Mr Employee Experience Finds EX is in Fashion at River Island

April 23, 201810min

Ben Whitter is known as Mr Employee Experience in business circles, and his role as a global Employee Experience (EX) leader brings him into contact with many companies keen to improve how they accommodate their most important resource – their staff.

He is the CEO and Founder of the World Employee Experience Institute, which partnered the 2018 Employee Experience Awards, and also leads CXM’s Employee Experience Masterclass.

As part of an exciting new blog series exclusive to Customer Experience Magazine, Ben is touring the headquarters of awards finalists to uncover and highlight what makes them EX pioneers. For his first blog, Ben paid a visit to the London base of high street fashion stalwarts River Island…

As ‘Mr Employee Experience’, I’m keen to get to know the EX practices of some of the best-known names in UK business today, and so I am undertaking visits to various HQs to get a feel for their methods.

‘Joy’ division

First on my hit-list was clothing giant River Island, which is this year celebrating its 30th anniversary of dressing the nation in the finest of fashion garb. Their mantra is “Spreading the Joy of Fashion”, and their success is evident – to be as stable as they are in today’s challenging retail sector is quite an achievement.

The company has ambitions to become a digital leader and has embarked on a digital transformation programme, investing heavily in the realm of online shopping. They have tripled the number of IT and digital roles and doubled the size of their innovation hub to attract the best talent. Meanwhile, the shifts within Customer Experience at River Island are now being mirrored in Employee Experience.

The company has over 12,500 employees and annual sales of over £930 million. It has reported an employee gender split of around 70:30 female, with 40 percent females in senior management roles, and a gender pay gap of 4.7 percent. In terms of perks, staff enjoy up to 50 percent off clothes, a subsidised on-site gym with various fitness classes, masseuse, restaurant, and celebrations at various points across the year.

River Island was listed among the Sunday Times Best Big Companies to Work For 2018, so it’s clear their EX approach is yielding remarkable results and recognition. A catalyst for this employee-centric focus was a change to the performance review process three years ago.

Fashionable feedback

The company binned the tired old annual performance review model and switched to regular feedback-based conversations to grow, develop, and support highly engaged performances from staff. No more tedious ratings and rankings!

Whilst having a framework, they don’t dictate when or how managers and their teams meet. Strategies such as this led them to consider the holistic ‘experience’ of work across the board. The wheels were set in motion to become an EX organisation, and that journey is continuing and evolving today.

The move to scrap performance reviews instilled a readiness to challenge the status quo and question other practices and long-held beliefs about how work should be. It was therefore no surprise when I learned that River Island is discussing a move to change the name of their HR department to ‘People Experience’. Human Resources is simply no longer a relevant term to describe what the team at River Island does.

The company as a whole has realised that long-gone are the days when the emphasis was on transactions alone. Like many other enlightened firms around the world, River Island is challenging what a HR department does, and how its members think and behave to enable success.

Welcome to the family!

Meanwhile, during my time at River Island HQ, it became clear that the firm is a ‘family’ business. As a privately-owned business, the Lewis family, of which there are three members on the board, including the CEO, Ben Lewis, have built one of the UK’s most successful high street brands.

The notion of family cropped up repeatedly during my conversations with staff. The company will experiment with ideas, hone them, and test them thoroughly before making any changes that affect the River Island family. The concept of family as a way to view and experience the workplace does not work for all organisations, but for some, it is the most effective way to develop and grow.

Keeping Employees App-y

Not for River Island knee-jerk reactions based on the latest fad or gimmick! Every move matters. Yes, there are times where disrupting practices will be necessary, but even then, employees are helping to lead the way. Co-creation internally has emerged as the primary approach to developing new experiences, and methods of doing this include use of the firm’s internal app, RIVA (River Island Virtual Academy. Internally designed and produced, one new feature within the app enables colleagues across to the business to share knowledge and skills with each other on any topic or theme. Developing internal digital capability is a trend within EX-savvy firms – companies are building from within and cementing relationships within their business.

As my visit continued, I was shown ever-more impressive attitudes to EX. A small but significant example was the team organising an ice cream van to visit in the warmer summer months. It’s a simple move, but the positive impact this will have will be dramatic.

Bigger initiatives include River Island investing in programmes that provide targeted support to staff both inside and outside of the workplace. A fine example is workshops designed on a range of wellbeing topics alongside digital content.

Community caring

This year, River Island has been added to the Government’s apprenticeship training provider register. As experts in retail, the company felt it was best placed to develop this programme – including all of its learning modules – in-house. As part of the experience, apprentices will also be able to use their new skills to support one of River Island’s charity partners, The British Red Cross, through placements at the charity’s shops. This is indicative of an EX organisation – creating experiences that relate to the brand’s identity and purpose, whilst also unlocking positive outcomes for the wider community.

Another trend in EX-focussed organisations is the development of a ‘mentoring and coaching’ community. Managers are developing the skills of coaches, which can then be utilised to full effect in performance conversations. River Island has seen an uplift in scores from their employee engagement survey (up to seven percent across several metrics) based on the quality of managers in this regard and the quality of the performance and feedback conversations that have taken place.

PRIDE in their work

Finally, I must applaud the firm on their very own PRIDE (People at River Island Delivering Excellence) Awards! Colleagues can recognise each other at any point for making a difference and delivering excellence within their work. This fantastic scheme has sent a real buzz through the business as they celebrate together.

All-in-all, it’s clear that River Island is at the vanguard of EX, just as it leads the way in high street style each and every season.

To join Ben at the CXM Employee Experience Masterclass, click here.


Ben Whitter

Ben Whitter

Ben Whitter is one of the World's leading figures within HR & Employee Experience (EX). Ben is the Founder of the World Employee Experience Institute (WEEI) and Chairman of the UK EX Awards 2018.




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