Affinity for Business (AfB) is a Hertfordshire-based water retailer supplying clean (tap) and waste water to businesses England and Scotland, independent from the wholesaler Affinity Water Ltd (AWL) since deregulation in 2017.
When AfB started in mid-2016, we were a team of 20 and have since grown to over 90 employees, generating £70m revenues. The market is rapidly evolving and AfB’s challenge is helping customers understand their opportunities; provide excellent customer service through brilliant people; and not be the typical utility that’s too big to care.
Margins in the water retail industry are slim, so costs and efficiency are critical. As for any small business, one of our challenges is the cost of recruitment, training and retention. In a relatively flat structure, progression opportunities aren’t always obvious or frequently available.
Every role has its less attractive aspects and for example in customer contact, the work can feel repetitive and at times relentless. So how is AfB addressing this and where is the connection with mental health and wellbeing?
Small beginnings, based on personal insight
It began about 5 months into the project to set the business up from within AWL. I recognised the potential for stress to build up as we worked towards market opening in April 2017, balancing that huge goal with the considerable and growing volume of everyday work.
I decided to share my personal story of eating disorders, stress, anxiety and burnout, with a view to encouraging AfB staff to feel comfortable talking about stress and sharing tips on how they deal with it and develop resilience.
The effect was tangible. Staff were initially shocked (that level of openness is not what senior leaders do apparently!) but many rapidly gained the confidence to begin sharing experiences and tips.
It felt like a good step forward but I didn’t want it to be a one-off. We were consolidating disparate teams from across AWL as well as recruiting externally in preparation for becoming an independent business in 2017.
The nature and focus of the work everyone did was changing – AfB needed a commercial edge; a recognition that customers would have choice in the new market; and an understanding of how to operate competitively as a very small player in a market with half a dozen much larger operators.
Trial and error, learning all the time
I started exploring as widely as possible the thinking and best practice around mental health and wellbeing in the workplace, in order to build resilience.
I chose Mind training for all AfB managers, building a capability to lead teams and individuals in a different, more empathetic way. I also came across Mental Health First Aid training and we soon found 8 staff members eager to learn how to support their colleagues through listening, sign-posting and building awareness.
Every time there was a #nationaldayofsomethingrelevant we would try new things, ask for feedback about what was working, and work out how to get best value out of the money we could afford to invest.
The goal always was to enable people to be in work and do a great job. That evolved over time as we started to see a measurable impact on engagement, development and retention. We won awards. It felt good!
What next? It’s not just about the hashtag
It became increasingly apparent that there were very different responses to the various initiatives and that clearly one size couldn’t fit all. Things that sound fun to an extravert (desk massage? Team yoga?!) could be agonising to someone more introverted.
The founding principle of AfB is that we are not too big to care – our customers aren’t just numbers, and nor are staff. Individuals matter. With that in mind, I was on the look out for something more tailored, more personal. And I found it! BetterSpace.
It’s a curated directory of mental health and wellbeing resources developed and provided to a business, delivered online and funded with an equal amount to spend in every employee’s account.
It’s in its infancy at the moment and AfB is only the second organisation to trial it (Linklater’s were first). It’s ideal for us. The BetterSpace team researched our local region, focusing on Welwyn Garden City where we are based and many staff live, but also reaching out across Hertfordshire more widely.
It includes locally-based resources like exercise classes, family, social and charitable activities; online resources like mindfulness apps; and physical kit (known in AfB as ‘shiny stuff’!) like FitBits, books, sleep aids and so on. Not everything has a charge, in fact some of the best things have proved to be local amenities that people just weren’t aware of!
More than just a directory, the service is based on a wellbeing assessment questionnaire that categorises mental health into 6 focus areas: sleep; exercise; social connections; helping others; stress management; and meaningful activity.
By completing the questionnaire, staff get individually tailored recommendations from the resource directory. They can then choose how to spend their wallet and it’s completely confidential.
This addresses the introvert/extrovert conundrum and reinforces the message that AfB cares about every individual.
100% participation. Pretty impressive. I told someone about this recently and they raised an eyebrow and said “free money? Of course, everyone took you up on it!” Which is fair.
However, what we have seen is that take up was not just people spending money, in fact not everyone spent everything they were given for the trial period. Some chose to top their wallets up with their own money.
It created a buzz around the business, people shared experiences and recommendations openly, meanwhile the quiet flow of background feedback has been hugely positive.
We are finalising an end-of-trial questionnaire, to gain more concrete insight into how this worked for people, but anecdotally and instinctively is has been great. Staff have loved the sense of doing something different, and the personalisation available.
The test will be in the longer term to what extent new habits are sustained and people feel consistently healthier and more resilient. We are in planning with the BetterSpace team for subsequent phases, going beyond the initial remit and discovering together what works for a business like AfB.
In writing this piece I reflected on the 6 core standards from the Stephenson/Farmer ‘Thriving at Work’ review. To a greater or lesser extent, we have incorporated all of them over the last 2-3 years. We are also working on the enhanced standards with some success.
There’s a human case for doing this, which I believe in because it makes AfB a psychologically safe place for me to work – I don’t have to endure burnout! But there is also a business case, in that I genuinely see an engaged, resilient, supportive and loyal workforce who do a great job for our customers in a market where there is little opportunity to differentiate on the product.
Our excellent TrustPilot (4.7 star) and Glassdoor (4.9/5) scores reflect this independently, and our tight cost-base and sustainable top-line growth couldn’t happen without it. It’s exciting to anticipate what initiatives like BetterSpace can do for us and others in the future, and great to have the opportunity to share the story so far.
About the Author
Helen Gillett is Managing Director of Affinity for Business. Passionate about diversity and inclusion, and mental health and well-being – as a leader Helen believes in role modelling in an open and honest way, not least since her face hasn’t always obviously fitted the environments where she’s worked. Making Affinity for Business the kind of organisation where everyone can do their best, every day, wherever they have come from is extremely rewarding. As well as the day job, she is an independent Non-Executive Director at Orbit Housing Group, specialising in leadership, people and service.