Creating a partnership: Business Leader talks to Lord Mark Price

Economy & Politics | Employment & Skills | Interview | Retail

Business Leader recently spoke to Lord Mark Price – founder of Engaging Works, former Minister for Trade and a previous Managing Director of Waitrose – about how you can be an effective leader for your team during the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Lord Price also talks about his career in the John Lewis Partnership and the keys to remote working.

Can you give me an overview of your career?

I joined the John Lewis Partnership as a trainee in 1982, having just graduated from university. I worked my way up the John Lewis side of the business across the UK, to take a managerial role in Southampton. Following this, I moved up to Edinburgh to manage a big project for the firm in the late 1980s. I subsequently opened a series of chains in Bristol, Kingston, High Wycombe and Cheadle.

I then moved to the Waitrose board to become the company’s first Marketing Director. I joined the full board in 2004/5, where I became Partnerships Development Director. A few years later – in 2007 – I started to run Waitrose just at the start of the financial crisis! I led the company for ten years.

When I retired at the age of 55 from the Partnership, David Cameron asked me to join the Government as Minister for State for Trade and Investment. Then, when he stepped down post-Brexit, Theresa May re-appointed me as Minister for Trade and State Policy.

After this, I established Engaging Works to help businesses and individuals to be happier and more efficient in the workplace. We help people find jobs that they will be happy in, so that they can develop their careers.

Can you tell me more about Engaging Works and why you launched the business?

I spent more than three decades working for the John Lewis Partnership. The unique thing about the company is that the man that founded it more than 100 years ago, in the aftermath of the First World War, believed there must be a new way to do business. A more equitable and fair way.

He decided the essence of the company would be that everyone loved to work for the company. Believing that people are happy in their work, they will be more committed to the role and less tempted to leave. This will lead to better service and will have a more sustainable and successful business as a result.

I spent more than 30 years embracing what that meant in practical terms – promoting a customer and employee-centric approach as a way of driving increased profitability.

Statistics show that businesses with increased employee engagement have higher profits and much lower staff turnover.

Following this, I wrote a book on the subject – of how the Partnership’s ideology was ahead of its times, and how the strategy is grounded in certain principles; reward and recognition, paying people fairly, giving people the right information about all aspects of the company, empowering people, caring for wellbeing of employees, pride in what you do, and having a purpose in what you do.

After finishing the book, I met a brilliant woman who owned a tech company. She had built a digital platform which helps businesses measure against that criteria, in order to see how happy people were in their current role.

This was how Engaging Works was formed. It is about assessing workplace happiness and productivity and it also measures the happiest companies to work for, and we help people find jobs within those companies.

What changes to attitudes towards remote working were you starting to see pre Covid-19? 

If you look at statistics from the mid-2000s till now, there has been more than a doubling in the number of people who are working from home. At the start of this year, 1.5 million people were working from home. However, due to COVID-19 – that number has soared.

There has been a trend over a decade in acceptance of this way of working – but this has now escalated to record levels.

People have moved towards working from home for several reasons. For one, office space has become a lot more expensive,  so businesses have expressed that they would like to have a more flexible working approach. As a result, hotdesking and remote working have increased dramatically. It has been driven by cost, but most people, when surveyed, believe they are more productive when working from home. Our research shows that 63% prefer working from home and more than 80% want to have a flexible working package.

The modern workforce wants to have the flexibility to work from home – and they believe that productivity is on the rise as a result.

Why has it not been as commonly used until recently?

The reason it has not taken off in all companies, until now, is that staff might not have been trusted to be productive if they worked from home.

The situation we all find ourselves in now, is highlighting that people are able to work from home and can be trusted to get their work done and be efficient.

With many businesses forced into having staff remote working during this period – how can leaders best keep their employees motivated?

If you boil it down to what makes people happy at work, whether someone works from the office or their home, there are challenges that need to be overcome.

Employees need to feel like they are being paid fairly. Employees are not incurring the same costs as they would be if they were going to the office every day. There is no travelling or eating out, for example. A lot of their happiness can be related to this, as they are saving money that they would otherwise be spending if they were in the office.

However, recognition for good work is harder to give to someone who is remote working. It is easy in the office to say ‘well done’ – but when someone works from home, you need to make the effort to let them know that. Business leaders need to work a lot harder at recognising people for the work they do.

Communication is key. You need to let groups and individuals know about everything that is going on that is relevant and appreciated by the employee. This builds and enforces trust. You rely on them to get the job done when you cannot see them. This also empowers them to own their role and drive forward. Engagement is also important when understanding employee wellbeing – as you will need to hear from them about their situation and if they need assistance.

What would you say to the argument about remote working – that it’s only good for those who have a nice home environment and it could actually push many people who lead more unstable lives away from a working environment that they find positive?

There are a lot of jobs that cannot be done from home – like a lot of retailers or people in the emergency services, for example. When you look at large office blocks, that is where you can see a change in the way people work.

However, there should not be a focus on home working – but rather remote working. Giving people the option to work from a coffee shop or library can create a positive working environment for them. Many employees have this option and it makes them happy in their role, therefore making them more productive. It also saves them coming into the office when they could just do the job from where they feel comfortable.

What would be your three takeaways that people can use to make working remotely a success? 

There is still a need for humans to connect and be a part of a team – therefore, my first takeaway would be to ensure that you are effectively communicating to them.

My second takeaway is how business leaders can replicate that human touch – replicating that pat on the back. In my previous roles, I made a simple list of all my senior and key staff, and I would tick their names off once I had spoken to them, to make sure that I had communicated to all of them over the course of the week. It was very difficult, but it makes you think how you stay in personal contact with your team. This is crucial to the welfare of your workforce, to demonstrate that you care for them and that you can provide what they need.

Lastly is to demonstrate how you care and listen to your employees. Having an issue raised in an office can go up the chain of command – however, with everyone working remotely, this can be challenging, and employees will not be as confident that it is being dealt with. Communicate clearly to everyone what you are doing to help this situation. Being able to measure this can show that you are taking a vested interest in your staff.

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