The building blocks of emotional connection

Written by
Changeboard Team

06 Dec 2013

06 Dec 2013 • by Changeboard Team

Happiness = productivity

Engaging and connecting with employees is a value steeped in Marks & Spencer’s 127 year heritage and continues to be at the heart of the company. Marks & Spencer (M&S) an iconic brand, now graces the streets in 43 territories across Europe, Middle East and Asia with over 380 wholly-owned, partly-owned and franchised stores.

It was in the 1930s that the ‘Personnel Department’ was created at M&S. This was headed up by Flora Solomon, who had met Simon Marks, son of Michael Marks, at a dinner party in 1932. Simon Marks, often described as the architect of the modern Marks & Spencer, built the business on a simple philosophy that ‘a happier workforce was a more productive workforce’.

Emotional connection

In 2007, Plan A was introduced and extended in March 2010. Plan A is Marks & Spencer’s eco and ethical programme which aims to make M&S the world’s most sustainable major retailer by 2015. Currently there are around 3,500 Plan A volunteers in stores who really drive this programme.

M&S states: ‘Plan A takes an holistic approach to sustainability focusing on involving customers, involving all areas of the business and tackling issues such as climate change, waste, raw materials, health and being a fair partner’.

Tanith Dodge, director of human resources, joined M&S in March 2008. She believes the key driver of employee engagement is creating emotional connection. “The CSR function is not an add-on. Plan A is about how we do business,” says Dodge. “It’s a strong lever in demonstrating sustainable leadership, where we’re doing the right thing for our people, the community and the environment. We care about the lives of people and the world we live in. This makes employees feel really proud to work for M&S.”

However, Dodge argues that the HR challenge is how do you continue to engage with employees even in difficult times, so they feel absolutely aligned with the business plan, are committed and passionate about what they do, so they act in a way that will further the performance of the organisation?

“If Facebook were a country, it would be one of the biggest countries in the world. Now, everyone can talk in real time across the world. Today, organisations need to be much closer to their people in communicating the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of the company so they can really get behind it to drive the business plan and strategy,” says Dodge.

The M&S way is to build a strong coalition of people to come together so that individuals look beyond their own specific role and see themselves as the sum of all parts in totality – one team working together to deliver the end results. “It’s that classic story of when former president John F. Kennedy visited NASA’s headquarters; he came across a cleaner and asked him what he did. The reply? ‘Sir, I’m helping to put a man on the moon’”, explains Dodge. “You have to make work meaningful for people.”

The whole area of discretionary effort in order to drive productivity has become key for organisations. M&S has always invested in its people to make sure they feel energised, motivated and engaged. Everything is linked back to the M&S values of quality, service, value, innovation and trust – starting right at the top.

“We use a language external and internally around ‘doing the right thing’. There’s not a silver bullet.” There are so many small initiatives we do, that it’s a constant drum beat of how this is important around the company,” states Dodge. 

Marks & Start a second chance in life

“Unemployment is the highest it’s ever been,” says Dodge. “I fundamentally believe that organisations have a role to play in helping individuals who find themselves in difficult circumstances back into work.” Each year Marks & Spencer supports over 700 people; those at risk of homelessness, young people, disabled people and single parents, who face real barriers getting into work by giving them work experience placements between two and four weeks.

Set up in 2004, M&S works closely with M&S charity partners Gingerbread, Business Action on Homelessness, Remploy and Princes Trust. Marks & Start is now the biggest company-led work experience programme in the UK and Ireland.

Each person is assigned a buddy and a coach, and spends the placement shadowing their buddy who coaches them in three specific areas: products, services and customer service. Dodge comments: “When you hear some of the stories and what has happened to them, it can be emotional. It’s also hugely developmental for the buddies who feel that they are really doing something of value for the community.”

The scheme is so successful that 90% of participants say it’s a life changing experience as it gives them the confidence to get into the world of work. Around 40% of the people who complete their placements gain meaningful employment with M&S or another employer within three months.

There are also annual Marks & Start awards which reward the buddies who have done the most to support individuals where they’ve had the most significant life changing experiences. “There’s not a dry eye in the house,” adds Dodge.

The payback?

The stores that have Marks & Start placements and buddies have some of the lowest sickness absence figures and employee turnover, reducing recruitment costs. The buddies are hugely motivated. Once they’ve worked with someone through their placement and that person goes on to become successfully and gainfully employed, the buddy feels extremely proud. Plus the placements who feel they’ve been given a second chance in life are incredibly appreciative and therefore very committed to working, especially if they then secure employment within M&S. This creates loyalty.

Community spirit

In addition, M&S bridges the gap between young people and the world of work by working directly with schools and creating 2,500 work experience placements a year for young people aged 16.

Every employee has one paid day each year to do local volunteering in the community and often people team up and volunteer together. “For example, along with my HR team, we wanted to work specifically with female prisoners at HMP SEND so we ran a programme in the rehabilitation unit to get them thinking about how to go back to work and to help with skills preparation. We encouraged them to think about retail as a career. On the back of that project, the legal team found out about it and set up a similar programme,” enthuses Dodge.


“Trust has become increasingly challenging, particularly as there are various examples of companies where trust been eroded,” comments Dodge. To live the value of trust, HR ensures it has very clear communication at all levels of the organisation which is continuously reinforced.

M&S runs an employee network called BIG (Business Involvement Group). There are around 3,500 members of BIG. “We recently introduced a scheme called the big idea through the network which runs every couple of months. Employees are asked a specific question and we get back on average 2,000 responses,” says Dodge. Employees send through their submissions which are then filtered down and the people who have submitted the best ideas, get them implemented as well as winning a prize.

Every three months a retail conference of about 1,000 retail store managers and area managers come together to meet, connect, network and hear from senior people within the team. In addition, regular top 100 meetings are hosted where the CEO and executive directors engage with top teams.

It’s hardly surprising that following the results of M&S annual Your Say survey with a 94% response rate, the results around employee engagement levels are high. 74% of employees are really engaged against typical external research which reveals the average for the retail sector stands at 33% and on the area of trust, there is a scoring of 93%.

“No one seeks permission to do the right thing. At M&S honestly we just quietly get on with it. If we can make a small difference, that’s really invaluable to our employees,” concludes Dodge.

M&S employee engagement core drivers

Dodge and the HR team undertook a research project back in 2010 and looked externally at evidence to find out what the most predictable levers of employee engagement were. They then built a framework around four main core values that are internationally transferable around the world although the order of importance might change. These are:

Opportunity and wellbeing: That employees feel involved and engaged where managers care about them as individuals and their wellbeing. Career progression is pivotal. There is a section on the website where employees can get information about wellbeing at work and lifestyles.

Pride: In the company and in the brand. M&S provides lots of opportunities for its people to engage in community programmes or volunteer work. All employees are encouraged to live the values of the brand.

Trust: As leaders within M&S, how do they really demonstrate trust and what does that actually mean? Leaders and senior leaders act as role models and drive the behaviours of the business. This is embedded through leadership development around a competency framework and performance review which links to incentive plans.