Employee Ownership - why engagement comes through belonging

There has been a lot of coverage about employee ownership recently; the decision by Julian Richer of Richer Sounds to hand control of his hi-fi and TV retail chain to staff is the latest, with perhaps the best known being John Lewis.

The Employee Ownership Association (EOA) says more than 350 businesses have now adopted the model, with at least 50 more preparing to follow suit. Recent converts include Riverford, the organic vegetable box company and Aardman, the Bristol-based animation studio. More than 200,000 staff now work for employee owned companies, either directly or indirectly through a trust.

In fact, the EOA has established an ‘Employee Ownership Day’, this year on Friday, 28th June. But, while the idea of employee ownership is gaining popularity, it’s not the only way to create a sense of belonging.

Yes, you can give actual ownership - and I’ll cover the advantages of that. However, in my role as an employee engagement specialist I’ve seen other ways in which the feeling of ownership can be created. Either way, they lead to better engagement and productivity - and that’s a positive business benefit in whatever form it comes.

The engagement benefits of giving employees ownership

As I’m writing this on Employee Ownership Day I wanted to see if it got any press coverage. First up on my Google search results was a great article about a Cornish law firm called Stephens Scown. They switched over to employee ownership in 2016 and became the first large UK law firm to do so.

Jo Maher is a trustee of Stephens Scown’s employee ownership scheme and her comments perfectly sum up the benefits from an employee engagement perspective.

“For us, probably the biggest benefit that we’ve seen from employee ownership has been engagement! The people are any organisation’s biggest asset, so when they are owners themselves and feel like they can make a difference, it really does create a culture where everyone works together towards a shared goal. It leads to celebrating each other’s successes and working together to solve problems. We know that anyone, at any level of the business, can contribute towards its success and this in turn makes people feel happier and more motivated.”

You can read the full story here.

What’s more, the mean productivity rate last year for employee owned companies was 7.7 per cent, way above the national average. And they are paid more too: wages in the sector's biggest firms rose by 3 per cent last year.

The EOA sets out these benefits of employee owned companies on their website:

•      Because they’re co-owners, staff in employee owned businesses tend to be more entrepreneurial and committed to the company and its success.

•      Because they have high employment standards, involve staff and give everyone a stake, employee owned businesses are better at recruiting and retaining talented, committed staff.

•      Because they’re run in an open way, employee owned businesses tend to have a strong commitment to corporate social responsibility and involvement with the communities they operate in.

Find out more here.

But what if you don’t (or can’t) give your employees ownership? What can you do to create a similar sense of belonging - and the higher engagement levels that come with it?

Creating a personal sense of belonging

The greatest engagement I’ve seen comes from people who feel a personal sense of belonging, a sense of being a part of something special - to feel that their part matters in the bigger picture. Employee ownership as adopted by Richer Sounds and a growing number of business owners is to be applauded - but not every organisation can do this, especially public sector and voluntary organisations.

One of the best examples I’ve seen of a sense of belonging dates back to 2012 and the London Olympic Games. The ‘Games Makers’ were the unpaid volunteers who made the whole event so special and so much fun. I was impressed by their enthusiasm, energy, positivity and desire to make it such a success.

I remember chatting to one volunteer who was working a twelve hour shift and didn’t even get to see any of the actual events. I asked her why she was doing it and her reply was “I want to be part of something”.

This is a feeling I’ve also witnessed in my current organisation, where I’m part-time People Director at sustainable energy provider, Pure Planet. We’ve recently given share options to all employees and we’ve seen the effect it has in terms of gratitude, goodwill and strengthening the feeling of team that’s so important in a start-up business.

This is what I call the ‘Insider Feeling’ and it comes when people feel like the organisation is their own. They feel a clear sense of purpose and see how this aligns to their individual roles and teamwork - all based on a clear set of simple values. It stands to reason that if your mission is clear and your people can see why it’s important, they will be engaged in working towards it. Giving a strong sense of direction and mission is vital.

I also feel that taking ownership is all the more likely if people feel encouraged or empowered. This won’t happen in a culture of micromanagement. People need space to take the initiative and they need something to own.

Here’s my ‘Insider Feeling’ checklist

Whether or not you give employees actual ownership, you can still create an engaging culture that they’ll feel a part of by:

·     Creating a sense of purpose and direction

·     Emphasising how roles align to that purpose

·     Giving people autonomy in their roles

·     Involving employees in making decisions

·     Encouraging employees to apply their own judgement in solving problems

·     Allowing employees to make mistakes so they can learn

·     Communicating on a regular basis how the business is doing

·     Asking for feedback on a regular basis on how the company can operate better

·     Rewarding and recognising those that clearly demonstrate the Insider feeling

In conclusion

Employee ownership is one way of creating a sense of belonging - and it’s growing in popularity. From my own experiences you can still create a similar engaging personal sense of belonging, a sense of being a part of something special, if people feel recognised and can see how they play their part in the bigger picture.

Author: Richard Roberts
Posted on: Thursday 20th June 2019

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