How Fitness First whipped employee engagement into shape

In the face of competition from low-cost, budget gyms, Fitness First has been on an 18 month journey to transform its service levels to deliver a different and unique fitness experience by offering members “beyond five-star hotel service”. Craig Donaldson speaks with Anne Jaakke, HR director for Fitness First, about the strategies behind the brand transformation across 78 sites from a HR perspective, the process of managing consistency of customer service and how Fitness First is redefining competency and behavioral standards for critical leadership roles

What have been three key elements/steps in improving Fitness First’s employee engagement levels?
The most impactful step we made began about 18 months ago when we decided to redefine the competencies, skills and behaviours required at the leadership level. We then were in a position to assess our current leadership against these requirements.

During that assessment process we particularly focused on their appetite for change, because that is what we were determined to do. We offered redundancy packages to those who didn’t want to come with us and 30 per cent of our club management – left the business. The people that remained became role models and that really built confidence in the leadership team. As all HR people know, if you don’t have the right leaders on board or the ones on board don’t have the right attitude and skills it’s very difficult to create the change that you are after.

We knew that we absolutely wanted to raise the bar in service and be really challenging in providing our members with the best experience. We were looking for higher calibre people who understood the member experience and the member journey, people with better leadership skills, better management skills and better understanding how you drive change through an organisation. To fill the gaps we took the unusual step of recruiting people with those skills from a non-fitness industry background.

The second step was to realise that if we pitch leadership roles and skills and experience at a higher level we also had to revisit remuneration packages. We did research and benchmarking, improved the packages to be truly competitive and aligned the bonus and commission schemes objectives across the business. Then, importantly, we created clarity and transparency by actually disclosing those salary levels internally as well as outlining progression paths. By creating that clarity it actually rebuilt trust, by offering a good deal it enabled us to better attract new people to the business and retain existing talent.

In fact, rebuilding trust was the third step in the process – although to call it the third step runs the risk of diminishing its importance. It’s critical that the employees of an organisation actually trust the executive team and that there is a certain amount of approachability and inclusiveness. We sought and included employee views, we insisted on no silos and a ‘one team’ approach, we were very open about our challenges, about where we are going and what we want to achieve.

There is a fourth element, which is mentioned below, and that’s a massive investment in learning and development and fitness training.

How has this fitted in with and contributed to the turnaround of the Fitness First business?
They are completely interconnected because one follows on from the other: when you improve your employee engagement, you improve the member experience and that almost inevitably will show in your retention numbers. This allows further investments into our clubs and into our people.

What are the key elements of the ‘raise the bar’ training program? How has it improved HR and broader organisational outcomes?
‘Raise the Bar’ started off with a massive piece of research on (called ‘crack the motivation code) done for us by UK professor at Loughborough (by Stuart Biddle) which looked at what people get started to exercise, how people can maintain to exercise and what motivates them. Also our understanding of emotional intelligence and how that interacts with making great connections and support and motivate our members on their journey to achieving the goals they set out. We believe people motivate people not machines. To create a positive environment in which members can make progress and feel socially connected we conduct for all our employees a two and half day intensive certification program. The program focuses on improving the member experience by creating frequent and high quality interactions to motivate them, meet new people, participate in innovative and effective work outs and help them achieve their fitness goals.

All our leaders have an additional ‘Raise the Bar’ training day, which is more of a follow-up to the extensive leadership training we did over the last 12 to 18 months with our 78 club managers and 300 plus department heads and builds even more skill on how to support team members on our change journey.

Raise the Bar, which began in December and is being rolled out around Australia, will cost around $5 million and is in addition to the $1.5 million we spend every year on learning and development.

We are also running full day fitness summits for all our 1100 personal trainers and 1800 group fitness instructors to help them understand that we all must live up to our desire to provide a totally different experience for our members. This is all a part of continual training.

Finally we are rolling out a massive fitness training delivery program to up skill our fitness experts even further and enables them to deliver all the new and revolutionary Fitness innovations to the highest standard.

How has this contributed to competitive advantage and sustainable business outcomes for Fitness First? What have been the results?
Because this is very much a work in progress, with a rebrand being implemented from mid-January, most hard results are not yet to hand. What we do know is that retention rates in the last year have already improved by two per cent, which is a massive improvement by industry standards, so we are confident with all the new initiatives planned we will set a new record in the industry.

Our work on rebuilding the brand from the inside out began just over a year ago and is on-going. People culture is very difficult to compare at the moment – especially as we conduct employee engagement surveys each May – but what we do know is that we have reduced employee disputes through better internal mechanisms, have improved employee retention rates and have increased internal appointments to senior roles.

We also believe our EVP – how outsiders see our company – is particularly strong as when we had a number of vacancies in the support office last year we received 4400 applications from people wanting to be considered for those roles. That’s a massive improvement because it shows how attractive Fitness First has become for people inside and outside the industry and gives us the opportunity to only select the best. You have to earn the jersey to work in Fitness First. It also has built pride for those that are already part of the team and improves our retention of talent.

Our experience over the past 18 months has shown us that passionate professionals should start considering the fitness industry as a serious industry to build your career in. The make up of our executive team and our leadership group shows that the industry can attract professionals from all walks of life and all different kinds of industry, and that the move to the fitness industry can give you a career boost, adding capabilities and competencies for your future career. In return, that enables the business to have more diversity and creativity when looking at ways of improvement.