"It's a journey not a destination" say Best Companies ltd as UK businesses battle it out to be the best, to earn the title of the country's best employer.
Published this weekend, The Sunday Times 100 Best Companies to Work For survey in association with Best Companies Ltd, was won for the third year running by W L Gore & Associates, maker of the Gore-Tex watertight fabric loved by skiers and mountaineers. This year's survey – the sixth to date – is the biggest yet.
What is abundantly clear from these results, argued Best Companies managing director Jonathan Austin, is that you can put in place all the benefits, policies and mission statements you like, but they will mean very little if there is not an authentic atmosphere of trust and communication.
"Trust is a key issue. Employees within the organisation need to be able to trust their leader, the leadership team and their managers," he told Management-Issues.
Genuine commitment from the top team is essential, stressed David Fisher, director for talent development at accountancy firm BDO Stoy Hayward, which this year came 19th in the list, and was one of the best improvers on last year, moving up 72 places.
While the company, like many strong performers, offered a generous range of perks and benefits, just as important has been its focus on developing leadership – resulting in 93 per cent of the staff surveyed expressing confidence in the leadership skills of senior managers.
"The top team role model the sort of organisation that they want. We have very talented people and they are just given the opportunity to develop their own leadership skills," said Fisher.
Training and development had to play a key part – BDO came 6th in this area – but needed to go beyond formal learning, argued Fisher.
"It is not just about professional training teams but about line managers sharing their day-to-day experiences. We are developing a coaching culture," he explains.
In many ways, valuing, developing and focusing on people ought to be easier in a smaller company, argued Sally Jacobson, group HR director at housing company London & Quadrant.
Its subsidiary Tower Homes topped the ranking of The Sunday Times 100 Best Small Companies to Work For and came 12th overall.
"If you have 100 to 200 staff you should be easily able to call them into a room and talk to them. It is very important that the chief executive has regular conversations with staff – for our CEO the biggest part of his job is going around and saying thank you to people," said Jacobson.
Most workers have an innate desire to do well at their jobs, but this is something that will quickly fade if not nurtured and managed properly.
For instance, workers at Tower Homes in a staff survey recently asked the company to tackle performance management.
"People know who is skiving or taking the mickey and if it is not tackled you feel 'well why should I go the extra mile if they are just swanning off'," explained Jacobson.
"You have to empower people to be able to be tell you when they see someone in their midst who is not helping the team and if there is a real problem you have to be able to look after them," she added.
Initiatives the company offers include a range of booklets outlining opportunities for career development. It also ensures managers hold monthly meetings with staff to discuss their aspirations and training needs - and crucially that they then deliver on what is agreed.
What was intriguing about this year's winners was the recognition that often it is incremental steps that resulted in the most progress and the importance of using feedback from previous years, argued Best Companies, Austin.
"It is a journey not a destination. You have to keep at it constantly. The key issue has to be the leadership and the importance of having leaders with the quality and experience to manage their managers," he said.
Ultimately, added BDO's Fisher, communication is, and will always be, the key. This, he stressed, needed to be genuinely two-way and not simply corporate-speak, so that if people have valid criticisms or feedback they do not feel afraid to air them.
"It helps to open things up – issues are not allowed to fester. It is about engaging people, and not just in the things that are being done well, and building up trust over time," he said.
Being the best may not be something that happens overnight, clearly, and you will need to persevere and stick with it, but it is worth it. "After a time it builds up its own momentum and becomes infectious," Fisher added.