How do companies in our sector build staff loyalty? [The Pie News]

Posted May 24, 2012 by Brooke Rutherford

As the international education business grows rapidly, companies in the industry are increasingly using initiatives to keep their staff engaged, motivated and loyal – from team-building exercises and in-house training, through to staff conferences, motivational speakers and straightforward bonus schemes.

A key driver behind this is the need for staff to deliver ever higher levels of service as companies get larger, more competitive, and more professionalised – something that can be taxing without the right support. In addition, employers are using corporate motivation to incentivise, and thus retain quality staff who can grow their company – a particular challenge in an industry that creates new jobs every day.

“Staff motivation is a challenge we face no matter what is happening in the economy,” explains Michelle Bergland, executive director at Hult International Business School, a global operator which sees enrolment growth of 40% or more year over year.

“Organisations that think their good people will stay with them because of the recession are only fooling themselves – if we don’t take care of our most valuable assets, we will lose them as soon as they find a better opportunity.”

ELS, the global English language chain, is another fast-growing company, climbing from 30 language centres worldwide in 2002 to 60 today. Ward Morrow, director of academic affairs, says motivation is key to keeping staff morale up amid the flurry of change.

“Such rapid and sizable growth has created challenges hiring qualified instructors and administrators. It has also presented challenges in building and maintaining an infrastructure to support these growing numbers of students and employees,” he says. “These are ongoing challenges that ELS is working hard to meet.”

So how exactly are companies working to overcome these challenges? Many say that nurturing a positive everyday workplace culture – where employees feel satisfied and able to communicate effectively with their managers – is a vital starting point. Bergland cites the sacred weekly meetings held with all staff at the school. “Everyone attends if they are in the office, no excuses… it serves as the perfect opportunity to communicate directly, in person, the things that we value.”

Creating social opportunities, such as staff parties for employees, is also a way to raise morale and build stronger staff teams. “Over the course of a year we would have at least three management meetings with all the main UK and Ireland staff,” says Michael Quinn, UK director of ELT outfit the Centre of English Studies. “This would always involve a night over in one of the cities or towns where our schools are located. This gives us a great opportunity for us all to go out together.”

The upscale equivalent of this is the staff conference, a fixture at most large companies, which provides staff with networking opportunities and an opportunity to share best practice – not to mention enjoy lively keynote speakers who are tasked with energising the delegates. Growing company BSC in the UK recently introduced an annual conference for staff, featuring guest speakers. Rod Jones, CEO of Navitas, says that a number Navitas divisions hold annual meetings which offer a great way to “talk about the wider environment for Navitas and where we are headed.”

One such, the English Division’s annual Big Day In, brings staff from across Australia together for training, networking, guest speakers and presentations. It has been running for 18 years and is “a highlight of the year for many staff,” says Jones. Another example is ELS’ biannual meetings, the last of which welcomed 250 centre directors congregate to Princeton, New Jersey, for three days and featured a keynote address from Soichiro Fukutake, the chairman of Benesse Holdings which owns ELS.

A benefit of such gatherings is that they unite teams of staff spread across borders and time zones – an important way to show employees the bigger picture to which they belong. Global Village English Centres, for example, uses its bases across Canada and the US for motivational staff retreats and meetings.

“We have had the sales and marketing staff rent a house on the sunshine coast one hour from Vancouver to develop marketing collateral,” says company president and MD Robin Adams. “In December I met with all the directors of our schools at our school in Hawaii and this was an amazing productive place to work.”

Others use alternative methods to foster global inclusivity, such as Navitas with its Global Corporate Challenge – a 16-week health and exercise programme, in which more than 350 staff participate from around the world. “It really helped to foster a sense of inclusion and teamwork among participants, as well as some friendly competition,” says Jones.

While such measures may bring staff closer together, they do not replace tangible efforts to build skills and career prospects – key to keeping employees loyal and motivated. Many companies say incentives such a bonuses and internal promotion are important in this regard; others cite industry-specific perks, such as being given the opportunity to work in a foreign branch.

Training is also vital, simultaneously keeping staff happy while fortifying a company. Hult offers a good example with its yearly professional development training sessions, which encompass teamwork and individual development components.

CES meanwhile pays for staff to take DELTAs, workshops and other development programmes. ELS also offers many scholarships for instructors to pursue higher teaching credentials and even co-runs a degree programme which staff can access at a discount. Added to this it pays membership to TESOL for select job roles and recognises employee excellence through its Excellence in Teaching Awards.

Despite the reams of literature available on corporate motivation, it remains an inexact science, and it is hard to measure how much difference it makes to employees and employers. However, all the companies that participated in this article said that their motivation strategies were paying off.

Navitas for example, claims a high 80% of its staff feel a sense of accomplishment from their work. The Centre of English Studies meanwhile says the training it offers can prevent teachers from flitting between countries and schools – a perennial challenge in the ELT industry.

Safe to say, as international education grows and staff become evermore important assets to companies, investment in motivation will continue apace. “A person is more likely to stay with an organisation if they have a good manager who they believe is contributing to their professional development, and they are more likely to leave if they don’t feel their manager is investing in them,” Bergland surmises. “So investment is essential, whether or not we are in a growth phase.”

Original article by Dan Thomas, published at the Pie News, here.

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