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Workplace Happiness: A Conversation with Danni Rush and Angelica Malin

This podcast was recorded in November 2019 and published in January 2020, so there’s a couple of out-of-season references at the end!

There’s no one-size-fits-all strategy for workplace happiness or benefits. Different personalities require different triggers, but through years of experience and learning from others we can find the best way to find what’s right for each team or business. Through her years of working in business transformation, Danni’s seen first hand what it takes to get it right. And, as in life, it seems communication is key.

In chatting with journalist Angelica Malin for Work.Life, Danni explains that even though you might not get it right first time, you can still reach the right result with patience and by involving the right stakeholders.

Podcast Transcript

Angelica Malin: Welcome to Work Happy , the new podcast all about workplace happiness brought to you by Work.Life, with me journalist Angelica Malin. This season, we’re going on a journey to dig deep into the secrets of workplace happiness, with advice from experts, entrepreneurs and coaches in the field.

Danni Rush is Chief Customer Officer at Virgin Incentives, and Virgin Experience Days. Virgin incentives specialises in making the people you work with happy, providing memorable rewards for the staff who go above and beyond. As such, Danni plays a pivotal role in ensuring that thousands of companies across the UK maintain a happy and engaged workforce. Her experience as a business transformation expert means she has a deep understanding of what it takes to cultivate the very best company culture.

Danni, thank you so much for joining me. So, you’re Chief Customer Officer at Virgin Incentives and Virgin Experience Days – can you tell me what that job entails?

Danni Rush: It’s a new role to Virgin Experience Days and Virgin Incentives, and we’ve taken the opportunity to do something slightly different. I look after customers and their experience, our partners/suppliers and their experience, and also our team – people and the experience that they have. And we’ve structured it that way to make sure that there is a lateral view across the business, in everybody that is partnering with us or receiving one of our experiences, to make sure that we are delivering what’s important.

"I look after […] people, and the experience that they have"

AM: So on a day to day what does your working day looks like?

DR: I start my day thinking about sales, what’s going on out there – are customers still interacting with our brand and purchasing what we want them to purchase. And then I spend a majority of my time talking directly to my team, around what’s happening, how are people feeling. We’re all on one site, there’s only 90 people in our business, so you get to talk and interact with everybody every day.

I spend a lot of my time in the customer service team, listening to calls. I talk to customers quite regularly if they’ve got particular concerns or they’re interested in bespoke experiences that maybe we don’t provide that we could. And the rest of my time I spend out on-site with suppliers, talking to them about how challenging the environment is to deliver what we expect, what kind of barriers are there to our customers booking easily, having fun, advocating, repeating. So a true split of time between those three departments.

AM: What kind of skills do you think you need to do the job you do?

DR: I think you definitely have to be a people person. You have to be able to sit back and listen, in detail, to requirements and expectations and then play them back out over a number of different outcomes or inputs.

I’ve developed into this role throughout my career, I didn’t start thinking this is what job I would do. Actually, I started in customer service looking after customers’ needs and then quite quickly realised how important team and people were to delivering a great experience. And in this business that is truly linked to our partnership with our suppliers, that’s actually equally important here which isn’t the same in every business, but here those three elements [Customer, People, Partners] are very joined up.

“I quickly realised how important team and people were to delivering a great experience.”

AM: All these different parties that need to be happy and motivated, and communication between them all as well. And you’re kind of sitting at the top of all that and keeping everyone happy?

DR: We’ve really seen the benefit of that [cross-party communication], or the business has seen the benefit of that in the last 6 months. Because there wasn’t a role like mine previously so there was a little bit of disjointed or solo focus where now everybody understands the joined up picture of those three areas.

AM: From Virgin’s founder: “If you treat your staff like smart and capable adults that they are, and give them the choice to make and form decisions, you’ll cultivate an environment in which everyone can flourish.” How much do you think that that philosophy influences the work that you do?

“If you treat your staff like smart and capable adults that they are, and give them the choice to make and form decisions, you’ll cultivate an environment in which everyone can flourish.”

DR: I’m not sure that I realised it at the time, but I’ve read this quote before today, since I started working for Virgin and I think it’s something that’s actually been pretty important to my own career growth. I’ve been really lucky to work in organisations that believe in that philosophy, and have therefore taken that as an opportunity to learn and develop. And now I try to make sure that, in businesses I can influence and people that I can give opportunities to, that I take and play that back out.

Yeah, Richard Branson has a number of great sayings that we use regularly.

AM: Yeah he’s a good founder to have for that in that respect

DR: He’s definitely iconic

AM: So you’ve been working in company culture and customer service for almost 20 years, and business transformation. How much do you think company culture really matters, and then I’m also going to talk about how you’re going to create good company culture. But firstly, why do you think it matters so much?

DR: I think it matters more now than ever before, because people are more aware of it and we talk about it all the time and 20 years ago we didn’t. I think the other reason it matters is because 20 years ago there were a few people that did it, a few business that cared about culture, and now most businesses to some level do care. I think the average person in Britain that works spends 84,000 hours of their life at work, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that the culture, the environment that we work in is important.

“It shouldn’t be a surprise that the culture, the environment that we work in is important”

I think it’s especially important in businesses that are going through change, or transformation, or growing quickly. Because that’s the point where you’ve got high-pressure environments and people are required to maybe go the extra mile, and therefore the culture that’s surrounding them or the environment they’re working in becomes even more important.

AM: What does good company culture look like to you?

DR: I think I think it means a couple of different things in different businesses, I think it’s about being inclusive so everybody can be part of it. It’s a feeling that you get up in the morning and you want to go to work and understand what you’re contributing towards. I think it’s a feeling of achievement, that together as a team you are getting on and achieving something.

I also think that a good culture is really clear expectation setting, and understanding of the goal that you are going to achieve. Not all of those things are in every single business, or maybe don’t need to be, but in businesses that are changing or transformational, it’s important to have a mix of those.

“I think that a good culture is really clear expectation setting, and understanding of the goal”

AM: On the practical side of stuff that you can do to boost your company culture, what are some of the things that you’ve found that really worked? You talk about having a shared vision and experience, is there anything practically that you can do to make that happen?

DR: Absolutely. The space that you work in: at Virgin Experience Days and Virgin Incentives we have had a whole office refurb, so we used to have offices where the senior team sat and their door was shut, all behind closed doors, and now we have completely open plan, everybody’s on the floor. And the way that people feel about interacting with senior members of the team has completely changed and everybody feels that part of it’s with –

AM: Kind of breaking down that hierarchy

DR: Yeah absolutely, super important. I think the communication is a tangible change that you can really see the difference in. Just communicating a strategy is definitely not enough, regularly updating people, making sure they’re asked what’s important, what’s not. We focus heavily on co-creation, we have our team – again, it’s easier for us because we’re on one site and there’s 90 of us – but we talk all the time to the team around ‘what does good look like for you, what does it look like for you’, how do we together make this p a place that we want to be every day.

And we try to make it as personalised as possible – everything doesn’t suit every team, and we have some different mechanisms in our business. So flexible working for instance is really good for a number of teams and not so good for others, but we brought the business together cross-functionally and said ‘OK, how are we going to make this work, and what is right for us, what are we going to tolerate, what are we not, and how do we deal with the challenges’.

“We try to make it as personalised as possible – everything doesn’t suit every team”

AM: So I suppose rather than making it top down, you’re actually just listening to everyone and trying to get as much feedback as possible.

DR: Absolutely. And I think we are very clear as a leadership team that we are behind it, we support it, but we’re also very clear that we don’t always have the best idea, our idea is not maybe suitable for everybody else, so we want to make sure that we’re inclusive. And that’s a big thing, Virgin are very clear that inclusivity is important to them as a brand.

AM: Definitely. And you know that kind of feedback, are there any mechanisms that you put in place to actually get feedback from people, like surveys – how do you listen to your employees?

DR: We do a number of things actually. We do a survey, one every six months, which is lots of questions that doesn’t only ask customer engagement questions but also about the climate that we’re in and about people. We do a lot of 360 feedback that can be open or confidential on everybody as a leader in the business. We hold regular forums – so once every month for instance we’ll hold a forum, we’ll have cross-functional teams come and talk about how they feel, and every 90 days we do a pulse survey just to check on how we’re doing.

One of our big measures is around ‘have you seen change from the last feedback session we’ve had’ and that’s a metric that we continue to track, because that’s the thing that’s important to us, that we continuously making sure that we listen and then we take action.

AM: It sounds like you’re hyper-aware of whether people feel like they’re progressing, that things are changing. From what I know from my friends who work in big corporates, that’s the big frustration, that you’ll say things 100 times and nothing ever changes and that’s what people end up leaving over, it’s the small things often.

DR: I’ve worked in some big corporates, and some of them have been better than others at feedback. I think it’s harder in a big corporate to visibly show the changes quickly as it is in maybe a smaller organisation, especially when you’ve got multi-site locations, but actually it’s just about completeness and reiteration and believing in what our purpose and values are as a business.

“It’s about completeness, reiteration and believing in your purpose and values as a business”

AM: Do you think the age of ‘middle management’ has gone, this traditional structure, do you think that’s disappearing?

DR: Yes. I think there are, there will be a need for middle management (whatever that means exactly) in some organisations, but we as a business don’t feel that that is a necessity any more. We are definitely, our exec team as leaders, we challenge ourselves to make sure that we are open, we don’t need lots of hierarchy, we are hands-on in what we do. We understand the detail of our business, and therefore our teams believe that we’re in it with them, as opposed to not involved.

AM: Do you think that there’s been also a generational shift, in that middle management has disappeared but also what Millennials and Gen X want out of work has kind of changed and that’s one of the reasons that middle management has disappeared?

DR: I think it is. I think that there’s two things: the expectation from people now is very different, it’s much higher than it ever used to be – I used to work in a world where you went to work, and you did your job, and you were pretty grateful that you were getting paid, you rocked up and did what you were supposed to and now the expectation of work is much more than that.

“Now, the expectation of work is so much more”

AM: Yeah, it’s more about passion and connection and I do think that’s a generational thing, as I think that we expect more out of work, we want more and we want to feel that sense of purpose rather than loads of money or a nice present when you leave. That’s kind of changed I think.

DR: We as a business are very keen to keep on top of that – we don’t have a mission statement, we have a purpose, and we try to make that as simple as possible for everybody to understand and attach themselves to.

I think that has an impact on middle management, those roles not needing to be there, but I also think that’s driven senior leaders to be more aware, and forced them to be more involved in what people on the ground actually want and taken away some of those layers or times where you had 10 people between the CEO and your customer. Now that seems crazy, we would never have that in an organisation like ours.

AM: Yeah, you’d listen a lot more. Can you tell me a little bit about what Virgin Incentives does as a business, and what you’re trying to deliver on?

DR: Virgin Incentives is the B2B or business arm of Virgin Experience Days, and our job is to make sure that we provide our customers with really great, exciting experience days or events for their team to be able to enjoy together or for them to use to incentivise team members as reward and recognition or even customers actually, for loyalty.

“Our job is to provide customers with really great, exciting experience days”

AM: And what is the effect of those rewards, do you have any studies that you’ve done about rewards, like how much that they work to make companies happy?

DR: We’ve done tonnes of research. There’s a study by Warwick University that employee happiness increases productivity by 12%, we know that there is a growing need for people to have experiences that create memories instead of buy tangible things that might have a short-term impact positively for them. So, we’re kind of hanging onto that.

We’ve also seen the consumer trend grow quite rapidly for people to ‘experience’ things as opposed to buy ‘stuff’. And we truly believe that businesses are slightly behind the curve on this, and we’re trying to lead the charge to help people understand that this is, that businesses should follow this consumer trend.

AM: What are some of the most popular experiences that you offer?

DR: We offer a wide range, we have about 3000 experiences all of which are purchased at some point every year. Some of our most popular categories are Dining, eating out and going to high end restaurants in London, with some kind of famously-named chefs, down to visiting the Shard and then going for afternoon tea. They’re very popular. Then you’ve got your supercar driving days, they’re also super-popular and that kind of adventure category is where experience days really started. Across the industry, it would have been things like helicopter rides, or learning to fly, or supercar drive days and really the business has just expanded from there so that’s still hugely popular.

“That kind of adventure category is where experience days really started”

AM: My favourite bit of the apprentice when the winning team gets the experience day. That’s my cultural reference to experience days, they get to go do a chocolate making class or booked in for a massage.

DR: We believe that – we’ve done some work on this recently – our offering is very diverse and we like to empower our partners and customers to pick what’s right for them, and we’ll help them curate a range, if there’s more than one that they’re purchasing, or create an experience for them that’s going to be right.

We work really hard to get to know our customers, especially our corporate partners that are buying experience days from us all of the time to incentivise their team, or use for team days. And we think a combination of doing stuff as a team on an experience, but also being able to be awarded experiences you can share with your friends and family is the perfect mix.

AM: I think if you only had ones that were just to do with your colleagues and stuff like that, it’s quite nice to bring it in to your personal life a bit more.

DR: On the consumer side of our business, we’ve just launched a new campaign that’s about giving people stories to tell, and creating positive memories. And we think that doing a day, a teambuilding day, with your team or doing it with your family and friends actually, you create a story between you that you then can go on and share and relive on other occasions.

“On the consumer side of our business, we’ve just launched a new campaign that’s about giving people stories to tell”

AM: On teambuilding days, I feel like they have a slightly cringy connotation, I kind of imagine episodes of The Office where they make them do terrible exercises and stuff like that. What does a good teambuilding day look like, what should you be trying to achieve with you team building day?

DR: I can probably reference our last teambuilding day actually, the leadership team. So, we had an offsite meeting and we talked in the morning about business performance, what we were doing, we were clear on what the objective of that morning was, it was particularly short – we knew what the goal was and we quickly –

AM: Shortness, that’s key

DR: Then we left there and we, as a team, went to the War of the Worlds experience, which is a VR experience, and we did that as a team. There’s five of us in our leadership team, and we did that together and then we came out and we talked about how we felt about it, all laughing and sharing our personal views of the very scary VR process, and then we talked about how our customers would feel after experiencing that, as either a team or individually with their families, and thought about what improvements we could make to that. For us, we’re lucky that for our teambuilding days, we can experience our own experiences.

“For us, we’re lucky that for our teambuilding days, we can experience our own experiences.”

AM: Do you think that’s important, that you can put yourself in the shoes of your customer so you know what they’re experiencing?

DR: Absolutely. I think in every business that I’ve worked in that’s been a key part of the roles that I’ve had, and also a way for me to make sure that my perception of their reality is aligned. And we commit as a leadership team at Virgin Experience Days to do that, we go once a month as a team, and once a month individually with our partners or children or friends to an experience, and we will do end-to-end booking to make sure that that’s seamless – we mystery shop all of our partners and suppliers.

AM: I was going to ask how you choose them.

DR: We choose them on reputation, on quality and then on value for money, those are the three top line categories. There’s some other details that we’ll go into around availability and ease of booking, but different experiences require different levels of availability and ease of booking so those are our three main categories.

AM: If you were to give some top tips for businesses about creating happy work culture and happy employees, what are some of the main takeaways that you’ve learned throughout your career?

DR: Talk to the team, talk to people and co-create. I think it’s really important that you don’t design a scheme that you think – people work really hard on designing schemes that they think are going to land really well and they don’t, and lots of the time people ask why they haven’t landed well, and it will be because you haven’t got people involved in designing that with you.

“Talk to the team, talk to people and co-create.”

These days nobody likes to be told what they need to do, even if it is fun, so I think that’s definitely –

AM: Kind of giving them a sense of ownership over the work?

DR: Absolutely. I think transparency around what its going to look like – what your kind of work place, work day, the rules around it are. I think the days are gone where people just accept you can’t do that because someone told you to, so being honest and transparent about why we do things this way and why we can’t do it in another way, I’ve definitely found has really helped me.

AM: Kind of that communication point.

DR: I think in terms of culture, purpose, values, all of that kind of stuff, continuous reinforcement – you know you have to talk about it all the time, it has to be part of everything you do. You can’t just, it’s not a marketing strapline, it’s not a campaign, you have to be able to live and breathe it and everybody has to understand why that’s important.

“It’s not a marketing strapline, it’s not a campaign: you have to be able to live and breathe it”

AM: Also on the mental health point, I feel like the conversation around workplace happiness and mental health has become so much bigger and it’s almost shifted away from mental health being something you sort out in your own time, and actually companies have a lot more obligation/responsibility to look after the mental health of their employees. Is that something you’ve felt?

DR: Definitely. I think if you’ve been in a working environment or a senior role for a number of years you would see and feel that shift, it’s definitely there. We’re having to be more intelligent in how we fight that now. So, some examples of what we’ve done at Virgin Experience Days and Virgin Incentives are around wellness sessions. We lengthen lunch breaks for people, we make sure there are fixed breaks, we actively encourage people not to ‘work through’. Most of our team work from 8.30 til 5, we don’t have people that feel like they have to stay super late or get in super early and we as a leadership support that – we don’t sit at our desks until 7pm at night.

We have a boxing class that we run every Monday, so that people can get out and do some fitness, and we subsidise that as a business. We have regular standups: we close the phones, the emails, every part of the office down on a Monday and we have a business update so everyone’s really clear. Because I think that clear communication gets rid of some of the uncertainty in businesses especially when you’re going through change.

“Clear communication gets rid of some of the uncertainty in businesses”

We have Friday drinks once every month, we celebrate everybody’s birthday, we actively do things to socially get people together. We have a Head of HR, a head of people that we recently recruited that specialises in this kind of stuff, because we recognised that it’s really important to us that everyone has someone to go and talk to that can understand and help them through.

We have flexible working, if people feel like they need to do different hours, we have hotdesking if people don’t feel like they want to sit in a certain environment. We try to create an environment where if anybody feels pressured about a particular thing, that they’re not forced to do a particular thing.

AM: The flexible working, how does that work in practice, and do you have any advice to share on people who are thinking about bringing in flexible working into their company and are nervous about it?

DR: I’d say start simple, and ask your team what they really want. Whenever you mention flexible working in an organisation that hasn’t had it, everyone’s scared, because they’re worried ‘everyone’s going to go home at 12 o’clock on Friday, this day in the office is going to dead, what are we going to do’, and the reality is that isn’t actually what people want. So we started really simply, and said ‘OK, we’re going to have flexible working, and we’re going to contain the hours to the day’.

“I’d say start simple, and ask your team what they really want”

So our core hours are 10 to 4, and you need to work your full day but you can work it around that, so you can start at 7.30 and you can leave at 4 or you can start at 10 and leave at 6.30. And then worked our way up from there. Before we launched, we brought everybody together and said ‘this is how we think it should work’, as the start of an idea. People disagreed, and said ‘OK, I think this, what about this’, so we just openly discussed it. We again said, ‘how about if people abuse it, what are we going to we do then’, and we let the team create the consequence of abusing it, what’s going to happen if people don’t use it right. And it landed so well.

And there are some people, like our customer service team, aren’t included on the core flexible working scheme because of the hours that they need to be available to customers, and we’re working on something slightly different for them. But they fully understood because they were fully involved in the process of creating the policy.

AM: So it’s that communication throughout that makes it. What are some of the challenges that you have come across with it, do you find that some people do abuse it?

DR: No we haven’t, I think that some of the challenges are: you will get people that absolutely do it to a tee, maybe people that would have been a bit more flexible previously are now less flexible. I think there are some people it suits, some it doesn’t. I think because we have a culture that isn’t particularly demanding in terms of your work/life balance – we don’t open at weekends, we’re just Monday-Friday – actually there’s less room for abuse.

AM: It sounds like if you give people the freedom, and you give them the ownership and the agency, then they don’t take advantage and they also realise what an amazing perk it is, so it’s not something you want to jeopardise or get rid of, so you want to do your best possible job.

DR: That’s definitely my belief, is that if you are clear and ask people what they want and you explain how close you can to get that, and you communicate that in a fair in a transparent way, then it’s hard for anybody to really push back on it.

“If you are clear and ask people what they want […], and you communicate that in a fair in a transparent way, then it’s hard for anybody to push back on it”

AM: Just that kind of open dialogue with your employees.

DR: And flexible working, again it’s one of those things that years ago it was something everyone was very scared of, and people didn’t want to ask for, and now it’s a given. Most people who are taking a senior role, or any role actually, expect some form of flexibility.

AM: I think it used to be that we thought we’d have to put our lives on hold while you work, and now it’s this whole idea of integration if you’re going to have kids, you want to be able to go back to work, it doesn’t have to be one or the other and it’s taken a long time I think for companies to catch up with that integration between the two.

Do you have any top tips for stress management, anything perhaps that you do personally to help you manage your stress, to help you manage your work/life balance?

DR: It’s probably something that I’ve got better at as I’ve got older, and as my children have got older it’s definitely less stressful! But I write lots of lists, and tick things off. So, it’s quite easy, especially in a job like mine where I’ve quite a wide remit, to do lots of things and feel like you’re running in a hamster wheel and actually not feel like anything’s being achieved. So if I have an objective to achieve or project I’m working on I will detail it out for everybody that’s working on to see, and actively at the end of every week cross out what we’ve done so that everybody can go home on a Friday and think ‘yeah, actually, I know I’ve done this, this, and this this week’, and that helps me reset for a Monday morning.

I have definitely grown into empowering my team much more than I used to so that I don’t have to do every single thing myself or be so controlling over situations and that’s definitely helped me. So the boxing class on a Monday, 30% of the business actually goes, and I go too, and especially in peak trading it’s a very pressured environment for us so it’s really good, it’s really good fun to relieve stress.

“I have definitely grown into empowering my team much more”

I also think that when you go home, you should go home and shut your laptop and not look at your messages on your phone and relax, so that you can come in fresh the next morning.

AM: Not constantly checking it. I’m the worst for that, literally in bed at night just on my Gmail having a look.

DR: And I think there’s, it’s a learned trait that I’ve had to fight. My husband’s pretty good, he’s like ‘come on Danni, get off the phone’, so I’ve definitely felt the benefit of that, of thinking ‘wow, I can close my mind and do it’. And I just went on holiday: for the first time in years I felt relaxed and I read four books, that weren’t particularly challenging to read although very interesting. But just felt super relaxed, and it’s definitely beneficial, I’ve come back really fresh-minded into work.

AM: Just letting yourself have the time off, just to be refreshed. Well, Danni, thank you so much for coming to chat to me! If people would like to find out more about Virgin Incentives and Virgin Experience Days, where should they go online?

DR: Well you can just Google actually, ‘Virgin Incentives’ or ‘Virgin Experience Days’, and you will be able to see what we have to offer.

AM: Pick something nice for Christmas.

DR: Or look out for our Black Friday deals!

So what are you waiting for?
Let’s get talking!