Virgin Incentives: Reforming company culture to boost engagement and retention

by Fin Murphy

A lesser-known arm of the globally-renowned incumbent, Virgin Incentives is an online business that sells experiences, primarily as gifts and corporate rewards. In 2019, after a notable trading period and backed by a new investor, the company decided to review the employee experience to ensure that it was of a consistently high quality. Previous management of the business had taken a more hierarchical, traditional approach and within a fixed structure, which did not easily facilitate innovation, autonomy, and the full ownership of roles. The teams were focused on operating within a specific framework and were less encouraged to imagine and create the future of the business. While an annual staff survey was conducted, there was limited focus on understanding and seeking to improve staff engagement in a dynamic and timely manner.

In this case study, Danni Rush, chief customer officer, Virgin Incentives and Virgin Experience Days, outlines the undertaking to grow the business through engaged and high-performing teams, and to match employee expectations for fast-paced business growth.

Assessing the challenge

Virgin Incentives needed a clear purpose and values. Our team needed to be clear about its business objectives and to show how employees fitted into these plans.

The first step to understanding our business identity was to run an engagement survey among employees, which would help to mould our strategy. We received a company-wide score of 54 percent engagement, with a couple of teams scoring as low as 42 percent and 40 percent. We received a huge number of comments (353) including 85 that were negative. Among the negative comments, the most common theme was around career progression.

We quickly set ourselves the target of achieving 70 percent engagement by the end of 2020 and set about embarking on a cultural change journey to boost employee morale and engagement.

To achieve this, our people strategy was established alongside our vision and pillars for growth. Our five clear areas of focus were: clear vision, wellbeing & social, communication, personal growth, and recognition.

We closed the entire business for a day and took the team off-site to collectively discuss our purpose and not as a top-down directive. We workshopped ideas around who we are as a business and what values we aspired to and the innovative culture we all wanted to create. At the end of the session, we had conceived a core message: ‘making every experience extraordinary’. Our five new people values were: ‘better together’, ‘heartfelt service’, ‘insatiable curiosity’, ‘own it’ and ‘straight up’.

Embedding core values

Next, we had to begin embedding these values into our day-to-day working life. We established working groups to boost our culture and ran behavioural sessions to involve every employee in the process, to define the exact detail behind each value. At these sessions, the team were asked what behaviours best displayed our values and how they would expect the company’s leaders to act.

We then established a new peer-to-peer recognition system based upon our five people values. Part of this involved a new performance management and bonus system, based on individual and team objectives to reinforce our ‘better together’ and ‘own it’ values and show our employees how they could contribute to their own success.

We continued to run pulse surveys every three months to check our progress and then communicated the results openly to all our employees immediately afterwards. Every team had sessions after the survey to discuss their team’s results, and how they could inform a list of actions moving forward.

Devising a solution

Like most businesses, we were significantly impacted by COVID-19. Unfortunately for us, this also came right in the middle of our culture change journey.

Thankfully, as we had already made notable progress by March 2020, we were able to weather the storm of the initial months of the pandemic better than we might have done otherwise.

Although this has been a challenging period, the open culture we have established via our culture change journey allowed us to adopt a transparent and honest approach to our COVID communication, and we achieved 73 percent in our latest engagement survey in October 2020.

Engaging the board

Stakeholders were identified early and included our investors, our senior leadership team, members of our wider team, and our customers.

Our investors were keen to see an uplift on our engagement scores given the promised business benefits. In order to keep them fully informed of our plans and progress, we supplied a report every month to the board. We also informed the board that if our strategy was to be fulfilled, we would need trained and motivated senior leaders to ensure our purpose and values were upheld beyond the initial culture change journey.

Our cultural change journey has delivered clear results. We have seen a consistent increase in our employee engagement score from 54 percent in July 2019 to 73 percent in November 2020, which surpassed our initial ambition of reaching 70 percent.

Our participation rate has also improved with every survey, in October 2020 we hit 100 percent for the first time.

In terms of business benefits, we saw our best ever peak trading period in November-December 2019 with a revenue growth of 40 percent, and our customer satisfaction score increased from 74 percent to 90 percent between July 2019 and June 2020, further evidencing how an engaged team leads to satisfied customers and a happier workforce.

We’ve weaved this mindset into every aspect of the business. Recently, we’ve held workshops to create new policies such as flexible working in direct response to team requests for an improved work-life balance. Similarly, we’ve ensured our team has been fully involved in other recent policy decisions, such as our COVID secure policies and the enhanced parental leave.

Strategising for the future

In the future, we will continue to co-create our team experiences and use regular feedback to influence our policies, such as group forums between our employees and the SLT team. To support this, we have created ‘engagement champions’ within each team to ensure everyone’s voice is heard.

Furthermore, to support our ‘insatiable curiosity’ cultural value, we are launching an internal mentoring programme to allow our team members to dive deeper into the skills of our senior team members. Not only will this open communication between employees and the SLT, but it will also ensure that we are constantly upskilling our team and investing in their skills.

We have also recently completed an overseas acquisition and now have a presence in the US. In the coming months, combining the two businesses and cultures will be a top priority, and we will use the lessons we’ve learnt on our culture change journey to ensure that we make the best start possible across the pond.

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