The best retail workplaces in Australia

employeesEvery year for the past 10 years, Great Place to Work has released a report on the 50 best workplaces in Australia across three categories: over 1,000 employees, over 100 employees and under 100 employees. The results this year may surprise you.

Of course, there are the usual suspects: tech companies with major perks, like Salesforce and Atlassian, and professional services firms with clear paths to promotion, like The BlueRock. But this year, for the first time, the top spot for over 1,000 employees went to a manufacturing firm, Mars Australia. And in the over 100 employees category, healthcare provider Stryker ranked first.

In addition, two retailers have cemented their status as leading employers, making repeat appearances on the list: Mecca Brands came second in the over 1,000 employees category and online retailer Birdsnest ranked fourth in the over 100 employees category.

Its interesting to look at the companies that take part [in the study]. It follows industries that are grappling with a shortage of labour, like manufacturing, retail, pharmaceuticals and healthcare, explains Zrinka Lovrencic, managing director of Great Place to Work Australia.

Companies that are facing those issues tend to go one of two ways. Either they ask what theyre going to do to engage their workforce and get the best people, or they say its too difficult. Its quite interesting that you have these two ends of the spectrum, she tells IRW.

Mecca and Birdsnest decidedly fall into the former group of companies that are looking for ways to engage their workforce, although Lovrencic concedes this is more the exception than the rule in retail, which has gained a reputation for being the go-to job for university students on their way to other careers.

Retailers are not creating a sense of employees being able to envision a future [career], she says. Theyre not thinking about the big picture and how much easier it would be to retain people if they didnt constantly have to go through the churn and burn of hiring training and so on.

“They know people are their biggest resource. They know that unless theyre focusing on their people, their business will suffer. This is about far more than getting an award, its a survival tactic.

As Lovrencic points out, there is a clear business case for creating a desirable workplace, since employee retention and satisfaction can have a direct impact on business performance as well as customer experience. So what can retailers learn from top performers like Mecca and Birdsnest?

Conversations with the two retailers reveal a few shared priorities: support for employees as whole people, training and opportunities to upskill and a strong and a consistent focus on company values.

Reinventing the flexible workplace

“Mecca has quite a unique aspiration as an employer, which is truly championed by its founder Jo Horgan,” explains Helena Karlinder-Östlundh, director of human resources, at Mecca, which operates cosmetic retail businesses, Mecca Cosmetica and Mecca Maxima.

“The lines between work and life outside work are so blurry now, so Mecca very much takes the approach that we employ a whole person and it’s our responsibility to engage, support and develop that person not just for work but for life more broadly,” she tells IRW.

One example of this is Mecca’s ‘Balance’ program, which aims to help employees achieve personal development goals, such as fitness, mindfulness, health living and even getting savvier about personal finances.

“This year, we are focusing on how we can really reinvent flexible working with flexible benefits where you get to choose the benefits that are most valuable to your particular situation and life stage,” Karlinder-Östlundh says.

Flexible work policies are a key trait among Australia’s best workplaces, according to Great Place to Work’s research. Over half of the companies on this year’s list offer job sharing and 94 per cent offer flexible scheduling, such as working four 10-hour days and taking Fridays off. Remarkably, 100 per cent of companies on the list let employees work from home or telecommute.

Online women’s fashion retailer Birdsnest is no exception. Based in Cooma, NSW, a country town with a population of just 6,700, Birdsnest has long offered flexible work policies as a way to keep growing despite the relatively limited local labour market.

The majority of the people who pick and pack parcels at Birdsnest work on a causal or part-time basis. And the company recently instituted a ‘night shift’, which allows people who can’t work during the day – because they are caring for young children, for instance – to put in a few hours later in the evening.

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast”

Another thing Birdsnest and Mecca have in common is their commitment to training and educating employees.

Birdsnest this year created a dedicated space in the office called Nest University, where employees can learn new skills online. Meanwhile, Mecca provides new hires with over 100 hours of paid training in the first year of employment, as well as fortnightly paid product and brand training, bi-annual development conferences and a retail management development program.

“We have a very different view of retail as a first job,” says Karlinder-Östlundh. “We truly believe that it’s a fantastic start to your career and many of our team members that join us as casuals while at university end up staying with us after they graduate, either taking on management roles within our stores or moving into our support centre in Melbourne.”

According to this year’s report, Australia’s best workplaces offer on average 84 hours of formal job training, and 88 per cent offer subsidies to encourage employees to participate in continuing education. Ninety per cent draw up individual development plans for all levels of employees.

Both Mecca and Birdsnest say their focus on continuous training is simply one of several core values they promote internally.

For instance, Birdsnest has a company manifesto called Birdsong, where each letter stands for a core value. Last year, the team started an initiative to celebrate a different value in the office each month. This month, employees will be treated to 15-minute massages and healthy food and snacks to celebrate n, which stands for nurture.  

“My joy in running this organisation comes from creating creating a workplace where people wake up and want to come in and make a contribution. They feel part of something,” says Jane Cay, founder and CEO of Birdsnest.

“Being in retail, we also understand that we are in a service business and that a happy team equals happy customers. As they say, culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

At Mecca, Karlinder-Östlundh says a focus on human connection shapes every employee interaction, from induction training to the first day at work, through to celebrating big milestones in the team’s personal lives as well as their professional careers.

“Jo herself is incredibly down-to-earth and truly values-driven, which has a big influence on our culture. We are also very particular about who we hire into the business. Culture erosion is a big risk when you grow very quickly, so we make sure that the topic of how we protect our Mecca culture is always on the agenda, especially for all our managers across our stores, our support centre and our distribution centre.”

According to Lovrencic, this is one of the key differentiators between Australias best places to work, where 89.2 per cent of employees say theyre engaged, and the rest of the workforce, where 24 per cent say they’re engaged, according to a Gallup poll.

We just assume that people can figure out how the organisation is going and how they fit into it, but organisations need to create an environment where people have a purpose when they come to work. We need to help them understand how what theyre doing on a day-to-day basis fits into the bigger picture, she says.

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