Best Employers Eastern Region – our employee engagement programme designed to help organisations in our region thrive – is a not-for-profit initiative. In 2023 we’re donating any extra funds to the East Anglian Air Ambulance (EAAA) charity. But EAAA are themselves a big part of the programme, having taken part since 2016. We’ve been talking to Sarah Atkins, their Director of People and Culture, to find out what they do to engage their people, and how the Best Employers’ engagement survey is helping them make EAAA an ‘employer of choice’.
Sarah joined EAAA in 2015, and since then has been the driving force behind their Best Employer’s participation.
What’s the current culture at EAAA?
‘As a charity, we have to create a culture where people want to be here and feel rewarded in ways other than money,’ Sarah tells us. A lot of that’s based on intangible things around openness, transparency and honesty, valuing diversity and giving people permission to be themselves. ‘It’s just a place where everyone feels they can fit in to,’ says Sarah. It’s also down to the way EAAA get and act on feedback from the people who make their organisation tick – their employees.
How are you using Best Employers to improve engagement?
‘When I joined EAAA, I was pleased to hear about their objective to become “the employer of choice”,’ Sarah tells us. ‘But they weren’t sure how to get there.’ One of the issues was the charity’s complicated staffing structure which made monitoring employee engagement difficult – frontline staff and paramedics are (mainly) seconded from the NHS, and pilots work for the helicopter provider. Support staff and, in the past few years, doctors, are the only people employed by the charity directly. EAAA want to know what all their people think, whether they’re employed directly or contracted from other organisations. But their structure means that working conditions and benefits are very different across the organisation.
So how does the Best Employers survey work in this type of staffing set-up? ‘We ask our people to tell us what they get from EAAA,’ Sarah tells us. The Best Employers’ survey is completely customisable, and it’s the free text parts (where people can write what they want) that EAAA find the most valuable. ‘Best Employers is actually one of the few things we can deliver to everyone and that they can all feel equally invested in,’ says Sarah.
What’s the participation rate and how do they encourage people to take part?
EAAA get an impressive survey participation rate of around 85%. ‘Rather than giving our people a set window to fill in the survey, we ask them to put aside a time that works for them to do it.’ The charity also brief managers to make sure they give their teams this time and are clear that they want to achieve a certain response rate – ‘I let everyone know I’m setting a target!’ says Sarah. ‘We also try to turn the survey launch into a big event too, usually at a meeting with the whole charity.’
What about the results? Well, they break them down into a report and action plan. The plan shows who’s responsible for implementing each change and how they’ll do that. ‘I want anyone who’s filled in a survey to be able to see the action plan and their contribution to it,’ Sarah says. EAAA publish a new version every eight weeks too, making tracking their progress accessible to everyone.
What changes have EAAA made as a result of Best Employers?
To answer this, Sarah took a look back at EAAA’s first set of results and compared it to the most recent. ‘One of our biggest success stories is in the area of staff development and making people aware of the training we have available,’ Sarah says. ‘We haven’t changed the amount of training we offer – it’s just that we’ve made sure people know about it.’ This has taken EAAA’s survey score in this area from 7 to 9 out of 10, which they’re really pleased about. ‘The survey helped us understand that sometimes we just need to explain things in a different way.’
The survey results have also led to a change in EAAA’s pay policy. ‘We realised that our people were struggling to understand their pay in relation to their peers’,’ Sarah says. The survey showed that some of their employees felt their salaries were out of step with the wider marketplace. Because of that EAAA have now put in place a bespoke pay policy. So, similarly to changing the way they talk about training, they haven’t actually had to change pay levels to improve their results – they’ve simply made pay levels easier to understand through better communication.
It’s had great results too. ‘We’re well aware that our employees could probably earn a lot more doing what they do somewhere else,’ says Sarah. ‘So improving engagement around pay – just by helping people understand it – is a real win for a charity like ours.’ It’s also helped them become one of only seven charities named as a top employer on The Sunday Times ‘Best Places to Work’ 2023 list. And Sarah acknowledges that Best Employers played a big part in getting them that accolade. ‘We wouldn’t have won that award without first learning more about our people with the Best Employers’ survey,’ she says.
Sarah’s also a fan of the networking opportunities that Best Employers brings. ‘Best Employers is about improving engagement, collaboration and community. It sets you up to learn from peers in our region and work together. And I think there’s something really special about that.’ Sarah’s also learned lots of things from other organisations she’s met through this network. ‘The east of England is a small place, and people talk. So if you’re really serious about improving staff engagement, increasing your network through Best Employers is a great place to start.’
So have EAAA achieved their aim to become ‘the employer of choice’?
‘When I joined EAAA we were incredibly well known as a brand. But we didn’t have a brilliant reputation as an employer,’ Sarah tells us. ‘Best Employers has helped us understand our position in the market, make improvements and celebrate the things we’re good at.’ It’s working too, something which we have personal experience of – just recently someone rang our office asking if we had any jobs at EAAA as they really wanted to work there. ‘The recruitment market is incredibly difficult at the moment,’ says Sarah. ‘This tells us how important it is to show your organisation is really interested in engagement.’
Does Sarah have any advice for organisations who are undecided about taking part in Best Employers?
‘I can’t think of any good reason why you wouldn’t,’ she says. ‘If you want to improve your employee experience, this is the best way to do it.’
Ready to get started?
Head to the Best Employer’s website to find out more about it and sign up.