Our culture: building the UK's best place to work

Simply Business has been named the UK’s Best Company To Work For in the Sunday Times annual rankings – not once, but twice. We topped the poll the last two times we entered, winning in both 2015 and 2016.

Being recognised as the best place to work in the UK is hugely important to us. There’s a couple of key reasons for that. First, we believe that the people we work with everyday deserve to have the best working environment possible – they are the driving force behind our company, and we want to make sure they have a genuinely great experience.

But just as importantly, building a truly world-class company culture is a sensible business decision, not only for us but also for the hundreds of thousands of small businesses and landlords that we insure.

Happiness and productivity at work are closely linked. Making sure that Simply Business is an inspiring, rewarding, enjoyable place to work is a crucial part of our commitment to delivering the best possible support for the small businesses that form the backbone of the UK economy.

We’re a growing business, but a focus on company culture isn’t reserved just for larger companies – it’s the bedrock for successful businesses of every size. Whether you’re a brand new firm, taking on your first employees, or in the middle of a period of expansion, paying attention to the culture of your organisation will be a crucial factor in your success.

More and more businesses are coming to realise the importance of company culture – but, sadly, many still treat it simply as a buzzword, or as a box to tick. In order to succeed, culture has to be not only clearly defined but also actioned and developed through concrete, real-life measures.

Values are the starting point – what counts is how you make those values meaningful.

We want every business in Britain to enjoy a great company culture. In that spirit, I’d like to share our own values, the principles that underpin them, and the practical ways they manifest in our organisation.

My hope is that these will be a useful reference for your own business, and will help you to develop your own, unique company culture.

What are Simply Business’s values?

Everything we do at Simply Business is based on our core values: learning, empowerment, authenticity, pioneering, and simplicity. We decided on these values collectively, seeking input from everyone we work with. Equally, we hold ourselves accountable to them on a daily basis, and run a company-wide values day every six months to make sure we’re still on track.

But values only become meaningful when they’re put into practice. So, we bring our values to life through five core ‘people’ principles:

  • Smart working
  • Equal opportunities
  • Opportunities to grow
  • Work is life
  • Giving back

Let’s have a look at how these principles are enacted in practice.

1. Empower smart working

The days of presenteeism are dying. The most successful companies aren’t those who insist on employees being at their desks from 9 to 5 every day. Rather, they’re the ones that trust their people to make their own decisions about where and how they work best, and that facilitate this to the best of their abilities.

Remote working is easier than it’s ever been. With a set of tools as simple as Google Hangouts, Slack, and Zoom, you can enable your people to work where they’re most productive. Simply Business even provides WiFi telephony and headsets to contact centre staff to enable them to take calls when they’re not physically at their desk.

It can be a good idea to build some guidelines for remote working in order to make sure it runs smoothly. For example, you might ask employees to give some notice when they plan to work remotely, or require them to attend specific meetings in person.

You could also think about flexible working for employees who are in the office. In both our brand new London office and our refurbished Northampton contact centre we’ve installed workshop areas, hot-desking facilities, and spaces designed for collaboration. In addition, our office in Boston, USA is full of tools to enable both smart working and collaboration across a global business.

2. Go all in on equal opportunities

Employers’ responsibility to provide equal opportunities is written into law. However, a great company culture should go even further on this point, embedding it into their core values.

There are a few ways you could start to think about this. There are many pledges and groups that you can sign up to in order to demonstrate your practical support for equal opportunities. There might well be such a body operating specifically in your industry. It’s also important to talk to your staff about this topic, and ask their opinions on how you can make the workplace more open and diverse.

Again, practical action is key here. For example, if your business is male-dominated, you could take steps to install more women in management positions by a specific date. At Simply Business more than a third of our management team are women, and we’ve signed up to the government-backed Women In Finance Charter to guarantee that we will maintain or improve this by 2020.

3. Build in opportunities for growth

Career development will be a key motivator for many of your employees, and you should make sure that you’re facilitating this.

Regardless of the size of your company, think about ways you can encourage progression. This might include offering training programmes, skill share schemes, secondments, and broader leadership programmes. You can either run these in-house, or you might choose to find external experts to bring new skills to your staff. At Simply Business we’ve run skills-boosting workshops (we call them ‘Level Ups’) on topics from grammar to SEO, and blockchain technology to music production. We’ve also arranged ‘hackathons’ in both London and Northampton, in which we explore potential new technologies in insurance and beyond.

Career development is really important for staff retention and motivation. We’ve seen the impact that these schemes can have first hand: for example, many key members of our product and marketing team started off as contact centre consultants, and moved across the organisation through secondment programmes.

4. Think carefully about work-life balance

Our Group CEO, Jason Stockwood, firmly believes that work shouldn’t be siloed away from the rest of your life, and that it should never turn into a chore or simply a necessity. This principle has filtered through the entire business.

To turn this ideal into a reality, we’ve taken extensive steps to turn our offices into places not only to work, but also to discover hobbies, share interests, and socialise in an informal way. Those steps include the introduction of morning yoga classes and mindfulness sessions, film screenings, and even cheese and wine nights. Don’t forget flexible workers though – try to make sure that these events are also accessible to people who aren’t physically in the office.

5. Give something back

The best businesses are those that are firmly embedded in their communities, whether that’s on a local or global scale. Giving something back to those communities can take many forms, including forging partnerships with local charities and providing staff with time off to fundraise or volunteer.

You can also get creative with your charitable activities. In addition to schemes like payroll giving, ask employees what they would like to do in support of your chosen charity partners.

We’ve had particular success with large-scale, company-wide challenges – later this year, for example, nine of our employees are trekking across Costa Rica, to raise funds for charity partner, Whizz-Kidz. We’ve hit our three-year fundraising goal of £150,000 six months early and have plenty of plans to support even more great projects.

What next?

A great company culture isn’t something that you arrive at and then forget about. It needs to be tended to: monitored, reflected on, and continuously improved.

Communication is the key part of this process. You should be developing communication channels of various different forms between employees and upper management – some formal, some informal. Speaking up and speaking out should be actively encouraged, and this is often facilitated by a flat, non-hierarchical organisational approach. Crucially, though, you need not only to listen, but also to act. Take the feedback you’ve received, consider it fully, and then develop plans for improvement based on what you’ve learned.

These points are meant as a guide. They’re working for Simply Business, but we’re constantly tweaking and reshaping them.

Company culture is unique: it should grow from the genuine values that you find in your organisation. If you’re honest, and if you encourage and facilitate honest input from your employees, you’ll be off to a great start.

Joanna Carlin is Head of Talent and Resourcing at Simply Business.

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