Virgin Trains conducts in-depth investigation into employee experience

Virgin Trains

From 2006 to 2015, Virgin Trains conducted traditional annual engagement surveys. However,  the process itself wasn’t necessarily engaging, says Den Carter, head of colleague communication and engagement. “People were really highly engaged and really passionate about what they do, but saw doing that kind of survey as a duty,” he explains. “It wasn’t an engaging process in itself.”

A key challenge when communicating with employees and gathering their insight was the diverse nature of the workforce, ranging from office-based employees to drivers spending the majority of their time in their vehicles.

Virgin Trains had previously created the Ideal Customer Experience (Ice) programme, which included going to customers’ homes, travelling with them, and getting under the surface of their experience with the brand.

Natasha Grice, executive people director, explains: “We decided that if we have that level of investment with our customers then we should absolutely take the same approach with our people.”

With the help of market research organisation Ipsos Mori, Virgin Trains developed the Amazing Client Expercience (Ace) project, which consisted of four stages over six months in 2016: at home interviews with a representative selection of 100 employees; work shadowing; group meetings with office-based employees; and ‘shaping the future’ workshops.

Sean Mills, executive director at Ipsos Mori, says: “Away from the workplace you get [employees] in a different state of mind, where they can be perhaps more reflective about their answers.”

A key goal of the project was to be able to move past seeing workers in isolation within their particular roles, and to gain a holistic understanding of their experiences and their insights. explains Grice.

The interviewers used a discussion guide, but generally allowed for an informal, employee-led approach. Those that were selected were enthusiastic, resulting in high take up and some of the interviews running for twice as long as expected, says  Lauren Plant, senior brand and research executive at Virgin Trains.

Employee insights showed four main trends that stretched across the organisation: trust, empowerment, passion and stress

Virgin Trains used these as the pillars of its new survey process, a monthly system called Vibe, which combines engagement surveying with psychometric testing. This updated system of measuring employee sentiment has been running successfully for 13 months so far.

There were also various other ways in which the organisation implemented changes based on the impressions gained through Ace. “It wasn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, says Carter. “Not everybody can have their concerns, wants and needs dealt with in exactly the same way. Empowerment of our [local and team] leaders to embrace those results and do something with them that was unique to their team was quite important.”

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Harnessing employee insights to improve engagement strategy