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Built to last

Built to last
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First Published: Wed, Dec 17 2008. 01 15 AM IST

Updated: Fri, Dec 19 2008. 05 48 PM IST
In the fast-moving world of retail where storefronts change even faster than governments, any company in business for over a century can rightfully call itself a present-day icon. John Lewis, the UK’s leading department store chain, is one such institution. Started in 1864 on London’s Oxford Street, it has expanded to 27 department stores, a website, 198 Waitrose supermarkets and a direct services business, Greenbee.
The partnership spirit at work
The recipe for its longevity is straightforward: employee co-ownership. The business is entirely owned by its 69,000 employees, all of whom are “partners” and are allocated an equally proportionate share in annual profits. With sales of £6.8 billion (around Rs50,252 crore) , it is one of the largest co-operatives in the world. One of us spent a few months in the corporate headquarters of this unusual enterprise, and experienced the tangible effects of its unique culture.
Employee welfare = shareholder interest
John Lewis is not troubled by the fundamental principal-agency problem that plagues most private sector corporations. Its employees are its owners, and business gain is necessarily translated into employee welfare. This rare alignment of interests has a visible impact on the design of its workplace.
What they have done
At first glance, the department store’s corporate headquarters is modest: an unremarkable office building in the heart of London. Closer examination reveals the partnership’s fervent emphasis on employee well-being, and its disdain of cosmetic decoration.
• There is no expensive Italian marble flooring, contemporary art or custom-made wood furniture in sight. Rather, occupational health and safety concerns rule the planning of its spaces. Money has been spent where it matters, not where it looks best.
• The office is open-plan, and desks (rather than cabins) line the perimeters of the building, allowing access to natural light.
• Cabins are few, and allocated by necessity rather than hierarchy. Most managers sit within an arm’s length of their juniors.
• Workstations are equipped with flat-screen monitors and ergonomic monitor arms that allow them to be adjusted to suit individual needs—investments that few companies are willing to make.
• Functional teams share resources such as storage, printers and stationery.
• Meeting rooms are scattered throughout the building and can be booked online, ensuring maximum occupancy.
• An entire floor is devoted to a cafeteria, a relaxation room and a bar, all of which also serve as venues for impromptu meetings.
• Partners can consult an in-house library and improve their skills in a learning centre.
• What really impressed us were the on-site nurse and the “sick room” available to any partner who happens to be unwell. Those suffering from corns, calluses and other ailments that arise from being on one’s feet for too long can also be treated by a visiting podiatrist (at a subsidized rate).
• Needless to say, fire safety is taken seriously, with three well-used staircases as escape routes.
The customer comes second
In such a comfortable environment, isn’t there a risk of employees getting too complacent? Sure, there is a fine line separating an institution and an anachronism, and John Lewis has had periods of inertia. Today, however, its sales-per-square-foot ratio is among the highest in the UK and the brand has survived the onslaught of discount retailers such as Tesco. Shoppers are attracted by honest advice, reliable service and a comprehensive product range, especially for the home. This reputation is underpinned by informed and motivated staff, whose attrition rates are far lower than industry standards. “Partners first, followed by customers, and then profits” has been its business mantra for decades. Hard to emulate, but certainly offering some tips on maximizing well-being at work.
Aparna Piramal Raje is director, BP Ergo. Radhika Desai is a Mumbai-based interior architect. Write to us at workscapes@livemint.com
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First Published: Wed, Dec 17 2008. 01 15 AM IST
More Topics: John Lewis | UK | Greenbee | London | Oxford Street |