On the day People Management visits Ella’s Kitchen’s headquarters, on a small estate of converted barns in the depths of the Oxfordshire countryside, the weather is wet, grey and dismal. “It’s a shame the sun isn’t out,” says head of keeping people happy – aka HR director – Catherine Allen when she arrives in reception for our interview.
But inside the building, it seems the sun is constantly out. Stepping out of the rain into the office, which houses the company’s 80 employees, is akin to stepping into a children’s storybook, covered from floor to ceiling with brightly coloured decorations and branding. Allen explains how, in line with one of the organisation’s values – being ‘childlike’ – it’s tried to create an environment that a child would find exciting.
Creating and implementing those values originally formed one of the first projects on Allen’s to-do list after being drafted in as a consultant in 2012 to set up an HR framework from scratch. Another part of her remit was designing the first HR director role – which she subsequently applied for and was awarded. “I looked it at and thought ‘I really want to do this’,” she recalls. “I designed my own job – not a lot of people can say that.”
Seven “fantastic” years later, says Allen, the rest of the values – which encourage the workforce to think innovatively, be professional and look after each other, among other traits – are embedded across the company’s entire ethos. “Their simplicity works well for us, because they’re not ridiculously aspirational,” says Allen. “When we introduced them, people could see examples of them working already – they just articulated what had been happening before.”
Ella’s Kitchen now holds its values at the core of everything it does – from recruitment and KPIs to making important strategic decisions. “We’ve built everything on the values,” says Allen. “You could walk into any meeting and find them being discussed.”
The organisation holds periodic town hall-style meetings, dubbed Ella’s Assemblies, in which members of staff are thanked for times when they’ve demonstrated the values at work. Performance management is also linked back to them: “We have ‘My Big Chat’ which is a summer appraisal – although I hate the word ‘appraisal’ – and ‘My Little Chat’ six months later,” says Allen.
But as the company has found, having a defined set of core principles sometimes creates its own issues. With three separate interview stages, Ella’s Kitchen’s recruitment process is at the more complex end of the scale, and the company recruits for cultural fit above all else – even if that means rejecting otherwise qualified candidates. But Allen stands by the process. “We know that happy, healthy people do the best work, so it works two ways – if that person doesn’t feel our values are for them, they’re not going to be happy here either.”
Making sure its people are happy at work is a principle that has also translated into a comprehensive wellbeing strategy, after the need was established through the results of staff engagement surveys. “Stress and workload were beginning to be mentioned more, and we realised there was a theme emerging that we needed to do something about,” says Allen.
Fast forward four years and Allen and her team of six ‘Happies’ have put in place what she describes as a “menu” of health and wellbeing initiatives – from sessions on good mental health to health checks and yoga classes – and a raft of mental health first aiders have been trained up. “We know if you come to work and you’re having a difficult time, focus is harder – and we can’t ask people to leave their problems at the door.”
But the company has also looked beyond this to create a more personalised experience; it offers employees the chance to create a tailored wellbeing plan and set their own goals, something 68 per cent of staff took up in the first year alone. “People’s lives change all the time – they get ill, they get better, they get married or divorced, they have children, they’re running a marathon,” says Allen. “What you need in one year might look different to the next.”
The increased focus on health and wellbeing has brought its own rewards – the organisation’s net promoter score increased by five percentage points to 67 per cent between 2017 and 2018.
But numbers and KPIs are less important in Allen’s eyes. “The thing I’m proudest of is that people feel more able to talk about issues that they didn’t talk about before,” she says. “That’s the most important thing.”
As well as doing good within the workforce, Ella’s Kitchen also places a huge emphasis on doing the same outside the organisation. In 2016, it achieved B Corporation certification, meaning it meets a series of rigorous standards around transparency, ethical practices and environmental credentials, and it also encourages its staff to undertake two days of volunteering per year – one of which must be connected to its mission of giving children a healthy relationship with food.
In previous years, projects have included joining schoolchildren on a day out to a farm, volunteering with a local food bank, and helping out with children’s cookery classes. “People can choose how they use those days – they just need to come back and tell the rest of us about it,” says Allen. “Our target is to give 1,500 volunteering hours a year, and we’ve already achieved that with a month to go.”