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Major UK Airport Heathrow and the business case for employee engagement

February 23, 2018 - 6 minute read

The phrase ‘employee engagement’ has long loomed large over organisations of all kinds but for too long it’s been associated solely with departments such as human resources and internal communications - areas too the business that traditionally aren’t blessed with bottomless budget buckets to splash around at will.

Therefore, building a watertight case for employee engagement - one that converts and convinces the C-suite - is essential in getting any employee engagement programs off the ground. But, of course, something as essential and far-reaching as fully engaging your workforce has so many benefits that it’s hard to attach a firm pound sign to that ROI.

Fortunately, organizations like Heathrow Airport create fantastic case studies for others to follow.

Employee morale at a low

In 2010, Heathrow Airport in the UK was in something of a mess as a business, explained Becky Ivers, people director for expansion at Heathrow, speaking at the HRD Summit in Birmingham, UK, earlier in 2018.

There was confusion over ownership, with the UK Competition Commission ordering BAA - owners of Heathrow - to sell off three of the seven UK airports it owned; the recent Terminal 5 opening had been somewhat chaotic; and the decision to open a third runway was hanging in the balance. And that was when the Icelandic Eyjafjallajökull erupted (April 2010), grounding flights across Europe for as long as a week. Morale, confessed Ivers, could hardly have got much lower.

The real turning point, she explained, came when a new HRD and CEO were confirmed in 2014.

Getting their mojo back

“Our goal is to give customers the best airport experience in the world. That is something that is measurable as we’re externally benchmarked against all other airports globally.”

The new executive board decided that the journey to providing the best airport experience started by putting four priorities in place:

  1. Mojo
  2. Customer service
  3. Beat the plan
  4. Sustainable growth  

“We defined ‘mojo’ as ‘being a great place to work’ and our number one priority was to fix it. The theory was that one would lead to another… If we can drive colleague engagement we will deliver better customer service, beat our objectives, that will allow us to grow.”

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If the theory sounds simple, the practice sounds anything but. Heathrow Airport has 75m passengers per year, a figure that will rise to 135m with expansion. The airport employs 6,500 people directly and 76,000 indirectly.

So, how do you improve employee engagement amongst a workforce the size of a large town? The answer is a zinger.

“We made it a business priority, not a people priority.”

Ok, HR people. Go get some paper, or open Evernote and write that down. We made it a business priority, not a people priority. Remember it. Put it in all your presentation slides. Email it to your CEO right now. Boom! Then drop the mic…

“HR is a people business, and people want to be engaged with their work."

Becoming one of the UK's 'Best Companies'

To provide structure and strategy to their employee engagement plan, Heathrow decided to use the Best Companies methodology which focuses on eight factors with all eight being measured via comprehensive employee surveys.

  1. Leadership: How employees feel about the head of the organization, senior management and the organisation's values and principles
  2. My manager: How employees feel about and communicate with their direct manager
  3. My company: The level of engagement employees feel with their job and organisation
  4. Personal Growth: How employees feel about training and their future prospects
  5. My Team: Employees’ feeling towards their immediate colleagues and how well they work together
  6. Wellbeing: How employees feel about stress, pressure at work and life balance
  7. Giving Something Back: The extent to which employees feel their organization 
    has a positive impact on society
  8. Fair Deal: How happy employees are with pay and benefits

Many senior leaders become convinced that this latter point - pay and benefits - is the only way to truly engage high-performing employees but, in fact, much recent research has revealed that the overall package, or Employee Value Proposition, is more important to most people than their pure take-home salary.

This was Heathrow’s starting point when coming up with what they termed ‘the deal’.

So, what's The Deal?

“Instead of compensation, this was built around a psychological contract. We said: this is our commitment to you; these are your commitments to us. We’re very clear about what we’ll provide but also what we want back.”

Ivers advised other companies that it’s not necessary to come to the table offering the complete package; as long as you involve employees in the process and discover their priorities (what’s more important to your employees - private dental care or an onsite gym?) then your employees will still feel valued and engaged. They don’t expect everything at once.

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One of the key elements that Heathrow’s success has hinged on has been publicly recognising employees who go above and beyond their job descriptions and, in the past few years, more than 3,000 recognition events have taken place. These range from recognition lunches with senior management or the CEO, to one-off mass participation events like the Midnight Marathon, and the annual gala dinner event where recognition awards are handed out.

If you still have the pen and paper out, here’s another part you’re going to want to note down.

Since 2012, employee engagement has increased by 9% at Heathrow, resulting in a 9 point increase in operational performance (benchmarked against other airports), with year-on-year financial performance also improving to a similar degree.

Oh, and passenger experience has improved too. So, how’s that for a business case?

“We’re now we recognised as one of the ‘Best Companies’ to work for [30th in the UK in 2017] and we have lower colleague turnover [3%] and reduced absenteeism,” surmised Ivers.

Lessons in employee engagement from Heathrow Airport:

  1. Make it a business objective - this means C-suite support
  2. Commit to a methodology - so you can measure and improve
  3. Involve employees - get colleagues to help set their own direction
  4. Celebrate successes like crazy people!
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Matt Warnock

Written by Matt Warnock

Matt is Content Marketing Director at Speakap. He's here to help you achieve corporate greatness.