24 July 2017 by Carolyn Sharpe
Carolyn Sharpe explains Rolls-Royce’s attempt to strengthen the link between employees and the board.
Rolls-Royce is going through a major transformation and, at times of change, employee engagement is critical.
We have had some difficult times in recent years – including a number of profit warnings and entering into a deferred prosecution agreement in early 2017 with the Serious Fraud Office in the UK, the Department of Justice in the US, and the Brazilian authorities.
Since 2015, as well as simplifying the organisation and processes, a lot of work has been done to drive the right behaviour and to create a culture where all of us are encouraged to take more accountability and speak out when we see things that need to change.
In February this year, we announced we would be holding our first ‘AGM for employees’. We decided to organise this meeting to strengthen the link between employees and the board, and the initiative formed part of a wider engagement programme led by our Chairman Ian Davis and Non-Executive Director Irene Dorner, who recently took on the role of ‘board champion for employee engagement’.
Our shareholder AGM was already arranged for 4 May, so it made sense to hold the employee meeting on the same day – the board members were available and we already had a suitable venue close to our largest site. Apart from that, we started with a blank piece of paper.
First, we had to decide what we wanted to achieve by holding this meeting. We agreed our objective was for employees to gain a better understanding of the board’s role and to start a conversation that will lead to a stronger, more open and collaborative culture.
As the aim of the meeting was discussion, it made sense that most of the 90-minute meeting would be spent on a question and answer session.
Early on we recognised it would be confusing to carry on referring to an ‘AGM’ for employees. As we had established that we wanted employees to gain a better understanding about the role of the board, we kept it simple and renamed it ‘Meet the board’.
After that, our next challenge was announcing the event to all 50,000 employees, many of whom are based abroad. It would have been impractical and costly to have people travelling from overseas to attend a 90-minute meeting, but we still wanted to make the event relevant to everyone.
We thought about broadcasting live, but it would have been really disruptive in the middle of the day, particularly when many of our factory employees do not have ready access to a personal computer. People in different time zones would also have found it difficult to join in.
“The only restriction we put on questions concerned HR issues and individual matters”
We eventually settled on recording the entire event and making this available to everyone after the meeting. We sent an email to all staff inviting them to submit a question for the board and UK-based employees were invited to apply for a place at the meeting.
Communications sent to employees outside the UK were translated into five languages and non-English speakers were given help submitting questions. Posters were displayed in factories and workshop supervisors were given briefing packs so they could encourage their teams to submit questions.
This meeting was designed to be a major step towards better engagement, so it was important that everyone was clear about what to expect. The board question and answer session needed to be an open and honest conversation – the only restriction we put on questions was to remind people that the board would not be able to comment on HR issues or individual matters.
Over 20,000 UK employees were invited to apply for a place at a meeting with seating for about 350, so the fairest way to decide who got a place was via a ballot. Although drawn at random, on a no names basis, we were careful to ensure we had representation across all sites, businesses, and staff and management grades.
Rolls-Royce employees are a diverse group of people and we wanted the audience to reflect this. As well as UK employees, we worked with our travel coordinators and training teams to invite non-UK employees who were in the UK for business or training.
A number of seats were also reserved for our works council representatives, our European works council representatives, and the heads of our three employee resource groups, representing our African and Caribbean, LGBT, and female staff.
Attendees were sent a confirmation that included venue details and a data protection notification to make it clear that the meeting would be recorded.
After our AGM finished at 12.30pm we had two hours to reconfigure the venue and prepare for employees arriving. Our community investment team had set up a number of exhibits at the AGM showcasing the work they do in schools and the communities where we are based.
We left these in place for ‘Meet the board’ to allow employees the opportunity to learn more about community investment and education outreach, and also to allow them to find out how they too could get involved, either individually or with colleagues.
Each employee was given a programme and a name badge. The programme included housekeeping information about the venue and an overview of the board, including biographies.
The name badges helped our security team to see, at a glance, that each attendee had registered and also made the event a great networking opportunity for people from different businesses and sites who would ordinarily not get the chance to meet.
The meeting started with a welcome from Chairman Ian Davis, who then invited Irene Dorner to talk about her new role as board champion for employee engagement and what this would mean for employees.
After a brief update on 2016 from Chief Executive Warren East, we turned to the main focus of the meeting – an hour-long Q&A session chaired by our Company Secretary, Pamela Coles.
The session was a mix of questions from the floor and those submitted in advance. We thought people might feel a little nervous about being the first to stand up and ask a question, so we invited one of our works council representatives to start the ball rolling. We should not have worried – lots of hands went up immediately and our only problem was trying to fit in as many questions as possible.
In order to give the session some structure, the questions were grouped into themes. For example, the first question was about diversity and inclusion and after that was answered we took questions on the same subject from other people in the room and from the list of questions submitted in advance.
“Smaller numbers in each room might encourage people who feel nervous about raising a question”
The audience was not required to pre-register questions and those submitted in advance were not edited. In Rolls-Royce we are all encouraged to ‘speak up’, so it was important that employees felt able to ask any type of question, however difficult.
The quality of questions was excellent and generated a frank and lively debate covering a broad range of topics including diversity, behaviour, our strategy and future focus. The 60-minute session flew by and the Chairman committed the board to getting back to people with answers to questions they had been unable to answer on the day.
After the meeting the board joined attendees in the main reception area for coffee, offering another chance to engage with people less formally. Our Chief Executive was still chatting with a group of apprentices over an hour after the meeting ended.
Thanks to a quick turnaround by our communications team, highlights of the meeting were available on the Rolls-Royce intranet the following morning and an article about the meeting was included in our internal newsletter.
Splitting the Q&A session into different themes certainly helped when editing the highlights and we also interviewed some of the attendees immediately after the event to gather feedback.
A few days after the meeting we followed up by sending attendees a short survey to find out whether they had found the event useful and informative, and asking them if they would like to be involved in future events. The feedback we received was overwhelmingly positive and we got some helpful suggestions about how we could improve future events.
We delivered on the commitment to respond to the questions that were not answered on the day and updated the ‘Meet the board’ intranet page a couple of weeks after the meeting, which got people talking about the event again.
Although it was definitely difficult, particularly when organising the first meeting of this kind in tandem with our AGM, we are glad we did it.
One employee interviewed immediately after the meeting aptly summed it up when he said: ‘It was really helpful to have the apparent barriers broken down that can sometimes exist between the board and the people that work in the organisation. I particularly enjoyed the openness, honesty and transparency.’
We have already identified some changes that will make future meetings even better. For a start, we will allow more time for the Q&A session, which was the part everyone found most valuable. We have also thought about the format of the Q&A session.
For example, after the Chief Executive’s introduction, we could split the audience into three rooms and they would remain in place while different board members visited each room in turn. Each board member would focus on a specific theme, for example pay, strategy and finance, so questions on similar subjects could be easily grouped together.
The smaller numbers in each room might encourage people who feel nervous about raising a question in a larger room to join in. The whole point of this event is about engagement, so we want as many people as possible to feel they have been heard.
The key focus now is to build on the momentum we have generated and keep going with our employee engagement programme. We are confident we will repeat the event next year, and in the meantime we are looking at schedules to identify suitable dates and locations where we can hold similar events at Rolls-Royce sites around the world.
They might not take the same format as the first event, but what matters is that we carry on the discussion.