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Case study: how NGN’s employee engagement rocketed

NGN's award-winning employee engagement secrets

October 13, 2015

Employee engagement is sky rocketing at Northern Gas Networks (NGN).

But the sky is clearly not the limit.

When a survey revealed that employee engagement at NGN had hit rock bottom at 53 per cent in 2012, it was clear that their rigid engagement workshops were not working and were disengaging colleagues in some cases.

With departments operating in silos, and a mixed demographic workforce with different approaches, aspirations and engagement needs, instigating change across the whole workforce was their biggest challenge.

Ofgem had reported poor customer satisfaction scores and in 2011/12 the company ranked last in the league table of eight UK gas distribution network operators.

When CEO Mark Horsley joined NGN in January 2011, he made the connection between customer satisfaction and employee survey feedback which showed that people felt they couldn’t make a difference.

Today, thanks to Mark’s pro-colleague engagement approach and the company’s relentless focus on customer experience, their story is now one of engaged colleagues and happy customers.

NGN has won numerous customer service awards in the last 12 months, including the Customer Focus Award at the National Business Awards and three UK Employee Experience Awards.

Northern Gas Networks celebrate another award.
Northern Gas Networks celebrate another award.

“I set a simple objective – to be the best,” said Mark, talking to Engage for Success, the Government-sponsored industry-led movement behind THE EVIDENCE report in 2012 and the new THE EVIDENCE UPDATE REPORT in September 2015.

“We needed to be number one within the sector.

“Then, I wanted us to really challenge ourselves and say ‘how do we compare against John Lewis, Amazon?’

Mark Horsley
Mark Horsley

“The key word was ‘best’ and by keeping it simple I knew hearts and minds would go with it.

“What struck me with the organisation was that there were some great people in it.

“I think there were some frustrated people.

“But all you needed to do was light that torch and it would go.

“We now put our customers and colleagues at the heart of everything we do, and that’s started to transform the business into something quite wonderful.”

So what did NGN do to instigate a culture change and improve engagement and customer satisfaction?

Mark and his team developed an approach that would empower and involve colleagues to find their own solutions to problems facing the business. Employee engagement and customer service became everyone’s responsibility.

They focused on adult-to-adult conversations, involvement and transformational leadership, to inject energy into the business.

NGN began rewarding innovation; giving their people a voice through a range of structured and unstructured channels, including the Colleague Involvement Group; offering exciting training and development opportunities through the Academy, promoting local entrepreneurship; introducing flexible terms and conditions; and improving the experience for new colleagues by introducing a four-day induction event known as ‘Welcome’.

The majority of colleagues were motivated by the changes.

Susan Wareham, HR Director, said: “None of it is forced – people volunteer to get involved when they want to.

“Colleagues have generally been free to develop and implement their own solutions to business issues and this has delivered tangible results.

“Implementation is supported by a raft of flexible communications channels. These are ever evolving.

“And the CEO and senior management make more time; allowing them to reflect on future direction and engage with employees.”

Absence and staff turnover have reduced, more colleagues than ever before are being promoted and seconded and the silo mentality has disappeared.

“NGN has become a company where boundary-pushing ideas that demonstrate efficiency and smart commercial thinking are becoming second nature,” said Susan.

The improvements won’t stop here; NGN believes there’s still a long way to go.

Improved measurement is on the agenda to help NGN better understand the impact of its initiatives; its colleague volunteering scheme will be ramped up; colleague and customer communication are being reviewed; and a new employee recognition scheme is being considered.

“We’re pleased but not satisfied,” Mark said.

“We’re at the start of the journey and can do loads more.

“We are moving voluntarily to a European set of customer standards for regulated utilities. We’re also setting up a charitable programme to support the communities where we work; that’s as important for me as the customer experience.”

Susan Wareham
Susan Wareham

Susan Wareham, HR Director: Employee engagement tips

• Empowering your employees doesn’t come without risk. We accept that not everyone will get it right first time and all learn from each other’s mistakes.
• Be patient. It doesn’t happen overnight.
• Winning hearts and minds is vital – you must be honest, open and authentic.
• Colleagues need to understand why it’s necessary and what part they can play.
• There will be challenges – slow adopters and blockers.
• You must be sure that the leadership is on board with the business ambition and approach – it might mean making some difficult decisions.