Why people still matter to Canada’s Best Employers

Amid seismic economic change, happy workplaces are outpacing their rivals. It’s time to love the ‘soft’ stuff

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Nothing brings down workplace morale like boredom. Even in industries that skew a bit staid—like banking—when things get too mundane, people feel restless, uninspired and a bit bummed.

This helps explain why Meridian Credit Union has launched a battle against complacency. The organization, headquartered in St. Catharines, Ont., has introduced a series of ambitious projects specifically designed to keep the work of its 1,700-plus employees from becoming too ho-hum. One example: for more than two years, almost 200 Meridianers have been working to build a brand-new digital banking platform, scheduled to launch next year. It’s a complex, technical and high-profile job. And it turns out the employees are into it. Really into it.

“It’s been a very taxing exercise, but our team has risen to the occasion,” says Bill Maurin, president and CEO of the credit union. “One employee said, ‘Where else do you get to build something like this? It’s so rare to have this opportunity in your career.’ ” 


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When employees get evangelical about a gruelling, headache-filled project, it’s a sign there’s something good going on. And it couldn’t be more important. 

Meridian is one of 49 organizations named to Aon’s 2019 Best Employers in Canada list, which identifies enterprises that rank highly on variables such as employee engagement, progressive leadership and workplace culture. “Best Employers have a very strong and intentional focus on people, which is backed up by action and behaviour,” explains Todd Mathers, a partner in culture and engagement for North America at Aon. “That is ultimately what sets them apart from everybody else.” 

This is the kind of stuff skeptics dismiss as soft or, worse, irrelevant, as more and more workplaces embrace robotics, artificial intelligence, virtual working conditions and contingent (or “gig”) positions. Yet there’s compelling evidence to suggest that, amid this seismic shift, organizations that focus on employee well-being and engagement come out ahead. According to Gallup, publicly traded companies with high employee engagement outperform their peers by 147 per cent in earnings per share, and experience 21 per cent higher productivity than businesses whose people are uninspired. The same research also shows that turnover, employee theft, absenteeism and product defects all decline when folks are stoked. 

Why? More than ever, if people are going to spend eight or more hours per day at a job, they expect to derive personal fulfillment from it; they want to be valued for their skills and do work that has a clear purpose. When that happens, they tend to work harder, more creatively and more proactively—which is helpful to companies in periods of immense disruption. Employee happiness is, essentially, a boss’s best insurance against an uncertain future. 

At Meridian—now a Best Employer for the second consecutive year—having one of the most engaged workforces in the country has yielded more than a plaque on the wall. The company enjoyed an eight per cent growth in membership last year, a record for Canadian credit unions (which typically see annual membership rise by less than one per cent). Last year, it held $18 billion in assets under management—a 13 per cent increase from 2016. And it’s been able to maintain profitability without ever having to downsize at any of its 90 branches. Maurin attributes it all to concerted efforts to create “a positive environment to work in.” 

Still need convincing? Here are three more ways people-focused management pays off. 

Axonify. (Photograph by Christie Vuong)

Better retention

Software is the highest-churn sector in Canada, with an average annual employee turnover rate of 16.9 per cent. As Canada deepens its shift toward the knowledge economy, tech companies are constantly losing talent to intense poaching efforts and higher-paying jobs at global giants. Many consider themselves lucky to hang on to employees for more than a year. 

But Axonify doesn’t need luck. The Waterloo, Ont.-based learning software company, a Best Employer for the second year, relies instead on strategies that ensure employees feel good about where they work. For example, employees nominate peers who have gone over and above in their role to be celebrated in a weekly newsletter. That peer-on-peer praise is not just a motivation boost to the honouree; it’s a simple way of letting all employees know their opinions matter and that they’re not simply cogs in a technocratic monolith. “Our collective goal is to make people feel like they’re valued every day,” says CEO Carol Leaman. 

Thanks to strategies like this, Axonify has been able to retain 95 per cent of the employees hired during its start-up days. (The team has also doubled in size in the past two years.) “Employee expectations are much different now than they were 30 years ago, because people have a lot of choice,” says Leaman. “If you don’t make the employee feel like they’re getting something out of it, then you’re not going to keep them as long as you might otherwise.”

Employees work in the Co-operators office in Guelph, Ontario on Wednesday, October 17, 2018. The Co-operators is a co-operative insurance provider that has been named a Best Employer in Canada for 16 years running. (Photograph by Hannah Yoon)

Higher customer satisfaction

If you believe happiness is infectious, it stands to reason that satisfied employees will provide a better customer experience. “We believe an engaged team leads to happy employees, and happy employees lead to happy customers,” says Rob Wesseling, CEO of the Co-operators, an insurance provider that has been named a Best Employer in Canada for 16 years, and which boasts an average employee tenure of 11 years. “And that is just good for business.” 

For instance, it was Co-operators’ staffers who noted a growing number of customers participating in the sharing economy (like people who rent out their properties through Airbnb) were likely incurring major risks, leading the company to develop new insurance products to address the issue. “Our staff push us to be more innovative, because they care,” says Wesseling.

Customers notice. The firm, based in Guelph, Ont., consistently ranks high on J.D. Power’s surveys examining homeowner satisfaction with Canadian insurance providers. And its client base has grown by more than three times the rate of household formation in Canada over the past four years.

ATB employees Nooraisha Kassam (left) and Kapila Patel at the Client Care Center at the ATB Financial Calgary Campus on Monday October 22nd, 2018. With $51.9 billion in assets and more than 5,300 employees, ATB Financial is Alberta-based largest financial institution. (Photograph by Guillaume Nolet)

Greater resilience

“We know people don’t quit their job, they quit their leader,” says Liz Stretch, chief people officer at Alberta-based ATB Financial. “So we spend a tremendous amount of time training and giving our leaders the tools they need to be the best they can be.” 

The financial institution has an unorthodox leadership development program, which includes a visit to—of all places—a stable. Why? Horses, she says, instinctively seek out leaders. And exposure to the animals helps leaders-in-training learn to stay calm, build trust, provide guidance and pick up non-verbal cues. Sure, all these traits can be gleaned from a slideshow, but this hands-on approach gives employees unique memories, practical leadership skills and a desire to stick around. To date, more than 1,000 employees have gone through the program; ATB’s retention rate currently sits at 92 per cent.

Because of programs like this, Stretch says ATB Financial has weathered a two-year regional recession and many digital transformations in the finance industry. When leaders are engaged, it inspires and motivates their reports, and creates more productive and collaborative teams. 

It’s what Aon calls the “multiplier effect,” and it can be transformative, says Mathers: “The workplace environment may be changing, but the concept of engagement in its rawest form is still the same: you want to capture the minds and hearts of people and encourage them to do their best.”

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