Profile – John Lewis Partnership

With a core of popular and longstanding benefits, The John Lewis Partnership has a democratic structure that allows staff to have their say, giving management some frank and honest views. Staff are treated as partners, says Debbie Lovewell

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Imagine employees having a hotline straight to the top of your organisation that let them express exactly what they wanted, when they wanted to, without any fear of repercussions. I wonder how many employers would really like to hear just what staff think of them? This kind of practice, however, is exactly what the John Lewis Partnership encourages. The organisation’s democratic structure includes a plethora of employee councils and committees where staff can have their say anonymously.

Hence, all employees are known as partners and are certainly treated as such when it comes to sharing out the firm’s annual profits. Adam Brooke, manager, benefits projects, explains that the approach has some real advantages. "What it does give us is the opportunity to get honest feedback and allow partners a real say in how the business runs. We’ve got a number of different committees and councils. There are groups of non-management partners, and whatever feedback comes from it is a direct channel to the chairman. This was one of the founder’s favourite committees.

It’s anonymous so they can raise whatever they want, the minutes are produced so everyone knows what’s been raised within it, but it’s not attributed to anyone so people can freely speak their mind. We really get an idea of what non-management partners are asking for in the business and have concerns about. And that’s why we target them because we want honest views." It was such feedback that sparked the idea to redesign the Partnership’s voluntary benefits package. The organisation previously offered the scheme on a more ad hoc basis, often adding perks when given the opportunity to do so.

Brooke explains that this was largely due to each of the firm’s three benefits managers introducing and promoting benefits individually. "We came to the conclusion, having listened to our partners, that we’d become quite fragmented in our approach to our voluntary benefits, especially leisure. And I think that really extends from a number of benefits managers being in the Partnership, [and them] all coming up with very good ideas but then promoting them in different ways. And the message was actually getting lost by our partners so the appreciation of what we were offering wasn’t there." But this ad hoc approach didn’t extend to the whole of the package. While some options are brand new, others are steeped in tradition. Several of the perks introduced by Speden Lewis, founder of the John Lewis Partnership, are just as relevant for employees today. And the stories behind them all provide a fascinating glimpse into times past.

The thinking behind its 50% theatre subsidy, for example, is telling of previous social structures. "When you go back to the founder, his philosophy on ticket subsidies was that a lot of his employees were lowly paid and the society at the time was very much that [people] were either upper or lower class. [Theatre-goers tended to be] very well off, which is why he created the ticket subsidy [saying] ‘if you want to go to the theatre or opera, we’ll subsidise you, we’ll pay half of it’," explains Brooke. The subsidy has continued in exactly the same way ever since. History also surrounds the Partnership’s subsidy for degree courses and its four residential estates, which staff can stay at as paying guests. "[He believed] that if you manage to rest properly, you’ll work harder and you can play harder. He wanted to give partners the opportunity to play hard and relax when they wanted to. The average holiday back then was a day trip to Southend and what he said was that a day trip was not proper relaxation." While the structure of these benefits has an almost timeless quality, unifying the voluntary package, however, was not such an easy process. Not least because it meant removing some of its options. "Bringing everything together was one of the biggest challenges.

We had got to the stage where in some ways we had too many benefits. We’d got into the habit where suppliers would contact us and we’d put the offers on there because it was an offer. Some of the feedback we were getting was that there can be too many offers and it becomes confusing," explains Brooke. The result of amalgamating its perks was Partner Choice, John Lewis Partnership’s new voluntary benefits scheme, which was launched in March this year. But this wasn’t where the challenges ended for Brooke. Despite having numerous channels in place for employees to communicate their views, when it came to getting messages through to staff the firm’s strategy was far from ideal. "It is that issue that we’ve got problems surrounding so that’s what we’re now going to push. The way we have been communicating is fairly standard, through our internal publications, noticeboards and on our intranet. We’ve had feedback on an informal basis through our Councils and what came back was the confusion. [Staff] were getting so much information – not just about benefits – it was becoming bewildering. [They were] not really understanding what components made up their benefits package and we wanted to do something to help them out," he explains. And he is determined not to let the issue beat him.

"There’s still a long way for us to go and we’re trialling feedback on the intranet. It’s all about experimenting, we’re trying different ways to try and capture as much information as we can." With more than 63,000 employees spread over nearly 200 sites, reaching them all was always going to be tricky. This becomes even more difficult when it is considered that the majority are shop-floor workers with limited or no computer access and varying working hours. To overcome this, Brooke turned to three new methods of communication for the John Lewis Partnership. The first of these was the launch of a benefits booklet detailing each of the options included in Partner Choice. Just like the scheme, when designing the brochure Brooke felt it was vital to separate it from the rest of the firm’s benefits. "We have trialled a benefits booklet before. The first time we did it was about three years ago and I think one of the only issues we had with it was [that it gave] not a confusing message but a mixed message because there were contractual benefits in there as well as voluntary [and] leisure.

And I think partners just didn’t get the message." To further increase employee understanding of the scheme, Brooke also plans to embark on a trial roadshow with some of the firm’s benefits providers later this year. This will initially visit 20 of the Partnership’s main sites and, if successful, will roll out further next year. But it is the development of a new extranet site due to be launched in June that he is most excited about. "That really does give us a lot of scope because we can build in local offers within that as well. This has been a problem for us in the past when we say communication has been an issue.

Benefits have been on the intranet but we’re only talking about a small proportion [of staff]that have day-to-day access to it." And after all, if its employees are not happy, then rest assured the firm will hear about it. So asking them what they do want to see makes perfect sense. Just ask Brooke: "This is definitely the area that we want to move forward, particularly bearing in mind the diverse workforce that we have and really thinking much more about the profile of our partners rather than coming up with ‘this is what we think an employee will want’. It’s about asking them."

Career profile

Adam Brooke, manager, benefits projects, has been with the John Lewis Partnership for the past 11 years, after joining the company when he left school. He began his career on the shop floor as a retail management trainee before moving into human resources. Training was a significant factor behind this decision. "I always wanted to go into teaching but ended up moving into retail instead and it was a nice mix of the two." He entered his current role a year ago and is particularly proud of the voluntary benefits scheme Partner Choice.

"It’s a very exciting time for us, getting launched and then reviewing as the months go by. We’re looking at many creative ways forward for this package," he explains. The structure of John Lewis Partnership’s benefits department has added to his sense of accomplishment. Different managers are responsible for specific areas of the package so Brooke has effectively managed the change single-handedly.

John Lewis Partnership at a glance

The first John Lewis shop, selling fabrics and sewing materials, opened on Oxford Street, London, in 1864. The family acquired its second store, Peter Jones, in 1905. In 1929, having taken over the firm from his father the previous year, Speden Lewis created the first Trust Settlement, which turned it into a partnership to enable profits to be distributed among staff, hence why Speden is seen as the founder to the modern-day John Lewis Partnership.

In 1937, the John Lewis Partnership acquired a chain of 10 Waitrose shops, followed by the Selfridges Provincial Stores Group three years later, which doubled its annual turnover. Fifteen years later, Waitrose opened the first of the supermarkets for which it is now known. In 2000, the firm took a 40% stake in the Ocado food internet shopping service.

The John Lewis Partnership now operates 26 John Lewis department stores and 166 Waitrose supermarkets making it one of the UK’s largest retail businesses, employing over 63,000 staff.

Case study

Dance classes are in step with staff Rebecca Candy is an admin assistant although her title is soon to change to merchandising assistant.She has been with the John Lewis Partnership for five years and currently works for a buyer in the ready-made curtain department.

The range of benefits on offer holds a particular appeal for her, especially its range of social and sporting clubs. As well as belonging to the squash club, she also regularly takes advantage of activities organised by the head office’s social club, which are held at least once a month. The most recent of these was a salsa night, which included food and tequila shots in the £2.50 price tag. Other options have made a difference to Candy’s working life, such as the head office’s onsite occupational health department.

"I regularly suffer from a lower back problem. Usually they can fit me in on the day I phone up, so even if it’s really painful, I will still come into work because I know it’s there." She has also experienced the impact of providing employee feedback firsthand after her suggestion for discounted dance lessons was included in the firm’s new voluntary benefits scheme. "It was nice to make the suggestion and [have it] taken on-board and organised within a couple of months."

Benefits box Work-life balance policies Options include flexible working, carer’s leave, enhanced parental policies and up to six months paid leave after 25 years.

Pension Defined benefit plan for all. Employer contributions begin after five years.

Catering Subsidised dining rooms at all John Lewis and Waitrose sites. Some subsidised bars.

Social clubs Wide variety on offer covering activities such as riding, music and photography.

Healthcare Private medical insurance for senior management, 25% discount through voluntary benefits for all other staff. Dental, eye care and enhanced personal accident insurance available through voluntary scheme.

Holiday Twenty days pro rata for non-management employees and 25 days for management as standard. Extra days for length of service up to a maximum of 28 days and 30 days respectively after 15 years.