Jo Harley, Managing Director at Purple Cubed chats to Virgin’s Amy Sawbridge about engagement, employer branding and all things people.
Hi Amy, great to see you! Shall we kick off with a little bit about you and your role?
I joined Virgin just over nine years ago; starting in Virgin Media as a senior strategic business partner working primarily with the product, commercial strategy, and brand and marketing teams. After four years, I moved to Virgin Management Limited (essentially the Group holding company). This role has grown over the years; however, its purpose is broadly the same – creating a consistent and progressive employer brand experience for our people. So, making sure the Virgin culture is delivering the promise that the brand makes to our employees and ensuring that we are always pushing ourselves to make work the best “second best” part of someone’s life. It should enhance and complement our people’s lives, we shouldn’t expect it to be the be-all and end-all.
You mentioned creating a progressive employer brand. Lots of people say it’s businesses like Virgin which have been their inspiration for building a great place to work. How do you keep driving the people strategy forward knowing you’re the business everybody looks up to?
Firstly, I would say, and I think it’s OK for me to say this given my role, we don’t sit back and think we’ve got it nailed. I’m mindful that there are always others that we can learn from across all sorts of different industries. I think it’s important to acknowledge that we don’t know it all and there’s always more to do.
However, the interesting thing about pushing ourselves to be progressive and creative is that we have to ensure that we don’t lose sight of who we are. Sometimes when you see new disruptive business models like Uber and Airbnb, it’s easy to think that’s innovation so we must keep up because they are doing great things. But you have to remember that’s right for them, because that’s who they are. It might not work for us. We have a really strong DNA, a really strong culture and a really strong brand and so, we must innovate from those foundations. Not throw it all out of the window because of what others are doing.
My advice to those looking at Virgin to emulate is, if there are things that we do that can inspire and act as a catalyst then that’s great, but I think the best source of that creativity and progression is thinking about what is most relevant for your own business and own culture. Otherwise you become confused as to who you are. It comes back to your purpose and how you use that as your driver to move things forward. Which is why, even in Virgin, there is no one size fits all.
So, who do you admire from a people perspective?
From a culture perspective, IDEO springs to mind. They’re a global design company who create a positive impact through design. I think they are phenomenal and doing some really cool things from a people perspective. Another business I admire from a people perspective is Next Jump. Airbnb have also been doing some great things with their employees and workspaces, and we share a similar philosophy around how you define your community and the need for true consistency between your internal and external brands.
Can you tell us a little more about this?
This point about authenticity and consistency of the brand experience is really important to me. Through creating a great brand experience for your employees, they become your brand ambassadors, and think of the power of their word of mouth. Think about them all as your marketers and sales people, as well as the people who are absolutely crucial in delivering the customer experience which hopefully keeps your customers happy and loyal. The power of this is extraordinary.
The employer side of any brand is just as impactful and relevant to the success of a business as the consumer brand. For example, the recent publicity relating to Sports Direct’s treatment of their employees had a significant commercial impact upon the business. Customers made different purchasing decisions based on how they felt about the way Sports Direct treated their people.
Businesses often think about how they can turn customers into brand advocates but, actually, they need to start far closer to home.
Where should they begin with this?
I’ll talk about Virgin here. As a company, we’re a bit allergic to anything too formal or structured, which makes our strong and consistent sense of brand and culture across our different companies all the more remarkable! However last year we decided to define our people promise to ensure we’re able to articulate it correctly. Intuitively people get it and people understand it. So, while we weren’t ‘lost’, we were missing out on the opportunity to focus on the really important elements that make employee experience unique and to amplify those messages in a more proactive and deliberate way than we had been. While there is room for local interpretation by our Virgin companies, we’re now all working behind the same framework of what employees can expect of Virgin and pushing ourselves to make sure that is felt through the employee experience.
Earlier you mentioned the changing perceptions of consumers in relation to employee experience. If we go back a few decades, people didn’t really care about how employees were treated. Why the change?
The obvious driver is the level of transparency which exists in the world now. Social media and the internet have given everyone a megaphone to talk about their experience of a brand, whether that’s as an employee, candidate, customer or ex-customer. They have a louder voice than they’ve ever had before and people are more interested in listening.
Another reason is how we view work is changing. This is mainly driven by younger generations who have different expectations of what work is and what it should give them as part of their life as a whole. So, people want to work for organisations where their values are aligned, and where they can make a positive impact on the world. It’s that interest in a business’s purpose which has driven greater awareness around how employers treat their people and why people-centricity has become such a focus.