Lessons for dinosaur employers

Nov 27 2003 by Brian Amble Print This Article

Employers who still resist offering staff flexible working arrangements and meaningful work-life balance policies would do well to look at the example of Farrelly Engineering & Facilities, a small privately-owned construction company based in the UK West Midlands.

The joint winner, with financial services giant Citigroup, of this year’s Parents at Work Employer of the Year Innovation Award, Farrelly must be unique in the construction sector for a way of operating that is based on Chinese philosophy and an emphasis on ethical behaviour and corporate social responsibility.

The firm, which employs some 50 people making and installing ventilation and heating systems, has ruled that staff are not allowed to take work home with them and that no-one should start work before 8.30 am or stay after 5.00 pm (4.00 pm on Fridays).

Days are rounded off with a meeting for everyone to share their problems and look forward to the next day's challenges, while the firm offers total flexibility for family emergencies and domestic needs.

Other innovations include personal development reviews for all staff every two weeks to discuss work and personal issues, while all employees can earn a bonus of up to two months additional salary if organisational and personal needs are met.

According to Gerry Farelly, the firm took these measures because they realised that the services they offered were no different to their competitors. “It was our people that would give us a competitive edge.”

And when the firm’s management realised that long working hours were causing problems both at work and home, they asked their employees about what could be done to improve the situation.

The key to making such policies work, Farelly argues, is to understand that money is not the main reason people work for the firm but to "own their jobs" and contribute to the success of the organisation. What’s more, in a reversal of the ‘customer is king’ argument, he says that the needs of internal clients should be put before those of external clients, "because if our people do not have the backing of management, there is no trust".

Sceptics might note that the results of this policy shift on the firm’s bottom line have been dramatic. Since implementing the new strategies, sales have more than doubled to £4.5m for 2001/2 and are expected to grow to three times this figure in the financial year to 2003.

Staff churn has also decreased dramatically, while on-site waste has reduced from 15 per cent to 1.5 per cent. Customer complaints and defects are almost a thing of the past.

The reason, Farelly believes, is simple. "Employees who are treated well will treat customers well".

This simple message is echoed by joint award-winner Citigroup. In an industry with a poor record of work-life balance, Citigroup’s UK management felt they could get real operating leverage if they could help employees to better balance their professional and personal lives. They worked for two years to convince their sceptical American parent company of the business benefits of becoming a better employer.

By integrating work life balance, equality and diversity strategies with business objectives and a "passion" to be employer of choice, Citigroup says that it has gained a real edge in recruitment while its customers benefit from high performing, motivated employees.

With workforce commitment falling and staff turn-over rates expected to rocket over the next year - particularly in the USA – it will be interesting to see whether less employee-friendly organisations can take on board the simple lesson that happier staff make for healthier balance sheets.