Sometimes, you have to – almost – hit rock bottom to create the change you need. For Northern Ireland Electricity Networks (NIE Networks), the private company that owns and operates the country’s electricity infrastructure, that came with a “particularly bad” employee survey in 2010 that returned an engagement score of just 37 per cent.
It was a wake-up call, according to HR director Gordon Parkes, not least because 600 issues were identified by staff. “Employees felt we hadn’t been taking previous survey results seriously, and that we were too reactionary. That wasn’t necessarily the case, but there was no proper communication around what we were doing,” he says.
It was clear that what underpinned the results was a sense employees weren’t being listened to. “They wanted somewhere to go to have a voice, where they could speak freely and without fear of retribution, says Parkes. The HR team’s solution was an employee engagement board, chaired by Parkes, which he wanted to have the same kudos as the overall executive board.
The first items on the agenda were those 600 problems. Seventeen focus groups – one for each division – were initially set up, but the decision was later made to restructure the groups around location, so they were cross-functional and less prone to siloed thinking.
Once employees noticed that improvements were happening, they realised the board was a powerful vehicle for change, he adds: “The culture changed and it became a development tool for a lot of our people.”
Within 12 months, the board, which met every two months, had resolved every issue and was soon introducing further improvements across the business. The engagement score has since jumped to 81 per cent, while annual operating costs have been reduced by £5m as a result of better implementation of change projects. Sickness absence hit its lowest point in three years in 2016 as a result of a systematic and scientific approach to wellbeing.
“The board is a permanently embedded process,” says Parkes. “It is central to everything we do, and we are more efficient than we’ve ever been.”