Thursday, 21 August 2008


There is a movement coming over from America called ROWE (Results Only Work Environment). There's plenty of good stuff to it, however its basic premise is that 'face time' for face time's sake is pointless. I understand the sentiment, but actually I don't agree.

How many times have you been at work and met someone in the corridor, jogging your memory and reminding you that you needed to ask them something. As the conversation continues you both realise you're missing an important bit of information and together you walk to the department who can help you.

Or else at lunch you sit down next to someone you don't normally talk to. You start to swap stories about the hellish morning you've had and the beginnings of a new working relationship are forged.
Maybe you're struggling with a new client. A friend tells you that actually Mike, the new business guy, has worked with your client before. As it happens Mike has some time right away, so that you go and have a coffee together and you've got the inside track on how to deal with your client within the hour.

There are lots of great reasons to work from home - sometimes you end up working much more efficiently. Emails, webinars and conference calls mean there is a technological solution to pretty much every communication need you can think of. However there is a serendipitous element to life in an office (a good one) that one loses when one doesn't have 'face time'. As Mike the new business guy might say, 'you have to be in it, to win it'.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Getting it Right: Pret A Manger

If the key to success in property investment is, ‘location, location, location’, then Pret would tell us the key to a happy and productive work force is, ‘recruitment, recruitment, recruitment’.

Head of Communications, Jay Chapman, is passionate about employee engagement and is frequently asked for the key to Pret’s success. She tells me she’d love to have a scary sounding formula to impress people with, but in her mind it’s all pretty simple stuff;

“If you treat your employees well and involve them in the decisions that will affect them, they’re much more likely to be engaged in carrying out the effects of those decisions.”


Top of her list, (and the point she keeps coming back to) is good recruitment. “Pret probably have the world’s most over qualified sandwich makers. They are largely made up of those who have come to London for a couple of years to improve their English, but who when they return to their own countries, are set to become architects, lawyers and journalists”. Pret aren’t necessarily just on the look out for people with degrees; however there is one quality which is an absolute must if you want to join the team – happiness. “You can’t hire someone who can make sandwiches and teach them to be happy,” says Jay, “So we hire happy people and teach them to make sandwiches”.

Pret invest a lot in their very ‘on-brand’ recruitment process to make sure that their business is filled with “Pret people” from top to bottom. Handled badly it could be oppressive, but in this case I don’t think it is. From the first interview until far beyond, Pret actively encourage employees to bring their own personalities to work. Part of the score card which Pret gives to their mystery shoppers (the results of which affect employee bonuses) includes a reward for personality shining through. This is the antithesis of the old attitude of slapping a “Happy to Help” badge on someone and telling them to smile - you’ll find no clones here.

Jay believes this investment pays off one hundredfold. 60% of staff at Pret’s head office began life on the shop floor – and they know the business inside out. Incidentally, ‘head office’ is just an easy way of describing what Pret people refer to only as, ‘Hudsons Place’. This isn’t just a nicety either; the people at Hudsons Place truly don’t believe they are any more important than the people on the shop floor – they’re just fulfilling a different function. This attitude of respect, treating everyone the same and as you find them, seems to run throughout Pret. It colours my entire interview with Jay and I suspect it comes from the top.

Jay talks frequently about one of the founders, Julian Metcalfe, the man who co-founded Pret in 1986. She describes him as both brilliant and exasperating, damning in censure and generous in praise. I am reminded that engagement at work isn’t the same thing as having an easy job (I get the impression that there are occasions when one could cheerfully strangle Mr Metcalfe) but about loving what you do, and knowing why you do it.


The staff at Hudson’s Place are very clear on Pret’s values, and on what the business needs them to do. Jay tells a great story about a new delivery trolley that was being trialled, the prototype of which had been hanging around the office for a couple of weeks. When it came to be needed for a meeting, no-one could find it anywhere although it had been seen earlier that morning. Eventually someone found Julian on the top floor where he had taken the trolley to try it out. He was wheeling it round and around trying to take sharp corners with it, furious to find that it was difficult to manoeuvre. “Our people will be using these all day every day! We have to get them stuff that works!” That prototype was quickly re-designed.

Passionate about his business and the values that underpin it, the founder’s influence permeates the whole company culture. “Julian believes that you should invest in your product and your people,” Jay tells me, “that’s about 90% of your business: if you do that well, the other 10% will take care of itself”. This ethos probably explains the fact that, to this day, only 0.4% of Pret’s revenue goes towards marketing. There isn’t even a marketing department, with the function being looked after by the communications team. Jay is hugely frustrated by the large companies who spend many millions on advertising, and relatively little on their staff and services. It seems to her to be a short term view, which results in neither engaged employees nor happy customers.

Pret’s customers though, are very happy. On average, 60% of feedback received by the Pret a Manger customer service department is either positive or neutral.

Let’s think about that for a minute. Most people only ever bother to get in touch with a company if they’re really aggravated by something. For 60% of contacts to be neutral, (like a suggestion for a new recipe) or full of praise, suggests that Pret have not only succeeded in engaging their employees but their clients as well. And why not? Happy, engaged staff = Happy, engaged customers; it’s not a big surprise. But what else are Pret doing to create such universal engagement?


It’s at shop level that Pret’s most differentiating behaviours come in to play. Firstly, and in my book most importantly, each team member is empowered from their first day at work to make their own decisions. If I go to the till at my local Pret and complain that I didn’t like my coffee, it is up to the team member I speak to, to decide how to resolve that. If I’m spotted struggling with bags and a pram, team members are welcome to leave their post and go and help. It’s a question of using the common sense and respect that Pret looks for when it hires people. Jay tells me, “It’s not uncommon to find that if you’ve been in to Pret for your lunch every day for a week, the guy behind the till will recognise you and decide to give you Friday for free. The manager keeps an eye on things, but overall the team members are empowered to make their own decisions”.

Empowerment doesn’t stop there though – we’re back to Pret’s recruitment process. Before their formal interviews, all candidates (for any position within Pret) are sent to work on the shop floor for a day. If the candidate is applying for a position in a shop, then the team who works there gets a say on whether said candidate will fit in with the team there. If the answer is no, the candidate isn’t hired. (All unsuccessful candidates that have worked in one of the shops get £30 cash for their trouble and a chocolate brownie!).

All successful candidates for Hudson’s Place roles do the same – visiting a shop close to them – and the shop team get a say on whether they would like the person to work for Pret. In this way the shop teams make decisions on who is the next Purchasing Manager, the next Customer Service Advisor and the next Property Director. On top of that, all new recruits spend a week or two working in the shop at the start of their induction.


This culture of respect extends to salary. Having done her 2 week stint on the shop floor, Jay assures me that it’s a tough job and accordingly, Pret pay their staff well. They also use incentives generously and wisely, they know their audience and know what works. “If someone’s only going to be in England for 2 years, then telling them about the 3 year business plan isn’t going to excite them very much” says Jay smiling, “they need cash – and the odd party doesn’t go amiss either”. In fact there are all sorts of bonuses readily available for team members if they want them. I was astonished by Pret’s commitment to their mystery shopper scheme. A mystery shopper visits every single shop, once a week. Bonuses from the results of the report are available per person and per team – if someone gets mentioned by name they are sent a silver star, made especially for Pret by Tiffany&Co. The team bonus can add up to £40 per week, per person, and Pret love the idea of paying it to everyone, every week, because it means a job well done.


Before I leave Hudsons Place, Jay takes me on a very proud tour of the building. It looks like an inspiring place to work, both functional and full of character. Most impressive is the amazing café space on the 3rd floor which houses every kind of furniture used in the Pret shops, and gives employees a chance to try them all out and give their feedback.

On my way out, I look again at the comfortable space I was whisked through on entry. Like the rest of the building, the colourful reception is a study in internal branding and a brilliant channel for engagement. A video plays on the wall, showing not a slick brand piece, but a collection of photos and videos of employee awards and achievements, pictures of parties and a rather unglamorous video tour round a soup kitchen. There is a note board hidden behind hundreds of congratulatory customer emails and on the front desk, “Britain’s Top Employers 2008” (Guardian Books) with a bookmark in at Pret’s entry. It’s a bit like being in someone’s lounge and seeing everything that they’re most proud of. Replace the note board for a fridge door, and the plasma screen for a mantelpiece covered in photo frames, and then you realise… you’re in the family home.


The differentiators: Pret’s recipe for success

Re-invest revenue in people and product

Empower your staff

Know your audience and incentivise them appropriately

Promote from within

Recruitment, Recruitment, Recruitment

Saturday, 9 August 2008

Getting it Right

A while ago I was doing a presentation on the effectiveness of employee engagement, and looking for the latest statistics to back it up. There have been a great number of studies done by reputable companies, and I found plenty of numbers that prove employee engagement is worth doing. The thing is, I also found them unutterably dull!

I firmly believe that while statistics can sound impressive when you hear them, a number is easily forgotten. It is real experiences that are persuasive, and the stories behind them that are memorable.

So I decided to forget the statistical research, and go and interview some real people. I wanted to hear success stories from people who get employee engagement right. I wanted to hear about failures, from people who have learnt from them. To hear directly from those accountable for the bottom line, why they invest in employee engagement.

On this blog I will be presenting a number of case studies, based on interviews with the people who are Getting it Right. I hope you find them as informative and inspiring as I have. We start next week with a study on one of the UK's most admired brands: Pret a Manger.