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Bringing out The Best - Blog series: An Interview with Torfs CEO Wouter Torfs & HR Director Els Van Keymeulen

Bringing out The Best - Blog series: An Interview with Torfs CEO Wouter Torfs & HR Director Els Van Keymeulen

The Best Workplaces™ label distinguishes the very best employers from the certified organisations. In Belgium, we determine three lists: Large, Medium and Small, depending on the organisation’s size. These companies have the highest levels of trust and the most inclusive cultures in Belgium. They have seized the opportunity to become better—to courageously connect in new ways, deepen their commitment to their communities, and get creative in how they care for their people.

For this year’s Best Workplaces event, we interviewed the top 3 companies recognised on our Best Workplaces™ 2022 lists. In this blog series, “Bringing out The Best”, we will share these interviews so you get to know these companies better. This week, it’s Torfs’ turn! This organisation occupies the second position on our Best Workplaces list for large companies. Furthermore, they can call themselves the deserved winner of our special “Corporate Sustainability” award. Torfs is a contemporary shoe retailer with a distinct omnichannel approach. As a family business, they want to be an optimistic and surprising retailer with a big heart who inspires customers and employees to be strong. We interviewed Wouter Torfs, CEO of Torfs; he explained that “this recognition and topic is beautiful and intrinsically linked with who I am.” Joined by Els Van Keymeulen – HR manager – who promised: “to celebrate the award with a party at one of our employee days because it’s an accomplishment we all earn together!”

Find out what we can learn from these great employers!

Bringing out The Best: An interview with Torfs CEO Wouter Torfs & HR Director Els Van Keymeulen

According to you, what does a Great Place to Work® mean?

When we were recording our video for the Best Workplaces Award Event – as a challenge for employees – I heard our people talking about “the feeling of coming home” and “being yourself at work”. These two elements were mentioned quite a lot and are the foundation of a Great Place to Work. For example, if you’re looking at your accountant from the perspective of “that is an accountant, and the rest of the person doesn’t interest me”, you’ll never be a Great Place to Work. The essence of a Great Workplace™ is that you’re welcomed as a human being in your totality. Not only based on your competencies or position but taking your whole humanity into account – i.e., your expectations, dreams, fears, what you’ve done in the morning, and what you’ll do in the evening … Creating space for all these aspects, it’s what constitutes a home. You don’t have to play a role at home or pretend to be better than you are. You’re just at home. And that is the feeling we are aiming for, here and in our shops. The answer of one employee to the question ‘What does Torfs mean for you?’ illustrated a great metaphor: “It’s like a love affair. You feel good about it, there’s room for a party, but once in a while, discussions can arise”.

Do you find it essential to be a Great Place to Work?

Being a Great Workplace is essential! Companies that still want to be relevant in 10 or 20 years must be a Great Place to Work. A sustainable future workplace needs a holistic view of employees – being considered real human beings of flesh and blood. If you approach your employees in this way, you will be able to tap into their talents and gain things you would otherwise never have been able to. This way, you can connect the talent and success of an individual employee to the business’s success. When you help people maximise their human potential, you’ll automatically enhance your company’s ability to reach its full power. This goes beyond frivolity. It’s about a deep belief in how to run a business, the core of our culture, which is the foundation for executing strategy. If that culture isn’t solid or valuable enough – and we’ve certainly experienced that in the past COVID-19 period –your strategy won’t work either. I attribute many of Torfs’ sustainable success and growth to our culture. And the bottom line of that culture is a Great Place to Work.

Is sustainability important to you?

Sustainability is essential to Torfs. The baseline of our purpose is: ‘360° care leads to 360° profit’. Here, we clearly state that not only financial profit is essential for us, but also the social value. And a Great Place to Work is the gateway through which Torfs approaches sustainability. Sustainable HR and the way we design our stores, organise our e-commerce, choose our products and means of transport … In all of these domains, sustainability is a critical point of attention.

What is one thing that you learned from last year during the COVID-19 pandemic?

What surprised me was the enormous solidarity that had emerged. Everyone was pulling in the same direction. Something very drastic happened, and if you don’t stand shoulder to shoulder and show solidarity, there will be no resilience. Management alone can’t change the business; you need everyone. This solidarity and strength surprised me and are not the results of one year of investing in a Great Place to Work. It results from multiple years of hard work – putting people in the organisation’s heart. We communicated very transparently during this challenging period, recognised our people as human beings, and told them how the business was doing. That was a choice. And we noticed from our surveys that people appreciated this.

How do you become a Great Place to Work?

Wouter: You should never underestimate the success – or disaster – leadership can be in a company. I always say: ‘people don’t leave bad companies; they leave bad bosses. During the pandemic, the importance of leadership – and more specifically, the proximity and visibility of leadership – was immense. Every week, we presented a highly transparent update of our figures, credit options, and how we were doing. Even the bad news was communicated very maturely.

Els: In addition to transparent communication, management’s exemplary behaviour and how they treat their people are critical. We are all equal here, regardless of role and position. We all want to contribute to the bigger picture – to help Torfs move forward. And I think Wouter, in particular, shows a great example.

Wouter: I attach great value to work, for example, a whole (night) shift in a distribution centre every week. Also, during the pandemic, I felt a need to experience that we were not dead yet, that we were still alive. Because our webshop did great back then. So, the proximity of leadership – and not only mine, as CEO – but from everyone is fundamental in a Great Place to Work.

As a Great Place to Work, you are part of an ecosystem of like-minded organisations aiming to improve the employee experience—addressing your ‘co-competitors’, for what can they always call you?

Wouter: My colleagues can always call me – and they do so – for a friendly chat with a cup of coffee about Great Place to Work. It’s my passion. I have such a deep belief that this is the way to go, and I am pleased to exchange ideas and perspectives with others.

Els: I would say that they can always call me regarding the question: ‘How do you put your people stronger in their shoes?’ That is our baseline. But I am equally interested in how other companies empower their people because we are still learning. We are open to new insights, and I am always curious to listen to other companies’ stories.

Are you inspired to become a Best Workplace? Join one of our info sessions to start your journey HERE! or gain unique insights into the best practices of Belgium’s Best Workplaces 2022 by downloading HERE our full report.