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Why Rowlinson Knitwear put its people first during the pandemic

25 Feb 2021 By Jyoti Rambhai

With half its staff unable to work from home, the manufacturer wanted to ensure they were properly supported and rewarded

It’s crystal clear now that Covid has been a catalyst for a significant change to the rhetoric around the future of work and the move away from the traditional 9-5 in a formal workplace. Much of that conversation has been around the benefits (or otherwise) of full-time home working, and whether we’ll ever see a full return to the office post pandemic. 

But what if your work can’t be done from home? For Nicola Ryan, director of colleague support at Stockport-based manufacturer Rowlinson Knitwear, this talk of the ‘new way of working’ has made her workforce feel somewhat “forgotten”. “More than half our workforce can’t just work from home – particularly those in our warehouse and production teams. That’s been one of our frustrations,” she says. “We would read these articles about this utopian working from home situation and know that’s not right.”

There has been much debate around people – particularly low earners – having to choose between following the rules around self-isolating and going to work to earn enough to put food on their tables. But Rowlinson made sure if any of its employees needed to self-isolate, whether they or someone else in their household had symptoms, they received full pay for that period. “We recognised the value and the contribution they make to the company. They work hard and we needed to look after them,” says Ryan. “A lot of what we have done in the face of the pandemic links back to the business’s ethos – we genuinely care about each other.”

Since January, 20 per cent of the company’s workforce has needed to self-isolate on full pay at some point, ranging from two days to two weeks. As a result, the number of positive Covid cases among staff is now around a quarter of what it was between March and November last year. The reduction, says Ryan, is “because people felt they were able to do the right thing comfortably”. “We’ve not had any serious workplace transmission where we’ve had to isolate an entire group. The most important thing we did was listen to people’s concerns and properly risk assess their roles,” she says.

As a knitwear manufacturer, Rowlinson was not considered an ‘essential’ business so, during the first lockdown last year, was forced to furlough around 80 per cent of its workforce. But it was this time out, Ryan explains, that was crucial in being able to make the premises Covid secure and recognising that checking in with employees was vital. “We’re quite a social business so, before the pandemic, we used to get everyone in a big room fairly often, tell them what was going on and answer any questions,” she says. 

But when gatherings en masse were no longer an option, Ryan and her team turned to producing helpful videos for staff, disseminating them using internal communication platforms, which were particularly useful for those on furlough or not able to attend work. “They allowed us to interpret what the government was saying and explain how the rules would affect us as a business,” she says. “And seeing our managing director, for example, talking about how we’re coping and having confidence in the future of the business gave people reassurance at a time when there was a lot of anxiety.”

But for Rowlinson’s 60 employees, any threat to the future of the company comes with far higher stakes. Since the formerly family-run firm implemented a 100 per cent employee-owned model in 2015, every member of staff has received a proportion of whatever profits the business makes every year. There are no individual shares, Ryan explains, with funds instead being held in a trust so that “the whole workforce can benefit”. “More than half of our colleagues are in traditionally lower-paid roles, and they’re the ones who have really worked hard to generate that profit,” she says. “Becoming an employee-owned business meant we could build a culture where we could reward those people.”

And with staff owning their own slice of the company, it’s been even more important that they’re both psychologically and physically able to do their jobs effectively. One of the biggest effects of Covid, Ryan says, was on employees’ mental health. Luckily, before the first lockdown, around two-thirds of staff had completed a two-day training course on mental health and wellbeing, which gave them the skills and techniques to listen and help each other, and to signpost people to helpful resources if they needed them. “And just like everyone else who isn’t going into their place of work, we’ve also had video catch-ups where we talk about anything but work and share things like how to get a good night’s sleep, because we know a lot of people are struggling with that at the moment,” Ryan explains.

“Creating these opportunities where people can offer advice and interact with each other has been really well received, and this is reflected in our feedback,” she adds. Overall staff satisfaction is 98 per cent, according to the latest survey, and 100 per cent of workers said they felt Rowlinson cared for their wellbeing, despite it being a challenging year. 

The pandemic, Ryan says, has challenged HR departments like never before and has been a huge learning curve. But for her, the most important thing is still having a degree of flexibility, which has been – and continues to be – hugely beneficial to employees: “We may not be able to work from home, but we can still meet the needs of our people and the business.”

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