How do we benchmark employers in the Covid era?

Best employers and ‘great place to work’ lists used to focus on funky workplace perks, but what place do they have now that employees’ relationship with their workplace has fundamentally shifted? An independent benchmark of engagement could become more important than ever, discovers Jo Faragher. 

Do you remember Compaq, Psion and Mayflower Vehicle Systems? The three companies (manufacturers of laptops, the ‘Palm Pilot’ and cars respectively) were all highly ranked on the first list of best places to work published by Top Employers, back in 1995/96.

The first list was published as a paperback book, and submissions were reviewed by a panel of luminaries from the HR and business world. “It was highly subjective and limited in scope, and was only found in libraries or business bookstores,” says Phil Sproston, regional manager for Northern Europe for the Top Employers Institute.

Twenty-five years later, the Top Employers List is among a number of highly quantitative mechanisms organisations can use to benchmark their engagement levels against their competitors. It looks at over 600 HR practices over a spread of 10 topics and feeds in to a huge source of data that can be analysed to identify trends. There’s a price, but many organisations value lists such as Top Employers, Best Companies and Great Place to Work to show where they excel for their employees and to highlight where they fall down.

Compliance to collaboration

“These days, we verify and validate what people are saying, we can measure on a country-by-country basis and provide added value to participants,” adds Sproston. “Back in the 90s companies were more focused on control and HR was about aligning and standardising things. Now it’s much more holistic and we look at work-life balance. It’s less about a power struggle between employees and managers and more about collaboration.”

Since March 2020, of course, the pandemic has altered employees’ relationships with their employers significantly. The majority of office workers have been operating at home for the past 11 months, so the physical workplace has shifted. Those who have continued to work on the front line, meanwhile, have faced dramatic changes to how they work – whether that’s increased workload, social distancing, the need to wear extra protective equipment or experiencing trauma first hand.

Many workers will have at some point looked to their employer for extra support to meet deadlines while they juggle their “day job” with caring responsibilities, isolation and illness. So what does this mean for how we benchmark who is a good employer?

Individual needs

Security technology company Auth0 recently gained a three-star accreditation from Best Companies UK. Graham Moody, people director, International at Auth0, says that “being seen as a best company to work for is a huge source of pride for the existing team and helps us continue to attract the best talent around the world”. The company’s founders started the business while living 7,000 miles apart in Seattle and Buenos Aires, so there is a remote-friendly culture.

With the future of work looking increasingly like a blend of home and office, it is not a given that cool offices, breakout spaces, staff lunches and communal activities are what jobseekers rate as important anymore” – Joe Wiggins, Glassdoor

This is all the more reason to benchmark how the organisation looks after its workers, he adds: “Now that our workplaces have become our homes, we’re seeing a shift toward a more holistic approach to employee wellbeing, he says. “People want to work for a company that understands life-work integration, where parenting and performance reviews happen in the same space. As everyone is experiencing the transition to remote working in their own way, it’s difficult to pick just one thing employees value, but mental health is certainly top of mind. The right approach is to get close to your employees and understand their individual needs, so you can best support them.”

Whitbread, which owns brands including Premier Inn and Beefeater, has ranked in the Top Employers list for the past 11 years. Becky Woodmansee, people director for Premier Inn and Restaurants, says there is an inextricable link between employee satisfaction and customer satisfaction. “The better our employee satisfaction levels are, the more likely they are to serve our hotel and restaurant customers better,” she says. While employees’ priorities have changed over time, the company has consistently scored highly on training and development.

Taking part in the Top Employers exercise is just one element of how the organisation listens to employees, she adds. “We have shifted from just having an annual survey to more regular pulse surveys and forums. We’re constantly looking for different data points that might give a different lens on the employee experience, so the Top Employers survey is valuable to me as it is independent. Everything else is driven by us. This helps me to calibrate and work out what we need to focus on next.”

Shift in focus

The focus of the questions themselves shifts subtly every year, says Sproston, but this adds up to some dramatic changes over time. “Companies sign up to do the survey for three years so we need to have some stability; questions might only change 10% to 20% per year,” he says. “But over time there may not be questions today that were relevant to 20 years ago. If we know the bar has moved on something, we ask about it.” One example is performance management, he adds: questions about annual appraisals have disappeared as these became unfashionable, while companies now score well if they do regular pulse surveys.

The fact that most workers have had very little interaction with their physical workplace in the past year – and that this may continue for some time – means some of the perks employees used to shout about are no longer high on their agenda. “Free food, games machines, fancy coffee machines and on-site gyms were once the de facto standard for cool offices, but post-pandemic, might that all be about to change?” says Joe Wiggins, head of corporate communications for employer review and job site Glassdoor.

A recent survey by the site found that 57% of employees felt office-based perks were less important, while 58% wanted to see more employee benefits related to physical and mental wellbeing, such as mindfulness and fitness apps, wellbeing allowances, private healthcare and access to online therapy. In the site’s own Best Places to Work awards, companies that looked after employees during the pandemic ranked highly in terms of satisfaction, and this will continue to be a differentiator when candidates look for new roles, says Wiggins.

What jobseekers look for

How employers show off the working environment visually could change dramatically. “Jobseekers used to be able to get a good feel for company culture by visiting an office and seeing staff at work,” he adds. “Employer profiles on Glassdoor and company career pages have up to now been full of images of employees at work and having fun together. With the future of work looking increasingly like a blend of home and office-based, it is not a given that cool offices, breakout spaces, staff lunches and communal activities are what jobseekers rate as important anymore.”

In the early days it was just about having a policy. Now it’s about having active, vibrant networks for affinity groups and they want to see a living, breathing, systemic approach to inclusion” – Becky Woodmansee, Whitbread

Christina Murphy, HR manager at logistics company CHEP, says having an accreditation helps with both attraction of new employees and retention of existing ones. “As a business we are credible for being pioneers of the circular economy… and in turn it’s critical we are credible as an employer, sharing with external candidates our value and our offerings,” she says.

Increasingly, employees and potential recruits want to work for an organisation that lives up to the values it claims to have on its careers page. Research by Gartner last year found that in organisations where resources were dedicated to supporting social causes (such as giving employees time off to volunteer or changing suppliers), the proportion of highly engaged employees was higher, at 60% compared with an average of 40%.

Focus on inclusion and purpose

A key strand of this is an employer’s approach to diversity and inclusion. Woodmansee from Whitbread says the bar has been raised ever higher in the Top Employers survey over the years the organisation has been taking part: “We’ve definitely seen a shift in what it takes to meet the requirement to be truly inclusive employer. In the early days it was just about having a policy. Now it’s about having active, vibrant networks for affinity groups and they want to see a living, breathing, systemic approach to inclusion.”

She believes employees will continue to focus more on the quality of work an organisation can offer, and questions asked by employee engagement indices will reflect that. “I think we’ll see more of a focus on employers providing more than a job and an income, on the control and flexibility they give around work. We are focused on this to make sure we continue to be a great employer,” she says.

At the same time, employees want to see that prospective employers are a force for good, and will seek out companies with a greater social purpose, she adds. “It’s not always directly linked to your activities as HR professionals, it’s about your organisation’s purpose beyond making money. We donated half a million meals through charity networks across the UK last year and have raised over £18m for Great Ormond Street since our charity partnership began in 2012 – these things are important sources of pride and engagement for employees.”

How we work may have transformed, but the need for organisations to listen to their employees has never been more important. So while employer rankings may not measure trendsetting offices or great workplace perks any more, they’ll continue to be a useful external benchmark for existing and prospective employees.

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