How Dunelm Is Creating a Sense of Home and Belonging, Not Only to Recruit and Retain, But Also to Cushion Colleagues Caught Up in the Cost-of-Living Crisis
Home is where the heart is and creating that sense of “home-from-home” at work where the average worker spends one-third of their lives is a challenge for any business.
But this is particularly the case when you are a retailer dealing with those less-than-friendly visitors, the ones who increasingly use violence and aggression against store colleagues as their calling cards.
With recruitment in the sector at an all-time low, partly as a result of an almost doubling of incidents involving violence compared with pre-pandemic levels, it is little wonder that more workers prefer to stay at home rather than run the gauntlet of the hostile environment that characterises today’s shop floor.
The BRC’s crime survey for 2023 revealed that incidents, including racial and sexual abuse, physical assault, and threats with weapons, rose from the pre-COVID high of over four-hundred-and-fifty per day in 2019/20, to over eight-hundred-and-fifty per day in 2021/22, creating a huge emotional and physical impact on people just trying to get on with their jobs.
Much of the hostility is linked to retail crime, with almost £1 billion lost to customer theft as a result of eight million incidents over the last twelve months. Retailers also spent £715 million on crime prevention in 2021/22, much of that focused upon new ways of protecting colleagues, such as body worn cameras, panic buttons and target-hardening high-value and age-restricted zones of the store.
Cliff Lee, director of well-being services for the Retail Trust refers to the UK’s “intolerance epidemic” fuelling the recruitment and retention dilemma across an industry employing 3.5 million colleagues—the equivalent of the combined population of Manchester, Liverpool, and Leeds.
This is why, he said, businesses should be rising to the challenge of managing well-being among colleagues, particularly during a cost-of-living crisis that has seen food and fuel bills rocket and mortgage interest payments increase to levels not seen in the last twenty years.
The Trust’s Health in Retail report, published in June 2023 highlighted that absenteeism was costing the industry
£6 million a year, but presenteeism, the term used to describe non-productive colleagues who are surviving rather than thriving, was impacting the sector by a staggering
£28 billion per annum as result of colleagues “not being able to bring their best selves to work”.
Many store managers, the report suggests, were taking the burden of their employee’s daily challenges without receiving any support from the business, resulting in more than a quarter of those polled wanting to leave the sector. More than 80 per cent of HR leaders in the retail sector also reported that the cost-of-living crisis was negatively affecting colleague well-being so, according to the Trust, it was time for a “post-pandemic re-think” beyond “well-being washing”.
“Businesses should help managers more by giving them the skills to help their own people. This does not mean they become their carers, but it signposts those struggling after an event to the right help—we need to have mechanisms in place to remind colleagues how to access this support—this is not a big ask,” he added.
In its report, The Trust refers to “beyond well-being washing” a pointed reference to businesses that up until now have included well-intentioned but less-effective “tick-box” initiatives into their HR programmes.
Few of these campaigns have the true potency to reverse the recruitment attrition unless they go further and engender a culture of what diversity and inclusion consultant Ali Hannon refers to as “belonging”. One where the business is empathetic rather than sympathetic to colleague concerns and one where there is a place for everyone.
This is not an overnight event, but one where words translate into action.
“Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” said Ali at the 2023 ORIS Forums Risk Summit, by which they were referring to a sense of belonging becoming a pathway to true inclusion which in turn “unlocks the potential for diversity”.
“Not having a culture of belonging means that we withhold ourselves, even though you know that you have critical and relevant information that you could contribute to the business,” they told delegates at the Summit in Stratford-upon-Avon in May.
“Inclusion goes beyond the rainbow lanyard. If you are changing yourself to fit in, you do not belong in that organisation,” they added.
One example of embracing the notion of belonging is leading homeware and soft furnishings giant Dunelm, a family-owned business which is recognised as a good example of a business helping colleagues to thrive rather than just survive.
With more than 170 larger footprint stores, over fifty-thousand product lines and in excess of twelve-thousand colleagues, Dunelm has created a strong support eco-system which supports its own manufacturing facilities, distribution centres and a home delivery network, but more importantly it has over the last forty-four years found a niche role by defining itself as “the home of homes”—not only in relation to the customer experience but as a great place to work too.
Indeed, the “home of homes” refers not only to its wide product range—from cushions and cupboards to curtains and plants—but also to its shared values of cementing inclusion, teamwork, and clear communication as part of a culture to engage with everyone to make colleagues feel part of the furniture by creating a sense of belonging.
Founded in 1979 in the East Midlands by Bill and Jean Adderley who traded in home textiles from a market stall in Leicester, the business rapidly expanded with the opening of its first store in Churchgate in the city in 1984 followed by the first superstore in Rotherham, south Yorkshire just six years later.
In 1996, Will Adderley took over responsibility for the day-to-day running of the company from his father and the expansion of Dunelm continued with a new head office and warehouse being established in 1999 in Syston, Leicestershire.
In 2004 Dunelm, which now had more than seventy stores, launched its own online shopping facility offering 13,000 homewares products and the business also floated on the London Stock Exchange. Four years later after the opening of its ninetieth store in Plymouth, Dunelm acquired the worldwide rights to the “Dorma” bed linen brand, for £5 million.
Despite specialising in bedding and soft furnishings, Dunelm has never rested on its laurels, and all its endeavours are underpinned by looking after its people as well as its profits.
Throughout all this steady, incremental growth, the business held on to a sense of self and home-grown confidence and doing the right thing by its customers and colleagues, the catalyst for which originating from its embryonic early days as a market stall in Leicester.
In September 2020, the company reported a large surge in sales for the months of July and August due to the increase in remote working as a result of the pandemic, with those non-furloughed workers investing in their living spaces as work environments.
During that time when non-essential stores were closed, retail businesses continued their DC and warehousing operations to fulfil increased demand online, but many workers felt vulnerable and exposed to the virus, especially during the early days of the pandemic.
Dunelm closed all its operations and worked with Leicestershire’s environmental health department to conduct a 360-degree independent audit of its processes and only re-opened its online operation after winning the hearts and minds of colleagues with the imposition of stringent rules across the DCs.
It also provided a canteen service focused upon a packed lunch and grab bags to prevent staff bringing in their own food at one of its DCs in Stoke, and opened a dark store format, offering a click and collect service direct onto the car parks. Home delivery also resumed.
The strategy was centred around colleague safety first and to ensuring stores were ready to re-open when the government lifted restriction on non-essential sales.
This meant not only having all point-of-sale material in place, but it was a root-and-branch operation that reassured colleagues returning to work.
Modelled on the approach adopted by many of the major supermarkets who operated throughout lockdown, it included clear social distancing markings on the floors, the ability for customers to sanitise trolleys and baskets and the provision of screens for members of till staff.
In terms of colleague support during this time, Dunelm also offered non-repayable hardship grants to cover unexpected emergencies such as washing machine failure and even car breakdown as well as life events such as wheelchair purchases.
Such a people-centric approach relates back to the core shared values of making colleagues feel appreciated.
“It is all about feeling at home now and in the future—they can belong and be their true selves,” said Josie Dickinson, Dunelm’s senior belonging and engagement manager.
“As a family-run business we don’t see ourselves as a corporate, but instead as a professional organisation that goes beyond learning and development and focussing upon well-being.”
Josie’s role is about engagement and people.
“I am part of the People Team which reports into people and store operations, and we focus on inclusion, diversity, well-being and engagement,” said Josie.
As well as internal communications, the People Team also looks after talent, learning and development, people services, rewards and payroll and people analytics, the hard data which helps validate and direct the policy development focus of the department.
“We are the go-to people for help,” said Josie who describes her drive as “the core of what I do”.
“My mum and dad were both foster carers and parents so that has always stayed with me and helps me to engage with people and help people to be just a little more human to each other—that is destined to be my career for life.”
“I may say to someone I don’t perhaps know your lived experience, but how can I help?”
There is, for example, the “well-being buddies” strategy which, as the name suggests, provides a point of contact for colleagues feeling the pressure at work or at home.
Colleague policies also go above and beyond those of other large retail organisations and as well as strategies for dealing with menopause, Dunelm has a domestic abuse policy with guidance around how to raise the issue or approach someone who may be experiencing this kind of trauma, a subject very close to Josie’s own life.
“My mum was a domestic abuse survivor when she was married to my real dad and that is part of the reason why I am driven to do what I do—to help support people and try and make their lives better.”
“Not everyone is fortunate enough to have people around to help them at such times, but as a business we can help support people in rebuilding their lives or just being there for them.”
“I know of a colleague of mine who had endured forty years of domestic abuse and along the way had lost everything. She told me that she wished the help had been around when she was going through it all. Now the Dunelm community has become her new family because we believe in helping to make people’s lives better.”
These are more than just words. In recent times Dunelm has relocated people away from abusers to new flats and helped furnish them as well as providing them with new phones that former partners cannot access as well as support through non-repayable loans or grants.
“The finance is a big thing with domestic abuse and controlling behaviour as people going through domestic abuse often do not have access to their own money,” said Josie.
Dunelm also provides financial education around the subject of domestic abuse to colleagues so that they can help understand what goes on behind certain closed doors.
“Domestic abuse does not affect everyone, but we want all colleagues to understand what a healthy relationship looks like as part of an education and prevention piece. It is not going to be fixed overnight, but it is a good start,” Josie continued.
“We want to keep the colleague safe by making sure that they know that we are here for them, and we are not in any way judging them,” said Josie.
The financial support, as mentioned earlier, is also available during the current cost-of-living crisis.
“There are life events where colleagues need support, because across the UK 34 per cent of adults have either no savings, or less than £1000 in a savings account, according to the UK Saving Statistics for 2023, which is not going to go very far in terms of everyday emergencies.”
“If your car breaks down and you can’t get to work without travelling on three buses, for example, that is going to affect you mentally and financially,” she said.
Josie and her team work with the Retail Trust to direct its grant assistance for colleagues, along with cost-of-living advice and debt management training support and mental health awareness, all of which helps normalise daily lives and keeps important welfare communication channels open.
“It’s about keeping the conversation going on well-being and checking in on people and making sure we reach people at the right time,” she added.
One of the other ground-breaking support packages pioneered by Josie and her team is the development of a pregnancy loss policy which will include guidance for dealing with such situations because colleagues going through these life-challenging and changing events need time and space.
Dunelm also offers access to counselling and private healthcare. Parenthood is also given generous time allowances beyond the statutory maternity limits with new parents receiving six weeks of full pay at the time of birth, moving to twenty weeks at 50 per cent of their average earnings.
“Our desire is to be better and better. If you can support someone through what are the biggest changes in their lives, then you should—it’s an absolute no-brainer and the right thing to do.”
The business is now also working on gender and identity and assisting colleagues who may be transitioning.
“We have to protect our colleagues and that also means educating people to treat everyone with respect—it may not be our lived experience, but we want people to feel supported and that they can be at ease.”
All of Dunelm’s store coaches have undergone mental health first aid training as well as the deputy managers.
Health and Safety
Mental health first aid is one aspect of Dunelm’s leadership approach, but it has also blazed a trail in health and safety when it comes to putting its people first.
During the pandemic, apart from PPE and regimented regard for social distancing in DCs, the business also reached out to those furloughed colleagues at home.
“It was part of our pandemic strategy and looking after our people,” said John Rimmer, head of health and safety and insurance risk at Dunelm.
“We were touching base with people, reaching out and reassuring people. We were also helping them with bills through our colleague support fund and making sure that those working at home were safely set up to do so and where possible moving employees to other parts of the business to protect their well-being as well.”
“This is first and foremost a family business that puts safety first in everything that we do—from working in stores to distribution and home delivery—and we’re still learning,” he said.
“We’re currently looking at AI technology in our DCs to help manage safe materials handling in high-risk environments and that includes forklift trucks that will automatically reduce speed and brake in key areas of the DC because you can’t have eyes and ears everywhere,” said John who has worked at Dunelm for ten years.
“You can’t be a fully-functioning health and safety practitioner without being at the sharp end and understanding the business and your colleagues in order to help educate and support them and the business with circular processes of prevention and the right procedures to keep everyone safe,” he added.
As the “Home of Homes”, Dunelm as a family-run business has become a go-to destination for homeware, but during its forty-four year lifespan from the streets of the east Midlands to larger footprint national flagship stores, the former market traders have never forgotten their roots and the common touch of connecting with people and making everyone feel safe and at home, irrespective of whether you are a customer or a colleague.
Dunelm has over the years cushioned its colleagues against the harshness of the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis by making the notion of belonging part of a partnership proposition by which hard work is rewarded. Unlike its range of curtains, there is never a judgemental “pull yourself together” approach to colleagues who may be facing difficult challenges so that in good times and especially during economic hard times Dunelm is recognised as the home of soft furnishings and even softer landings.