How to Make 85,000 People Happy, According to John Lewis

In: BlogDate: Oct 16, 2020By: Billy Burgess

Keeping 85,000 people happy at work is an imposing task. After experimenting with how to make people happy for 100 years, John Lewis has learnt that not everyone finds happiness in the same places. Sarah Gillard discovered how to navigate this challenge in her role as the Director, Insight and Assurance within the Personnel function at the employee-owned John Lewis Partnership.

In this two-minute video from the 2018 Happy Workplaces conference, Sarah offers three tips derived from the company’s decades of experimentation.

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How to Make 85,000 People Happy, According to John Lewis

The first thing that we've learnt is really that people enjoy different things. I think the people who joined our Ukulele Orchestra they were surprised, and their audience was surprised, at just how enjoyable it was for them to play, and for people to hear them play. But this is a really fun part of our Head Office environment now, the Ukulele Orchestra.

These are people running in a fun run. But what I think we really recognise is that with 85000 people there is definitely no ‘one size fits all’ in what's going to make those people happy, so experiment. I think the message is: ‘Get the hygiene right and then really focus on community and experience’ because, in our experience, that is what makes people happy.

Secondly, even though we've spent a century trying to work out how to make people happy we definitely don't score 100% on all our employment engagement surveys, although of course that's always the aim. I think though the important thing is to aim for 100% and realise that you're never actually going to achieve it. And embrace the dissatisfaction. Part of what makes us human is being dissatisfied – that’s what makes us strive to be better – and really finding out what's at the source of that dissatisfaction is probably going to help you improve the experience for everybody, even people who think they're already as happy as they can possibly be.

And finally, one of the things that we've worked out is that a lot of the good stuff is free: saying ‘thank you’ is free, having your manager recognise that you've done something really well is free, having people around you know that you're caring for aging parents, or that you're about to get married, or that you’ve had a birthday, or that your child is about to start a new school, these are the things that actually make people feel happy, and feel part of a community. And a lot of things like singing clubs or running clubs or exercise clubs these are free to setup and free to do right now; and it doesn't take Brownsea Castle on Brownsea Island, an amazing hotel, to make people actually happy, feeling part of community is what makes people actually feel happy at work and not just a cog in a machine, And that's probably the most important thing we've learnt over a century of experimenting in how to make 85000 people as happy as they can be. 

Sarah's first tip is to embrace the differences.

“People enjoy different things,” she says. “I think the message is: Get the hygiene right and then really focus on community and experience, because in our experience that is what makes people happy.”

Sarah’s second tip is to embrace the dissatisfaction, counter-intuitive as that might seem.

“Part of what makes us human is being dissatisfied. That’s what makes us strive to be better and really finding out what's at the source of that dissatisfaction is probably going to help you improve the experience for everybody, even people who think they're already as happy as they can possibly be.”

The third tip is to recognise the amount of enriching things that are cost free.

“Saying 'thank you' is free. Having your manager recognise that you've done something really well is free. Having people around you know that you're caring for ageing parents or that you're about to get married or that you’ve had a birthday or that your child is about to start a new school – these are the things that actually make people feel happy and feel part of a community.”

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About Sarah Gillard

Sarah has been at John Lewis for a decade, moving into her current position as Mission Director at John Lewis Partnership in early 2020. Sarah is responsible for creating new revenue streams for the John Lewis Partnership and working with Strategy, Research and Innovation teams.

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This year's conference took place on 30th July via Zoom. We were delighted to welcome James Shaw, a minister in the New Zealand government on putting wellbeing at the heart of policy and Ynzo van Zanten of Tony's Chocolonely on creating a culture of happiness to achieve an important mission (ending slavery in the chocolate industry).

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