Q: What would your advice be for those who are hesitant to adopt a people-first business culture because of concerns over a lack of immediate bottom-line results?
— Laurie McGee
A: That’s a great question, Laurie, and one that a lot of business leaders ask me. I always answer the same way: The key to success in business is people, people, people. It should go without saying that if you look after your employees, your customers — and your bottom line — will be rewarded too.
A healthy, happy workforce is a motivated workforce. And a motivated workforce with a clear purpose not only gets the job done, it also continually innovates and pushes the boundaries of what’s possible.
People are not resources; they are change-makers — so helping them to reach their highest potential naturally has a positive impact on the bottom line. If treated like the capable adults they are, your employees will make capable adult decisions that benefit your business.
At Virgin we know this from experience, having been in business since 1970. Our people are empowered to think and act freely and creatively. Most importantly, they are encouraged to be themselves, to let their personalities shine through. Spurred on by the spirit of our employees, Virgin has been fortunate enough to expand into regions all over the globe — from London and the Australian Outback to Dubai and the South African bush.
It may come as a surprise to most business leaders, but Virgin does not put the customer first. We prioritise our employees first, our customers second and our shareholders third. The formula is very simple: Happy employees equal happy customers, and happy customers equal happy shareholders. And all that makes for one happy founder!
Companies that don’t focus on the health and well-being of their employees risk losing customers over bad service. A single unhappy employee can ruin the brand experience for multiple consumers.
If you need more reasons to invest in your staff, I encourage you to check out the B Team’s 100 percent Human at Work campaign, supported by Virgin Unite. The B Team, which I co-founded and co-chair, is a not-for-profit initiative bringing together international business leaders to create better ways of doing business for people and the planet.
The aim of the campaign is to create companies that are “100 percent human at work” — to stop looking at people as resources and start looking at them as human beings. To do that, we’ve built a community of more than 150 global businesses that share our passion for driving innovative, human-centred people practices.
Our London head office, Virgin Management, is a great example of a 100 percent human workplace. The team enjoys a relaxed yet exciting work atmosphere, no dress code and innovative policies like flexible work arrangements and unlimited vacation.
The introduction in 2014 of our unlimited leave policy got the business world talking. Opinions were divided. Some people were staunchly opposed to the policy; while others couldn’t understand how it could even be implemented.
Controversial or not, we’ve kept the policy, believing that flexible work is smart work. At Virgin, we shy away from the predictable, believing that choice empowers employees to make great decisions.
This is one of the reasons why we attract such brilliant people — it’s easier to entice top talent when your business is open and flexible. Forcing people to behave in conventional ways will only backfire.
Access to flexible work arrangements encourages Virgin employees to find a better balance between their home and office lives, and as a result they are happier and more productive. Flexible working may not be the right fit for every industry, organisation or person, but we’ve done well with the policy. If you trust your people to make their own decisions, they will reward you.
Laurie, it’s in your best interest not to focus solely on maximising profits and profitability. Organisations that focus on people over the bottom line will be profitable in more ways than one. The results may not be immediate, but they will last.
It’s taken us 50 years to build Virgin into the brand and business it is today. I wish I could be around to see where we’ll be in the next half-century. Wherever we are, I know we’ll be thriving — just as long as we continue to put our people first.
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© 2017 Richard Branson (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)