For several decades, Belgian shoe retailer Torfs was a decent place to work.
The family-owned chain of stores was fair and caring to employees. But it was a traditional, "top-down" company.
"It was more, 'The company says how it has to be, and the coworkers just execute,'" recalls Els Van Keymeulen, Torfs HR Manager. "They have to follow."
Things began to change in the mid-1990s under Wouter Torfs, the company's third-generation leader. As part of a broad plan for the shoe company to take larger strides in its growth, Wouter Torfs started to empower his employees by bringing them together twice a year to share information about the company's direction with them. Gradually, these meetings became more interactive and engaging. In 2009, for example, employees were asked to help create the company values. They defined the values to include a family feel, a focus on results and "goesting"—a Flemish word that roughly translates to "enthusiasm."
The company's "goesting" was in full force at the last semi-annual employee summit, when store employees were asked to get into small groups and design a sneaker. "Things got crazy," Van Keymeulen says of the activity. "The energy that generated was amazing."
Torfs employees work on a sneaker design.
At the meeting, Torfs employees voted on the two best sneaker designs. The winning designs are currently in production and will be sold in all the stores—the first time Torfs will sell a shoe that was designed in-house.
In recent years, Torfs has also beefed up its philanthropic efforts. Working with a Flemish development agency, it helped build an orphanage in South Africa in 2007 and since 2012 has provided aid to schoolchildren in Nepal. Employees have traveled to Nepal to work directly with community leaders. And when a massive earthquake shook Nepal in late April, Torfs organized a fundraising campaign at stores.
The employee involvement, the excitement and the social purpose have helped fuel better business results, Van Keymeulen says. The number of shops has more than doubled from 30 stores two decades ago to 73 today. The number of employees has jumped from 235 to more than 600. Shoppers in Flanders have voted Torfs the number-one shoe store for customer friendliness 10 years in a row. And revenue has doubled in the past five years, to EUR 140 million in 2014.
"We want to inspire customers," Van Keymeulen says. "If we want to inspire customers, we have to inspire our employees first."
A Pattern of Going "Beyond the Basics" Across Europe
Torfs is part of a broader pattern of the best workplaces in Europe. As Great Place to Work® releases our 13th annual list of the region's best workplaces, a new analysis shows that management basics like honesty, fairness and providing employees with the resources they need to do their job are significant factors for employees feeling that their workplace is great.
Our examination of some 270,000 employee responses to our Trust Index© Employee Survey also shows that the best companies in Europe go beyond the basics. Key features of these top workplace cultures also include a psychologically and emotionally healthy climate, a fun atmosphere and a measure of workplace democracy in which employees have a voice. This research into Europe's best may be of interest to companies throughout the world that are seeking to become better workplaces—especially those with operations in the Old Continent.
Our findings related to making a workplace great in Europe provide a road map to business leaders in the region. In addition, the companies that have earned a place on this year's regional list serve as successful role models. Topping this year's list are NetApp, in the category of the Best Multinational Workplaces in Europe; Davidson Consulting in the category of Best Large Workplaces in the region (500+ employees); and Cygni, a Swedish information technology firm, in the category of Best Small & Medium Workplaces in Europe (50-500 employees).
These companies are part of a broader, worldwide movement. The best workplaces in Europe, along with their counterparts in other regions of the globe, are leading the way into a brighter future. We call this the "Great Workplace Era." It's a time when all people can expect to work at a company where they trust their leaders, take pride in what they do, and enjoy their coworkers. A time when work makes for a better world—one worker at a time.
Els Van Keymeulen
Els Van Keymeulen is one of those workers. Taking part in Torfs' journey to become a more democratic, philanthropic firm has fed her soul. "I feel very honored to have been able to participate in building up a company that doesn't only exist to make money, but that works to make better lives, that works to make people happier."