it? What effect does that have on the people around them?

People saying Thank You (genuinely not plugged) – people often feel grateful, but very often they don’t actually say it! As business moves at such a pace these days, they often forget to highlight the goods things as there is always the ‘next thing’ to do.

Luke: There has been a lot of disruption in the HR space (besides ThanksBox of course), what are your thoughts on how things are changing?

Mairi: There are some great tools out there now and it is so much easier to talk to people and listen to what they have to say. However you still need to listen and hear what is being said! If you just listen but don’t hear and therefore don’t act, the tools are just ticking a box. Using the tools properly and getting to the root cause of the feedback is key to making them work effectively and authentically.

Never lose sight of the fact that people are people first and employees second

It is also quite trendy at the moment to say we have dropped the annual appraisal or the annual engagement survey – my view with this often is that this is because you’ve not found a way to make it work properly… Continuous feedback and taking time to draw a line in the sand and look back are not mutually exclusive - clearly you should be talking and listening to your teams all the time but it is human nature to want to take stock, look back and see progress. Tools help but never forget that people are in the middle of the process!

Luke: How do you think ThanksBox can help organisations with their engagement strategy?

Mairi: ThanksBox is a great tool to connect people to each other and to give a forum to recognise, talk, understand and get people involved in ideas. Being able to deliver these things at scale is tough so having a tool that can help you do this is great. Metrics can also help have structured conversations about engagement in the boardroom!

Luke: Finally, please offer one tip for any engagement enthusiasts wanting to take the number 1 spot!

Mairi: Never lose sight of the fact that people are people first and employees second. Being interested in them and understanding them will take you a long way!

Key Takeaways

  1. People are people first and employees second
  2. Communication is at the heart of a great relationship with your employees
  3. Every person only has their own experience of your organisation - try and make sure it feels like a good one!

Getting in touch

Mairi is happy to field any questions that you may have, you connect with her on LinkedIn or leave a comment below.

We would love to show you how ThanksBox can help you secure a spot on next years Best Companies list, why not book a demo?

Final thought: We would love to interview you too, for you to share your learning’s with the world and to continue to raise the bar on the Top 100 list.

About ThanksBox

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Luke Fisher

This post was written by Luke Fisher on

Hi I'm Luke - CEO at ThanksBox. I'm a passionate believer that people provide the only long term competitive advantage for an organisation. My main aim at ThanksBox is to revolutionise the relationship between employers and employees. I love talking about people insights, digital technologies and the future of work.

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