Emperor – Employee-powered for a sustainable future

On 22nd January 2020, Emperor became an employee-owned company. Less than two months later, we locked down as the UK grappled with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. It wasn’t the start to employee ownership life anyone expected, but in the face of adversity the move helped focus our priorities and support the business during a turbulent time.

Founded in 1996, Emperor is a strategic creative communications company, specialising in corporate reporting, brand, employee engagement and sustainability across a range of channels. From two men and an Apple Mac, we now have more than 220 partners – across five creative hubs in the UK and Dubai.

Becoming employee-owned fulfilled a long-standing ambition of the founders, with the idea to drive growth for the business, as well as provide long-term strategic clarity for our partners and help to attract and retain the best talent. Our partners have always had an important voice and role to play in our future, so becoming employee owned has been a very natural transition rather than a radical redefinition of who and what Emperor is. The move protects our community, ethos and culture; and supports our partners while we work to deliver our own responsible business ambitions.


Stronger governance and accountability

Absolutely central to this was setting up our Employee Board. The initial team was chosen from the employees to represent a wide range of experiences, tenures, departments and geographies, with future members elected to the position. The Employee Board is an important addition to our governance structure, acting as an ear to the employee voice and bringing that to the Executive Committee, as well acting as an important part of the accountability checks on leadership. The Employee Board is represented both on the Executive Committee and on the full Emperor Board.

Although the role was always going to be important to the company, the extreme circumstances of lockdown further reinforced the value that the Employee Board could add. While it made finding our feet harder than expected, we have had a huge amount of engagement and work to deliver in the first 12 months, listening to employees and passing on their views, in particular, around future working plans, such as blended and hybrid working, in part driven by the impact of lockdown, and move to our new Warwick creative hub.


Guiding decision making

As the business rallied against the impact of the pandemic, with an unsurprising reduction in revenue early in 2020, our new status as employee owned supported the company and helped offer clarity in our decision making. Although we have always endeavoured to do what is right by our people, our new distinction reiterated stronger than ever that our employees come first. This sentiment was found in every decision made during a period of extreme and rapid adaptation, in order to continue to remotely deliver our high-level of services to our clients.

Many of these decisions were about investing for the future but all of them had our  employees and the Emperor community at their heart; including an initial commitment to avoid redundancies wherever possible, as well as offering greater support for lower earners in really tough decisions such as short-term company-wide pay cuts and our use of the government’s job retention scheme.

While many of these were extremely difficult choices, they – combined with the dedication and hard-work of our partners – have left the business in a secure position during a tumultuous time and we are looking to share that success with our partners this year.


Value-driven and committed to our Pledges

Employee ownership also further embedded our values into the heart of the business. These were relaunched shortly after we became employee owned and before lockdown, but in the new environment took on even greater responsibility. These five values – Aim high; Creativity everywhere; Infectious enthusiasm; Always learning; and Razor sharp – are the principles that underpin our purpose, and we continually use them as touchpoints for our new initiatives and weave them throughout our communications.

Although undoubtedly a difficult period, having these foundations to support the business was incredibly beneficial and they proved their worth.

This is further supported by our 12 people, societal and environmental Pledges – an important part of our strategic framework and a visible and integral part of our culture. Launched in 2017, each pledge has a senior sponsor and team of ambassadors driving action and engagement coordinated by the Pledge Leadership Team.

A number of our people-focused Pledges came to the fore this year: ‘We look after the whole you’, ‘We will support you through thick and thin’ and ‘We trust’, in particular. And seeing charities struggle during the pandemic, it was important to keep our charity commitment as part of the ‘We give back’ pledge. We were also determined to continue our commitments surrounding our ‘We give youth a chance’ pledge.


Wellbeing became our priority

We knew that such unfamiliar and exhausting circumstances meant our employees would require greater support than ever. Isolation, stress and burnout were much higher risks, while balancing conflicting priorities, including childcare demands, and keeping people motivated and engaged took on new challenges. Our number one priority over the past year has been the health and wellbeing of our partners.

Our wellbeing agenda focused on mental health, physical exercise, and addressing isolation and loneliness. The key to this was to offer something for everyone, on a completely voluntary basis, so people could opt in and out and tailor a support network to their own needs. We didn’t want to force people to attend endless virtual events and meetups, with Zoom fatigue a very real issue, rather offer wellness and wellbeing activities – from book clubs to meditation and exercise classes, photography competitions and commitments to step away from our screens – that meant people had a number of varied and regular touchpoints. Something for everyone but no pressure to participate.

Going beyond that, there was important work to be done in reviewing and reorganising the business, to make it more effective and attempt to ease certain pressures on people – absolutely critical as we dealt with greater and greater external stress. From guidelines to streamline and reduce the meeting burded, to ‘Zoom-free’ Friday afternoons and a company-wide calendar-blocked lunch break to reinforce just how important having a break is, these small steps combined to have a big impact.

Much of this was also shared with our clients, to ensure everyone was on the same page and maybe offer them some inspiration for supporting their employees.


Focused on a sustainable future

Employee ownership had been a long-standing goal for the company founders. However, that change moved in an extremely short period from a celebration of everything that makes us ‘us’, to an essential support for the business, informing and guiding decision making and ensuring we remain a people-first company.

Who knows what the next year will bring. The pandemic continues to throw challenges at everyone, however, we remain optimistic. That said, we look forward to an employee ownership future more focused on sharing success than protection. This is our 25th year in business, and our mantra for this anniversary is ‘Employee powered for a sustainable future’; something which feels more tangible with each passing day.