In an industry ravaged by skills shortages, multinational property practice EC Harris needs to keep a close measure of rivals in the recruitment stakes, says Vicki Taylor
The UK’s winning bid for the 2012 Olympics has caused some controversy, especially in London where householders are expected to foot council tax rises to help pay for the games. It has also had repercussions in the building industry by further compounding the current shortage of skilled workers.
At EC Harris, a firm of property consultants that manages the construction and ongoing operation of built assets in more than 20 countries worldwide, Joanne Wotton, reward manager, says the Olympics is putting added pressure on recruitment and retention of people in the UK as they want to work for firms that have won contracts. EC Harris has already set up a dedicated team to work on projects that come its way following bids.
Although EC Harris might not be a household name, it is well-known in its industry where it counts its competitors as firms like Davis Langdon, Turner & Townsend and Gardiner & Theobald. Wotton explains its key goals are centred around maintaining its position as one of the top three professional services firms in the property sector. “It is about being automatically included on major pitches so that we maintain our position. It is about being on that preferred bid list and then it is around making sure we recruit and retain the right people.”
Like other firms in the sector, EC Harris is currently struggling to recruit quality quantity surveyors due to a shortage of British graduates. This has forced it to adopt a two-pronged approach: devising strategies to attract British graduates, and negotiating work permits for foreign nationals studying in the UK who apply for jobs.
“We spend a lot of time checking out peoples’ work permit situations, checking they are legal to work here and ensuring that we put in place the right visas. We are lucky because we have got offices all over the world so we end up having to do silly things like sending people back to their home country to work for us there so we can retain them while all the paperwork is being sorted out [and] then bringing them back to the head office where we will grow the talent [and give them] training,” she explains.
One factor which has helped to attract graduates for this summer’s intake is the company’s new head office building located near to London’s King’s Cross station, which it moved into last December. After hosting interviews and open days at the new site, the company has so far filled 56 graduate positions. Although it is difficult to compare graduate take-up of posts year-on-year, Wotton explains this year’s candidates tended to accept a position straightaway, rather than saying that they wanted more time to consider the offer while they were also going for interviews elsewhere.
She believes the new building has also impacted on the morale and engagement of existing employees. Each floor is dedicated to a different sector, rather than professional discipline, and employees hot desk so that they can sit alongside colleagues they are working with on particular projects. Only three people – the company’s chief executive, chairman and finance director – have separate offices. “The atmosphere in the building is extremely positive. I think a lot of that is helped by the visibility of the partners,” she says.
Employee networking is also being encouraged by the company’s policy which bans staff from consuming food and hot drinks at their desks. Instead, staff must use designated common areas on each floor. Wotton explains that she has met around 50 new people in the building as a result of this policy.
The move has also been used as an opportunity to introduce health and wellbeing initiatives. A programme to help staff stop smoking is currently being trialled among 35 employees where an NHS nurse holds consultations at the offices once a week and the company pays for any prescriptions staff need. A weekly lunchtime running club has also been set up with onsite showers and changing rooms making it easy for staff to participate . Wotton hopes the facilities will also boost take-up of the company’s bikes-for-work scheme at the next election period in August. A proposal to provide free fresh fruit on Fridays is under consideration.
As part of its aim to boost recruitment and retention levels, EC Harris strives to remain above the market median for pay and perks.
So when Wotton joined the company in 2005 she set about implementing a flexible benefits scheme, making EC Harris one of the first in the sector to do so. She and her team are now preparing to role the My Share flex scheme out to the organisation’s other European locations, followed by the Middle East and Asia. “We believe we are above average in what we provide and the method in which we provide our benefits. We know that we were one of the first [in our sector] to implement flexible benefits, certainly to the degree and the range of benefits that we offer. In terms of funding, we benchmark our salary and benefits consistently so we know that we are above market median for those,” she says.
Graham Poskitt, senior consultant at Hay Group, believes introducing flexible benefits on a global basis is pioneering for a company of EC Harris’s size. “Other companies have [gone global] to a degree, but I wouldn’t think that anyone of [its] size and [in its] sector would offer that everywhere. It is sometimes seen as a challenge too far with the different tax and legislative requirements in each country, but for a company to actually go out and do it is quite exciting.”
UK employees receive between £500 and £5,500 depending on seniority to spend on benefits, such as a dental cash plan, critical illness cover, travel insurance and childcare vouchers. Staff can also buy or sell up to five days holiday a year.
In terms of core benefits, the firm’s partners and their families are entitled to private medical insurance (PMI), while both associates and partners also receive income protection. All employees are eligible for matched contributions of up to 5% to be paid into the company’s stakeholder pension plan.
Focus groups are currently being held to identify benefits suitable for adding to the UK’s plan for the next flex year which starts in August. Emergency childcare and mortgage advice are two possible options.
Wotton explains that one of EC Harris’s core values is around “single entity behaviour”, which is behind the drive towards global flex. “It is enabling us to make sure that the people in our international offices feel like they are part of a global organisation.”
The amount that employees in other locations are given to spend on flexible benefits will be calculated according to the country’s economic situation. Although all of the schemes won’t be identical, they will have common elements under My Share branding.
Starting with Europe, the plan is to put PMI into a multinational pooled arrangement, which will be offered as a core benefit to partners. Buying and selling holiday will also be available across all locations to some degree, although Wotton admits that matching the five days that employees can buy and sell in the UK might not be possible in countries such as Italy where the company only employs around 15 staff.
“In Western Europe we are looking at childcare vouchers [and] luncheon vouchers. There is a core approach, which is around the PMI and holiday, but then depending on the tax legislation we will do whatever is tax efficient and best for our employees in [the different] locations,” she explains.
The scheme has already been designed for the Middle East and is now waiting to be launched. “There are a lot of core benefits that are mandatory [in the Middle East]. Also, we have a lot of non-local employees so we provide housing [and] car allowances, so it is really quite a basic scheme around buying and selling holiday. Our next focus in terms of designing [a scheme] is for the whole of Asia. We are being led to believe that there is quite a push on flex and benefits in Asia.”
The company’s worldwide bonus scheme has also been reviewed. Although employees already have access to a year-end bonus, this is quite discretionary. “People don’t understand what they need to do to achieve the biggest payments [and] they don’t know whether they have achieved the highest payment or the lowest,” Wotton explains.
The new scheme, will launch on 1 April this year and will pay out for the first time in April 2008. It gives all employees a target bonus figure, which is a percentage of their base salary and is influenced by their location and the firm’s overall performance as well as their own.
“It will make it possible for us to be very open. We will be able to show [staff] every quarter where they are in terms of their bonus. The guys we employ are so numerically-orientated that it really appeals to the way that they think,” Wotton says.
The pace of change has been rapid at EC Harris and staff are now keen to enjoy what they have got. “One of our staff [recently] said to me, ‘please don’t change anything’ and I said ‘why not?’ and they said ‘we like [the benefits] as they are, we just want to enjoy it for a few years’,” Wotton says.
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Jessie Hiney, an associate at EC Harris, has been with the company for just over six years.
She particularly values the extensive range of perks offered through the firm’s flexible benefits scheme My Share. “It offers virtually everything other than pet [insurance],” she says.
Hiney uses her flex fund to buy dental cover, extra holiday, travel insurance and also opts into the company’s stakeholder pension plan. In her opinion, the best perk is the dental cash plan. “I have a very sweet tooth and my mouth is full of crowns. [They] cost me about £1,000 [each] and I get up to about £400 back. I know that there isn’t a year when frankly I don’t have at least two crowns put in with root canal fillings and you can’t get an NHS dentist, it is as simple as that,” she explains.
EC at a glance
EC Harris is a professional services consultancy that manages the construction and ongoing operation of built assets.
The company was established in the UK more than 90 years ago and has been operating internationally for the last 30 years.
It currently has around 1,600 employees based in the UK and a further 1,400 internationally, but claims to be increasing its headcount by one person every working day.
In terms of workforce demographics, around 70% of staff are male and 30% female, while its employees’ average age stands between 30 and 40 years.
In November 2003, the firm became a limited liability partnership. The move has since enabled it to triple the number of partners that have ownership of the business, and is credited with motivating these key individuals.
A closed defined benefit scheme with around 150 members. A stakeholder scheme for all other UK staff into which the company pays matching contributions of up to 5%.
Private medical insurance
A core benefit for partners and their families. Available through flex for other UK staff.
A core benefit for employees at associate and partner levels.
Options include: a dental cash plan, eyecare, critical illness cover, personal accident insurance, holiday trading, retail vouchers, a give-as-you-earn scheme, wine club, travel insurance, childcare vouchers and bikes for work.
Employees can arrange to work between the core hours of 9.30am-4.30pm and flexibly outside of these. It is also possible to finish at 4pm on Fridays.
Joanne Wotton began her career as a reward consultant for Watson Wyatt after completing a degree in psychology at Southampton University. From there she joined KPMG, also as a consultant, before moving to retail group Arcadia as an in-house reward officer.
“Arcadia is very set up in terms of what it does and how it rewards people. It is very structured [so] there wasn’t a lot to challenge and to change,” she says.
The main thing that attracted her to EC Harris, therefore, was the blank canvas she was presented with. “When I joined, there wasn’t a specific reward team so they recruited me to look at [that in] the UK, but now it is an international role. It was essentially a blank sheet of paper, so an opportunity that I couldn’t afford to turn down.”
Although she admits the task at hand was daunting at first, Wotton has risen to the challenge. Along with her reward team, she has implemented a flexible benefits scheme in the UK and is now preparing to roll it out globally.