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Ian MacArthur

John Quinton-Barber

Developing a People-Centric Approach to Business – this episode we speak to John Quinton-Barber, Founder and CEO at Social. We look at his entrepreneurial journey – and what he learned along the way about developing responsible business models.
Listen for Chatter about John Quinton-Barber’s first experience of employment, the process to becoming a B-Corp certified organisation, and the importance of Good Employment to staff, to consumers, and to the environment and communities more broadly.

"Black lives matter really touched me, massively. And it kicked me, as an individual and it really kicked me hard, and I get angry about my generation"

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I’m sure we would all agree that it’s been quite a challenging time over the past year or more. We have all experienced things, personally and professionally, that many of us would find hard to have imagined a couple of years ago. At times it has felt apocalyptic... however, how we stepped forward with a one-team approach and tackled the challenges that lay ahead was nothing short of phenomenal in my opinion. Central to our approach was our People – this being both our students and our staff.


Don’t underestimate the value of having an engaged workforce….. 

Wigan and Leigh College had long recognised the value of employee engagement to an organisation – something that many educational establishments had not really focused on. We looked at how high levels of employee engagement translate into a strong psychological contract between employer and employee - creating a catalyst for high performing workplaces, providing a competitive edge against other organisations, and developing great places to work.   

American academic Denise Rousseau developed the original concept of the psychological contract, describing the understandings, beliefs, and commitments that exist between employee and employer.  This influences how employees behave, according to the underlying relationship they have with the organisation and other staff.  Is this perhaps where the foundations of employee engagement began? 

With my foundations being steeped in HR, and as a long-standing member of the CIPD, I have always had an interest in the lives and well-being of the people I work alongside, and have always strived to foster a culture of openness, transparency and kindness – keeping the human side of a one-team approach very grounded. 

Walking the walk not just talking the talk is something I’ve lived by, and I’ve always strived to reply to that email from a member of staff, remember the names of their families, their pets, what their interests are etc. Not because it’s good for some sort of metrics, but because I have a genuine interest and really do care about all my colleagues.  Visitors to our organisation freely comment on the culture that we’ve created at the College and we are extremely proud of this. 


Lockdown 2020 

When lockdown hit us, and all but a small number of staff and vulnerable students remained on-site, the College had to switch to remote working very quickly. But, we knew from the onset that central to our success in this period would be keeping the strong College community spirit alive that already existed and the open, transparent two-way communications flowing. Our many enrichment and well-being activities switched to online platforms. We had: 

  • Floristry clubs  
  • Gardening competitions,  
  • Cooking demos and recipes
  • Healthy eating tips 
  • Exercise and enjoying the outside space however small or local this may be  
  • Book clubs  

…… name just a few!   


Helping our Community, Staff and their families and friends…….. 

We've had a strong focus on supporting the local community - including making scrubs for the NHS, using our 3D printers to supply visors, and delivering food parcels for vulnerable people in the Borough. This has enabled the ‘one team’ approach at the College to shine through.   

Motivational Monday, Well-being Wednesday, and Fun Friday were established and staff engaged with these themes well and came forward to share many ideas and engage with this focus. The strength of the College community became apparent, and feedback started to come in unsolicited recognising how much the strategy was helping staff and their families during this challenging time. 


What about our students? 

Keeping the high levels of staff engagement quickly translated into a high-quality student experience. As a college, we weren’t positioned well for remote working due to the nature of the business, but staff took this in their stride. They pretty much tucked their laptops under their arms and away they went, developing and delivering highly creative sessions for our students and ensuring the strong pastoral support was still there for each and every one of them who needed it.

Metrics such as student attendance and online engagement with learning increased during the pandemic by 2.18%, whilst student retention also increased through this period as well. Both indicators that you might have expected to go in the other direction when you consider the challenges in student experience and engagement with learning through lockdowns. 


So how do you ensure that you are gathering valuable feedback and how do you measure this? 

We have invested heavily in employee voice mechanisms and tools so that we can accurately gauge the ‘engagement health’ of our College and gather feedback quickly and concisely. Tihs enables us to make quick decisions, and put actions into place to help support staff, and try and make life a little better at work if we’re able to do so.

Where we are not able to – our honesty is in saying we cannot do something, and explaining why this decision has been taken is also a particular strength. Often an oversight in many engagement strategies is the feedback loop, however, this can create strong foundations for engagement and a culture of trust and openness. 

The College invested in an App that could quickly send out pulse surveys, ask questions and provide a process for staff to put forward their thoughts, views and suggestions.  This tool was invaluable throughout the periods of remote working, enabling staff to keep in touch through mechanisms other than standard email communications. This delivered responsiveness that would have been hard to deliver had this investment not been made.

Focus groups with cross-sections of staff were also held regularly with the Principal and myself so we could hear first-hand what it was like out there on the front line and see what more we could do to help our staff. Time and time again, staff feedback showed how much they valued senior management listening to staff in the focus groups, and many positive changes came out of these groups. In addition, a comprehensive ‘You said… We did’ summary was shared with staff. 


Involvement with the Good Employment Charter 

A key part of our journey to becoming a more people-centric organisation was our involvement with the Good Employment Charter.  

When the Charter launched, we quickly recognised how it would align with our vision and values as an organisation, and the commitment we have to good employment practice and set about our journey to initially be recognised as a Supporter of the Charter and then go on to achieve Member status.  

Whilst the assessment had the appropriate rigour at the various stages of Supporter and then Member assessment, it wasn’t burdensome from an administration point of view.  As an organisation we feel that this ensures that becoming a member of the Greater Manchester Charter is within the grasp of any organisation, however large or small, and very worthy of the effort to be recognised. 

As a Member of the Charter we have benefited in many ways, not only does it showcase us as a Good Employer and brings all the wide-ranging benefits of being an employer of choice, but it has also brought a wealth of support and resources through networking and informative webinars and round table events. Moreover, the networking opportunities have not only provided a fantastic level of support across like-minded organisations, but have enriched our organisation through ideas, initiatives and projects. 

We are very proud to be able to say we are part of this great scheme and truly believe that it is making a difference to employment practices across Greater Manchester. 


And the metrics…… 

We’ve experienced low staff absence rates throughout the pandemic, in particular stress-related absence fell by 7.5% – again indicators that you might expect to be the opposite in a period like this. 

Staff Attrition rates fell by 3.8%. We were also named on the Top 100 Best Companies Lists this year, including: 

  • Top 100 Best Large Organisations to Work For 
  • Top 100 North West Organisations to Work For 

And we were absolutely delighted to be named:  

  • 8th position in the National Top 25 Education and Training Organisations to Work For 

Very well deserved recognition for our staff. Our staff are fantastic, and I don’t use that word lightly. Their commitment to our students and college, and their willingness to go above and beyond time and time again never ceases to amaze us.   

And the moral of the story is... don’t ever underestimate the value of putting your people first. 


Written 17 June 2021

Wigan and Leigh College

Wigan and Leigh College is a further education college with over 14,000 students – offering a range of qualifications at all stages from entry level through to professional and post-graduate courses. It is the only General Further Education College in the towns of Wigan and Leigh, serving a population of approximately 301,000. 

The College operates from a number of sites across the borough of Wigan. Parsons Walk, School for the Arts and Pagefield are located in Wigan, close to the town centre. Leigh Adult Learning Centre and Leigh College are close to the town centre of Leigh.