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Ep 445: Happiness At Work


With so much unhelpful noise around the topic of the future of work, I’m taking a deep dive into the practicalities of what is actually going on over three podcast episodes. In the previous two episodes, I spoke to authors Julia Hobsbawm and Bruce Daisley about our physical relationship with the workplace; in this episode, I want to explore happiness at work.

The John Lewis Partnership is a unique UK-based retailer jointly owned by its employees and founded on the premise of ensuring worker happiness. My guest this week is Lord Mark Price, the former UK Trade Minister who was CEO of Waitrose and Deputy Chairman of The John Lewis Partnership. Mark now works via his business WorkL to help employers increase workplace happiness using some of the lessons he learned during his time at John Lewis.

In the interview, we discuss:

• Lessons from The John Lewis Partnership

• The six core elements of happiness at work

• Why looking at averages is dangerous.

• How can employers build a happier workplace?

• Using happiness for competitive advantage in talent acquisition

• The relationship between the individual and their line manager

• Prospects for the future of the labour market

Listen to this podcast on Apple Podcasts.

Interview transcript:

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Matt Alder (Intro) (1m 4s):
Hi there. This is Matt Alder. Welcome to Episode 445 of the Recruiting Future Podcast. With so much unhelpful noise around the topic of the future of work, I’m taking a deep dive into the practicalities of what is actually going on over three podcast episodes. In the previous two episodes, I spoke to authors Julia Hobsbawm and Bruce Daisley about our physical relationship with the workplace; in this episode, I want to explore happiness at work. The John Lewis Partnership is a unique UK-based retailer jointly owned by its employees and founded on the premise of ensuring worker happiness.

Matt Alder (Intro) (1m 48s):
My guest this week is Lord Mark Price, the former UK Trade Minister who was CEO of Waitrose and Deputy Chairman of The John Lewis Partnership. Mark now works via his business WorkL to help employers increase workplace happiness using some of the lessons he learned during his time at John Lewis.

Matt Alder (2m 8s):
Hi Mark, and welcome to the podcast.

Lord Mark Price (2m 11s):
Thank you very much for inviting me. It’s a great to join you, Matt.

Matt Alder (2m 16s):
An absolute polite to have you on the show. Could you just introduce yourself and tell everyone what you do?

Lord Mark Price (2m 24s):
I’m Mark Price. I spent 34 years of my business career working for the John Lewis Partnership. Luckily, running Waitrose supermarkets and being deputy chairman. Then David Cameron asked me to join the UK government’s, UK Trade Minister just before Brexit. So I then spent two years on an airplane trying to ensure that the UK is trade deals. We’ve maintained in a post-Brexit world. And then after that, I set up a work or a business to help people have a happier time of work. And that’s been in disperse with other bits and pieces that I’ve done. I’m president and I chair the Chartered Management Institute and a range of other things.

Matt Alder (3m 7s):
Before we sort of get into workplace happiness, which is what we’re going to talk about. Tell us a little bit about your career story, cause you’ve obviously done some , some very interesting things there. How did you get to have the career that you’ve had?

Lord Mark Price (3m 22s):
I was incredibly lucky is the truth. And I worked very hard. And I had fantastic support around me. I was able to pick good people. I was blessed with a few skills. I’ve got a very good memory or used to have a very, very good memory. I was always quite courageous. I always took risks. I wasn’t afraid to do that. So yeah, a whole host of things. Probably luck and hard work are the two things. Originally, when I read archeology and ancient history in university, and I was actually going to be a Marine archeologist, there was a vessel that was discovered off the coast of it last year in Italy.

Lord Mark Price (4m 2s):
But also I was a Mad Keen Golfer. I played golf with a very low handicap. And so, I said to myself, I was either going to be a Marine archaeologist or a pro-golfer. But my dear old dad said to me, get a proper job. And so, when I applied only for two or three jobs out of university in ’82, and I joined John Lewis, because they had to ocean, sorry, two golf courses, and five ocean going yachts. And I thought this must be a good place. And then I got into the business and it’s a remarkable business. And it taught me a lot. And I just stayed they kept promoting me and I was Managing Director of the John Lewis High Wycombe, and Managing Director of John Lewis at Cheadle.

Lord Mark Price (4m 44s):
And then I moved to the Waitrose board and worked on the Waitrose board, and went to corporate. I was the strategy director, development director for the partnership. And then I went to run Waitrose for 10 years. So, it’s sort of all fell into place. I just kept my head down worked hard and the rest followed. And then amazing when David Cameron asked me to join the government, and to join the House of Lords, and I enjoyed doing that. And then, sort of in my dotage at the age of 57, I thought, “Well, what am I going to do now?” And well, I wanted to try and bring all I’ve learned through my career to life or for other people to benefit from, which is why I built WorkL then.

Matt Alder (5m 25s):
Tell us a little bit more about WorkL and what it does.

Lord Mark Price (5m 28s):
So, WorkL is based on all I learned, over my 34 years with John Lewis Partnership. The amazing thing about John Lewis Partnership, is it was set up by a guy over 100 years ago, who set out a constitution. And, in the Constitution, he said, “The Supreme Purpose of the John Lewis Partnership, should be the happiness of the people that work there.” And he had this very straightforward idea that if people are happy at work, they’ll be more engaged, they’ll stay longer, they’ll be like sick absence, training will stick more, customers will get better service, and therefore over the medium long term, you will have a more successful business because your workforce will be more committed.

Lord Mark Price (6m 11s):
So, I was very fortunate that I was able to really think about that over a long time. I was lucky enough to go to Boston and London Business School, and INSEAD, and elsewhere. And spend a lot of time reflecting on what does it really mean to be happy at work. And I don’t think it’s sort of an airy fairy or ethereal thing. I think is a very real thing, I think it can be measured. And so, I build work or to help anybody in the world. Take a very simple test to find out, how happy they are at work, how happy they are at work compared to people that look like them, their age, their gender? And then to help them improve where they’re falling short.

Lord Mark Price (6m 52s):
And it’s based on core things. It’s not some… it’s not really about having a pizza on a Friday night or beanbags in your kind of rest area. There are six things that really drive happiness in the workplace. I discovered, and other people from an academic background discovered in and they’re around reward and recognition, first and foremost, and then about information sharing, and then about impairments, about wellbeing, having a sense of pride in your job, and about career development, job satisfaction relationship with your manager. So those are the six buckets that really lead to people being happy at work.

Lord Mark Price (7m 33s):
And so, having discovered that, I wrote a book called Fairness For All, which sets out the John Lewis approach, and why those things are so important to people’s happiness and wellbeing at work? Then I built a website that anybody could visit called WorkL. And I also help companies. So, we work with lots of businesses. Everyone from Morrison’s to the Welsh and Scottish Government, and many in between, improve the happiness and engagement of their employees.

Matt Alder (8m 2s):
Happiness and wellbeing at work has been a very big topic in the last two years with everything that’s been going on with the pandemic. What do you think, obviously, sort of bearing in mind the core things that you talked about there. What does happiness at work look like in 2022, as we sort of come out of the pandemic? What is it that people want from employers? And what are employers? What are the some of the best employers focusing on?

Lord Mark Price (8m 30s):
Well, I personally, I don’t think it’s changed, Matt. So, I think that everybody wants something different. If you’re a man, in your late 40s, what you want from the workplace is very different from a young woman in their early 20s. I mean, it’s completely different. And so, I think, looking at averages is hugely dangerous. I often say if you’ve got your head in the oven and your feet in the fridge, you’re an average temperature, but you’re not in good shape. And trying to treat the whole of your workforce as one homogeneous mass is a massive mistake to make. So that’s why I built work on to try and get into the real detail of what each of those groups want, and then trying to help each of those groups with information that’s personalized.

Lord Mark Price (9m 20s):
And, you know, some people want flexible working. Some people will find it easier to work from home, more convenient to work from home and the organization probably, therefore gets more from that person. Other people don’t want that all the time. They want more structure. They want a team around them, they want to collaborate. And of course, every different industry and every different job within every different industry is different. So, I think the great danger is generalizing about, you know, is the future different to the past? I can talk about trends, but the key thing is that people want to be fairly rewarded. They want to know what’s going on in their business. They want to be properly trained. They want to think that their boss and their organization cares for their well-being, they want to feel that their boss has got their best interests at heart, they want to be left to get on with the job, once they’re trained to do it.

Lord Mark Price (10m 9s):
These things are universal. So, there are universal things about what makes people feel happy and committed at work. But then in terms of how they go about that, that work, the chair that sits on the pictures on the wall, the hours that they work, the food they consume in the dining room, all of those things are highly personal. So, I don’t think there’s anything really different now than there was before. If there is a real difference at the mind, it’s only that in the UK right now, in May 2022, the unemployment rate is 3.7%.

Lord Mark Price (10m 50s):
And in all my working life going back 40 old years, I’ve never known a figure that low. I normally, the government would regard something like four to four and a half percent as being full employment. And we’ve got more than a million jobs chasing people to do them. And so, in that sense, the employee, the person looking for a job is in a stronger position in terms of the world they want to create. So, I would say at the moment, that’s one of the biggest changes.

Matt Alder (11m 24s):
I mean, it really is a unique situation. And from a talent acquisition perspective, we’re seeing it drive all kinds of sort of change and disruption in the workforce, particularly how employers go portray themselves and think about what it is that they offer to an individual in terms of moving forward their career, and the employee experience that they have. With that in mind when you work with employers, what advice do you give them in terms of how they can build a happier workplace?

Lord Mark Price (11m 58s):
There are two things that we do really. On our worker platform, we offer 2 million jobs. And those jobs are linked to data that we’ve built up on more than 24,000 companies. And so, what we’re able to do is if you go to that site, and you say, disabled, or I’m a white woman under the age of 30, you can put that in. And what will happen is that the jobs will populate with jobs and data, based on reviews from other employees of those companies. And nobody else in the world does that. We have a DNI index. We have a whole host of things. So, the first thing we do with companies to say, “Look, let’s find the right fit people.

Lord Mark Price (12m 41s):
We’ve got all these reviews from your employees, we know what kind of individual thrives in your organization. Let’s get the fit right.” So, once you’ve got the recruitment right, then you move as you said, mass on to the retention part. What do I have to do to retain these people that I’ve developed business? And what we do is we work with organizations using the framework that I got to understand and develop during my time in the John Lewis Partnership, to get to the real heart of the things that make a difference. If there’s one golden thread, if there’s one silver bullet, it’s the relationship an individual has with their line manager. I mean, that’s critical above everything else. What we find in all of our research work is there’s almost a perfect correlation between how people will score their happiness and engagement to work, and the score, they will give to a question around, do you have a good relationship with your line manager?

Lord Mark Price (13m 35s):
So, if your listeners were to say to me, what one question would you ask to find out if somebody’s happy work? I would say, awesome, the to score out of 10, how happy they are with their relationship with their line manager? If they score 10, they’ll score 85% on our full test. If they score zero, they’ll score 24%. And it goes up in a virtually a straight line from those. But as I was saying earlier, you know, the key things are, are do you feel appropriately rewarded? Are you recognized when you do something well? Do you have the information you need to do your job? Do you understand what’s going on in the organization? Are you trusted to do your job?

Lord Mark Price (14m 16s):
Are you given what you need to do your job? Are you treated with respect? Does your employer care for your wellbeing? Do you feel anxious about work? Do you have a good relationship with your line manager? Do you feel your career is being developed? Do you have a sense of pride in your organization? Would you recommend it to friends and family? It’s those things you know that it’s not rocket science, but what I discovered over 34 years of really thinking about, what makes people happy work? It’s that. If you say we do free yoga classes, I mean, frankly, that’s no good if you’re working too many hours and don’t feel you’re being paid fairly, and you’ve not been trained to do your job.

Lord Mark Price (14m 56s):
I mean, that’s a, it’s a nice extra to have. I wouldn’t say don’t do. But it’s not cool. And if people don’t have yoga classes, but have everything else in abundance, that I can tell you, they’ll be happy. They’ll work harder, they’ll be more committed.

Matt Alder (15m 10s):
There are quite a few people who are listening to the podcast from outside of the UK who might be hearing about the John Lewis Partnership, for the first time. Everyone who’s listening in the UK, will know it, will know it very well, I’m 100% convinced. So, it’s a very unique organization. And I suppose the question I’m most interested in is, as a leader within that organization, what is it that you and your team did differently from other organizations when it came to happiness and then thinking about thinking about people?

Lord Mark Price (15m 44s):
I think it was that methodology, just thinking about the core things that create that level of happiness. The other unique thing about the John Lewis Partnership is that the shares were put into trust, and the profits at the end of every year were distributed to the partners, to the employees in the business. And so that made them feel a sense of ownership. Now, in more modern times, people have share ownership schemes. They have bonuses linked to performance, but people do different things now. So, I don’t think that part of the John Lewis model is necessarily unique. I think what’s unique is the philosophy that says, “Everybody in this business is equal.

Lord Mark Price (16m 26s):
Our goal is the happiness of everybody who works here.” It means that managers have a master servant relationship in the reverse. And so, because of that, you get a different approach to managing people. One of the things that always strikes me, is the way some people think about management as opposed to the way they would think about managing situations outside of work. So, if you can imagine going home to your partner to note and your partner said, “I booked a holiday forms.” Your first reaction will probably be wonderful. Then if your partner says, “Actually, I booked it from the 12th of June to the 24th of June.” You might think, “I don’t know, if I’m free then.” Then if they said, “And by the way, we’re going to Rome, and I booked this hotel.

Lord Mark Price (17m 11s):
And every day, I’ve got an itinerary, where we’re going to go, what we’re going to see what we’re going to eat? And we’re going to fly back on this day into this airport.” At that point, we would probably say, “I wish you to involve me in some of those decisions, even though it’s rather wonderful that you’ve done all of that.” Or if you’re going out with your friends, and one of your friends phoned up and said, “We’re all going to meet at seven o’clock and the dog and duck. And we’re going to stay there for two hours. We’re all going to drink this. And then from the dog and duck, we’re all gonna go for a curry. And I’ve ordered in advanced the curry’s that you’re all having. And then after that, we’re gonna go on to Trump’s nightclub. And we’re going to stay there until X and then we’re going to go and do Y, and we’re all going to crash out of Billy’s house.” You would probably say, “That sounds like a really nice evening, but it’s not necessarily the way I want to spend it.” But if you put that into the workplace, you find situations where a manager will say, “I’m controlling every moment of your day.

Lord Mark Price (18m 5s):
I’m telling you what to do, where to go, what to eat, when to be here, when to do there.” So, if you treat people in that way in the workplace, the response will be “Okay, fine, I’ll do what you say. But I’m going to do no more.” So, at the heart of the John Lewis Partnership, is an understanding that everybody has a stake, everybody has a responsibility, and you work together on achieving the objectives, whatever they should happen to be. Now, I think that’s great management. Great management is getting the best through from others, through coaching them, through inspiring them to want to achieve an objective. Not telling them what they should be doing every minute of every day.

Matt Alder (18m 45s):
Absolutely. I mean, that makes perfect sense. So, as we’ve been saying, very challenging times in talent acquisition, very difficult for companies to attract talent that they need, as you pointed out, very low unemployment, a million jobs going unfilled in the UK. How can employers use happiness as a competitive advantage in this type of talent market?

Lord Mark Price (19m 7s):
Well, I think for particularly for all the research we did says to younger people, they are more interested in their working environment, that it’s about career development. It’s about a working environment with a joy, and a working environment that has a sense of purpose. And so, creating those things will get you the best talent in the first instance, and then it will help you to retain that talent. Because it’s going to become more and more difficult to recruit, to retain the best talent. And we work with organizations who’ve been finding that difficult and we help them understand in which of those areas they can help improve. So, I think it’s critically important. And one of the things that we do for any individual of work or as you can go to work pool, it’s free of charge.

Lord Mark Price (19m 55s):
There’s 24,000 organizations. You can look at the organization you’re interested in working in, and employees will have ranked it. They’ll have said, “How good they offer information sharing or impairment, or career development.” And I wanted to do that because I wanted to empower the individual, I wanted to give the information, individual information to make a really good choice. Some organizations are better with some groups than others. Some are great with older workers, some are great with women, some of great people with disability. So, on top of that, what I wanted is the ability for people to go in and say, “I want a job where people like me are happy. And what we’ll do is we’ll allow you to do that free of charge.

Lord Mark Price (20m 36s):
And it will bring up all of those jobs where people are scored most highly.” I think that’s the future. I think that all of that information has only ever been held by management before now needs to be held by individuals so that they start having the power to pick. But the organizations understand that and they can improve in the areas where, at the moment, perhaps they’re scoring us well.

Matt Alder (21m 0s):
As a final question. And apologies is a bit of an impossible question. But I wanted to ask you a question about the future. We’re at such a kind of unprecedented time in terms of low unemployment rates, high vacancy rates, at the same time, the economy isn’t looking the best. What happens moving forward, particularly when it comes to the sort of labor market that we’re dealing with at the moment? Is it going to continue or things going to change? What would be your best guesses?

Lord Mark Price (21m 27s):
Well, for recruiters, I think it will be challenged for a while to come. I can’t see what’s going to change quickly. There are a million more job vacancies at the moment than there are people to fill them. Ultimately, that has to be filled either by people coming out of retirement or people who are working part time doing more hours, or opening up our borders so that we bring more people in from Europe or elsewhere in the world. I don’t think that’s going to happen tomorrow. So, I think there will be this shortage in labor. I think as a consequence in that wage increases are going to be greater than they have been for a while. And I think that employers need to put more focus on training and retaining the people that have got that becomes more of a priority.

Lord Mark Price (22m 12s):
And that’s all about treating people fairly and then about their happiness.

Matt Alder (22m 16s):
Mark, thank you very much for talking to me.

Lord Mark Price (22m 19s):
You’re welcome. That is a pleasure.

Matt Alder (22m 21s):
My thanks to Lord Price. You can subscribe to this podcast in Apple podcasts on Spotify or via your podcasting app of choice. Please also follow the show on Instagram. You can find us by searching for recruiting feature. You can search all the past episodes at On that site, you can also subscribe to the mailing list to get the inside track about everything that’s coming up on the show. Thanks very much for listening. I’ll be back next time and I hope you’ll join me.

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