With sick leave costing UK firms £29bn, according to recent estimates, it is easy to see how encouraging staff though sport is healthy for business.
That is the attitude at retail sports giant Decathlon UK. The company, which has 20 stores in the UK and its head office in London, supports the health and wellbeing of its staff as part of its service culture approach.
For Decathlon, employee satisfaction is as important as customer satisfaction. “Service culture means seeking to treat staff the same way you treat customers,” explains John Butcher, corporate manager, business solutions.
Decathlon opened its original store near Lille, France, in 1976, before bringing its brand to the UK in 1999 with its first outlet in Surrey Quays, south east London. The company has 300 shops in its native France, 166 in China and 39 in Russia; globally, there are over 1,030 Decathlon stores.
The benefits to companies of sport-related employee engagement
With 1,000 employees and a double digit growth in revenues in the UK, supporting employee’s motivation and wellbeing is crucial, says: “The benefits to engaging your staff through sport include positive impacts on physical health, mental wellbeing and financial health.”
He adds: “For the employee, improved physical fitness means less risk of injury, while the employer benefits from improved employee engagement and reduced absenteeism.” John says mental health-related rewards include a reduction in stress levels and, because a healthier workforce means a lower turnover rate, there are financial benefits for the company too.
John suggests some simple steps to engage staff, such as nominating a workplace health and wellbeing champion who can promote, grow and co-ordinate sporting events. He also says employers might launch a “midday mile” lunch break challenge or encourage staff to organise swimming or walking groups during breaks or free time. “You can also reward outstanding performance, whether it be employee of the week, month of even year, and you can offer sport-related awards or incentives,” he adds.
Responsibility and freedom in service culture
The company’s service culture is built on central tenets of freedom and responsibility. This means allowing those closest to the customers to have as much decision-making responsibility as possible.
John illustrates this approach with an example of a recent interaction he had with a customer. A woman who had ordered a Decathlon gift voucher had complained about what she perceived as a delay in being sent out. The fact that John telephoned her direct – when she was probably anticipating a “holding email” from a call centre customer service team – did much to appease her. He adds that offering her a money off voucher as a gesture of goodwill means that she is likely to make a repeat purchase and think favourably of the brand.
“You can imagine that in some companies, such a complaint would get stuck in an outsourced call centre, with the company bottom line being to protect the brand and not admit fault,” says John. “But we want to develop our relationships with customers, we try to think in that we’re business for the long term and that means feeling able to take the initiative with customers.”
To underline Decathlon’s business and management philosophy, John refers to a book called The Carpenter, by American author Jon Gordon. Decathlon chief executive Michel Aballea is a fan of the book, which emphasises the importance of service and caring when it comes to creating successful strategies. John says the book’s message of “treating every job as if it’s a work of art” reflects the Decathlon approach and focus on individuals and individual service-related interactions.
What is also vital when creating a strong service culture, adds John, is deconstructing traditional management hierarchies to ensure staff are “customer facing” – so they have an operational as well as a functional role. To take one simple example, not only does the company’s head of digital have a duty to support the activities of the stores, he also has a role across the company to help grow of the online business.
There is also a strong focus on training employees and developing their skills. Regular training and events allow our colleagues, throughout their careers, to develop both their “employability” and their ability to take on new responsibilities.
Aligning employees’ personal interests with their work specialisms
Professional progress is aligned to staff’s abilities and passions. As the Decathlon UK website clearly states, the company is “a team with a passion for sport, who contribute every day to the satisfaction of our customers and are our company’s greatest asset.”
Crucially, says John, “we allow people to work in their area of their passion”. This means, for example, that if someone is into a particular sport, then right from the start, Decathlon UK will try to place them in an area that reflects this personal interest. John adds: “How great it is to be able to fuse your personal passion with your working life?”
So what kind of people does Decathlon recruit? “We look for someone entrepreneurial, someone who can take the initiative,” says John.
Reflecting the company-wide focus on innovation internationally, every year the firm holds its innovation awards, where employees, customers and partners see a range of fresh products and, as “actively champion the spirit of innovation that drives us all every day”. Last year, the winner voted by customers and employees, was a cleverly-designed bottle designed that enables users to click a dial and swap from water to an isotonic drink, or to mix the two.
“You need to have people who understand where it’s worthwhile to invest their time; they must be able to think independently,” explains John. He adds: “We like to recruit those have capacity and will to set their own goals.”
Key messages from Decathlon UK
- service culture means treating staff in the same way you treat customers
- participative management encourages employees to lead their own activity
- service culture watchwords include vitality, responsibility, freedom and innovation