The phrase ‘employee wellbeing’ has been heard a lot in HR circles recently — with good reason. Forced closures, staff furloughs, and of course the small matter of a global pandemic have meant that managers and business owners now have more responsibility than ever to look out for the mental and physical health of their employees.

But taking care of your staff requires a lot more than just sitting down with them once a year to discuss their performance — it requires a carefully thought-out strategy, built from the ground up with the people and business it intends to protect in mind.  

We talked to Neil Barwise-Carr, Head of People & Culture at Bradford’s Tong Garden Centre — voted Employer of the Year in the Yorkshire Post’s Excellence in Business Awards —  to hear his top tips for building an award-winning employee wellbeing strategy.


Tong Garden Centre’s top tips for building an award-winning employee wellbeing strategy:

  • Outline your company’s vision, purpose, and goals, with a set of core values and behaviours for each.
  • Embed your values in everything you do, making them a part of the day-to-day.
  • Use metrics to evaluate employee wellbeing, and respond appropriately.

1. Know what you stand for as a company

More than just a ‘nice-to-have’, company values form the foundation of a company’s culture, and in many ways determine the direction in which it will grow. They influence the decisions made by management, remind their staff of what’s expected of them day to day, and provide their teams with a much-needed sense of security and belonging.  

Little surprise, then, that Tong Garden Centre’s values were the first thing on Neil Barwise-Carr’s agenda when he joined the company 18 months ago.  

“We already had our six values that were in place when I started” Neil told us via video call. “They were somewhat embedded into the business, but we decided to expand on what was already there and make them as relatable as we could.”

Listed as ‘Positive’, ‘Accountable’, ‘Respectful’, ‘Honest’, ‘Excellence’, and ‘Team’, Tong’s pre-existing values were a strong start. But without an equally strong set of behaviours underpinning them, it was difficult for the team to fully embrace them.

Determined to make Tong's values a more tangible, prevalent aspect of everyday working life, Neil approached his manager, Tong’s owner Mark Farnsworth, for clarification on what it was that he wanted to achieve with the business.

“Mark said he wanted to create a culture that was focused on our people, and what’s best for them. So I got a project team together and we looked at the values we had,” Neil said.

“We didn’t change the values that were already in place, but we started listing new underlying behaviours for each one, asking ourselves, ‘Who are we? What do we stand for?'"

Neil and his team chose the wording they used in describing these behaviours especially carefully, ensuring that they were true to the people who would be reading them.

“We wanted to make sure these values were still ‘us’,” Neil explained. “There are a lot of people here who are very proud of the fact that they come from Yorkshire and work for a Yorkshire-based business, so they wanted to get that across in our values.

“You’ll see things like ‘There is no ‘faffin’ here, just giving 100% of our effort’ in the description of one of our values," Neil said, "faffin’ being a very Yorkshire saying.”

With their values refreshed and associated behaviours in hand, Neil and his team starting putting them to work…

Image showing Togn Garden Centre's company values with icons and descriptions
Tong's values, complete with associated 'behaviours' for staff

2. Embed your values in all that you do

Even the most ambitious set of values will fail if it’s relegated to a single page in a dog-eared employee handbook. Company values are only effective if they are tangible in every element of the business. Which is precisely what Neil and his team set out to do.

Starting with employee recognition, Neil and his team invited Tong staff to actively seek out behaviours in their fellow employees that embody any of their six values.

“We have ‘You’re Great!’ postcards that our team can use to nominate someone based on one of our values;” Neil tells us. “If you see someone demonstrating one of those underlying behaviours, you can nominate that person either via post boxes that are around our centre, or online, and every month we nominate a winner for each of our six values.”

Tong's customers, too, are invited to nominate staff based on the experience they’ve received and the amount to which their behaviour represents Tong’s values which, as you might expect, are published on the company’s website for all to see.

In recognition of these behaviours, staff are awarded ‘values’ pin-badges, which they proudly wear on their lanyards, as well as receiving some retail vouchers. It’s a fun take on the typical employee feedback programme that subtly encourages staff to embrace the company’s values, and reward them for doing so — Tong’s staff enjoy receiving these tokens of appreciation, and instinctively seek out more.

The company also hosts an annual awards ceremony, where ‘values champions’ are crowned, based on achievements throughout the year.

“There was such a good vibe and feel across the businesses,” Neil says, “About 80% of the business came along — the sense of camaraderie, seeing people coming together and enjoying who they’re working with, was really nice to see.”

But it doesn’t stop there. Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, during which most Tong employees were furloughed, the company's values were keenly felt as a result of the decisions made by management.

“Right from the very start, we wanted to do as much as we could to support our team,” Neil says. “These are uncertain times and, like most people, we all rely on our income.”

"We decided from the outset that we would pay those on furlough 90%, and we’ve done that right from when we had to close back in March [2020]. We’ve topped up their wage throughout, and it’s something that we committed to doing right until the end of 2020."

Neil and his team also made a special effort to keep their staff engaged during lockdown, hosting regular Zoom quizzes, arranging online meet-ups, and, being a garden centre, inviting staff to share photos of all the things they’d been growing at home. They company even sent out £20 gift vouchers for people to spend on the children in their lives — whether their own kids, or nieces and nephews — since they weren’t able to go to school.

“We haven’t made any redundancies,” Neil adds. “We were committed from the start that we would keep everyone in employment, and we’ve been able to keep that promise."

Tong’s company values are clear to see in its actions — the way it treats its staff and goes the extra mile to keep them connected. The result is a workforce that is engaged, more motivated, and feels secure in their roles.

A birthday message for Tong Garden Centre employees with cake and balloon icons
As well as a card, Tong staff also receive free cake and a drink on their birthday

3. Listen — then respond

Of course, Neil knows that staff will only continue to be happy if they feel that they are constantly being listened to by the people who manage them. For this reason, he and his team put great emphasis on communication and constantly keep the lines of communication between staff and their managers open.

“Wellbeing is quite a broad subject, but the first thing we tried to do was understand how the team are feeling.

“When I first started, there was no measure for us to understand how people were feeling about working at Tong Garden Centre, so about a year ago we started using Net Promoter Scores, which is how we measure employee engagement.”

Ranging between −100 and +100, Net Promoter Scores allow managers to monitor everything from customer satisfaction to the happiness and engagement of their staff, helping them spot trends and use the scores as benchmarks for future improvements.

“We conducted the very first one back in December 2019, and our first result was +14, which we were quite pleased with. Anything that’s +10 to +35 is deemed a good score,” he added.

“This gave us an idea of what’s important to the team. There were comments in there like, ‘we don’t get enough breaks; we do an eight-hour shift and we get a 30-minute break,’ that came up time and time again.”

Taking this information to heart, Neil and his team decided to walk a mile in their various teams’ shoes by spending time working alongside them.

“I was down working with our Plants team the other week,” he says. “I was out there getting my hands dirty — it gives you a real opportunity to see the challenges they face day to day.”

“When you get that half-hour break during an eight-hour shift — after you’ve been on your feet for that whole time — you really do need that break. You need to sit down.”

Off the back of this, Neil and Tong’s senior management agreed their staff needed more time to rest. Today, their staff receive an extra 15 minutes’ paid break on top of their original half-hour.

“If you’re going to do these surveys,” Neil says, “you need to listen, and you need to action what people are telling you.”

“On the back of those [Net Promoter] scores, we’ve made some changes,” he continues. “We’ve put in a new hourly paid pay structure because pay was mentioned so many times — and that’s constantly evolving.

“We’ve also revamped our old appraisal system; we now just have a quarterly catch-up — our teams have an informal catchup with their manager or supervisor to just generally catch up both personally and professionally.

“The important part is sitting someone down and asking how they’re doing — put work aside and ask ‘How are things going? How are things at home? Is there anything you want to talk about?’

"We’d like to think that our managers are doing it not because it says they have to ask on the page, but because they’re genuinely interested. Yes, it’s got to ask how things are going at work, and to celebrate any successes, but it’s also a good time to sit with that individual and talk about how things have gone for them.“


Final thoughts

Tong’s approach to wellbeing and company culture might sound like hard work. And with times being as tough as they currently are, it’s understandable that some business owners might feel that they simply don’t have the luxury of being able to focus on things like values and the broader wellbeing of their staff.  

But, by the same token, it’s precisely at times like these that staff need the most care and attention.

Tong's successes here are evident — and the result of having a team that is happy, motivated, and secure in their jobs is a workforce that will provide the highest possible standards of customer service. It results in a team who feel a true sense of camaraderie and belonging, which is can be seen in their attitude to work and their commitment to their employer.

Taking good care of your staff isn’t easy; it’s a full-time job in and of itself. But doing so pays dividends — not least being voted Employer of the Year by your peers.

Big thanks to Neil Barwise-Carr for taking the time to talk to us.