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First Bus’s approach to driving recognition their own way

Updated: Jun 18

First Bus, the UK’s leading bus operator, is on a massive transformation journey, changing the culture for their 13,000 employees working across the UK and Ireland. Key to this is listening to their employees, gaining their perspectives and insights through vehicles such as an employee engagement survey.

One thing that’s become clear is employees would like more recognition and to feel appreciated. First Bus listened and created a recognition awards evening titled ‘Our Way’ Awards, which was held in London in April 2024.

According to Rachel Alderson, Employee Engagement Lead, ”We wanted to address colleagues ‘feeling unappreciated’ which is the highest scoring emotion on the Employee Engagement survey and embed ‘Our Way’ values further into the business. It was an opportunity to celebrate success with our people to give them the recognition they deserve.”

In this blog I’d like to share some of the things that First Bus did to show their commitment to creating an event that delivers what I call the ‘appreciation feeling,’ and at the same time, supports and showcases the new culture they are striving for. 

Inclusive nomination process

For many companies, the nomination process is quite straightforward. You send out an email and/or post something on your company intranet, and bang, you get tons of nominations. But with 90% of their workforce being bus drivers, not being in an office or in front of a computer, this just wouldn’t work. 

So instead, their nomination process involved having each of their senior leaders across the different business units own the process. By doing this, they made sure that they had an inclusive approach, one where every group of employees was represented, and given the opportunity to be recognised.

Created a new recognition award category

At the start of the process there were four recognition award categories to align with their four values - Always Care, Do What’s Right - Succeed Together - Shape the Future. However, as the nominations started coming in they found that there were some amazing ones focusing on heroic actions, employees saving lives while going about their day-to-day activities. Because of this, they decided to create a new category, one recognising and celebrating these heroic contributions. 

“We decided that these deserved to stand on their own due to the impact they’ve had on our customer’s lives. It was the last award given on the night, and it had a huge impact on everyone in the room” said Alderson. I love this as it shows the importance of being flexible and adaptable as you design and deliver your recognition programmes. And it was such a success that it will continue to be a category in future years.

Made everyone feel like a winner

Often what happens at award events is that the only people who feel like winners are those that ultimately win the awards. However, the First Bus team organised an event where everyone felt like a winner, where they all left feeling great. From the bar of chocolate with a congratulations message waiting for them at their table, to the band that got everyone up and dancing throughout the night, to having senior leadership team hosts at each table so there would be someone that they knew, they thought of the little things to make the night feel special to everyone attending. 

“The focus wasn’t just on the recognition awards, we wanted to make it great for everyone. For many of our employees they had never attended an event like this, so we did our best to make them feel comfortable and to have fun whether they won or not” said Alderson. 

Thought of the little things

I’ve already shared some of the little but important things the First Bus team did when organising and running the event, but one more example has to do with the awards that were given. 

Winners received two things - a trophy and a gift. The trophy was made of recyclable materials, which aligns with their mission to protect the planet. And the gift was a voucher, which aligns with their focus on diversity, giving employees the choice to select the gift that is right for them. These show their commitment and alignment to what matters most, sending a message to their employees that what they talk about are not just words, but actions, and, going back to what I said at the beginning, that they were being listened to.

Let me end by sharing what Rachel put on LinkedIn about this event, which is where I first heard about it. I think it sums up the impact and difference it made to their people. Congratulations to Rachel and the team at First Bus, they did a fantastic job with this event and with the other things they’re doing to drive and deliver the appreciation feeling (sorry, I couldn’t resist throwing in a pun 😂).

“Recognition is key to making people feel engaged and helps drive a culture where people feel valued, a sense of belonging and proud to work for you. A small thing, but so powerful. 💥 It’s human nature to smile when you see others smiling, and there was lots of people revelling in the joy of others winning - true team spirit right there!”


Please contact me if you'd like to discuss how you can create innovative and effective recognition programs at your company.


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