Employers have a dilemma: the pressure is on to reduce staff costs but also to retain the best talent to bolster business. Our guide reveals new trends in benefits offered by the firms that are ahead of the game

Expense versus reward. That’s the balance that construction firms have been forced to strike when making staffing decisions during the recession. When money is tight, it’s more important than ever to work out which are the benefits that will keep your best workers in place, and which are luxuries that wouldn’t be much mourned if they disappeared.

It’s a tough call, and one that every firm in the sector has had to make over the 12 months. Building’s Good Employer Guide 2011, which reveals the companies delivering the best staff welfare and the benefits that are valued by their employees, has thrown light on some key trends emerging. The research has shown the popularity of sabbaticals and enhanced parental benefits as core policies, as well as innovative ways of improving working conditions and boosting corporate social responsibility. These are especially demonstrated by our top five firms:
Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, Assael, Buro Four, Vinci Construction UK and John Rowan & Partners.

Here, we run through the key patterns that have emerged from this year’s research, and reveal the approaches being taken by this year’s top employers.

The firms in the guide

Consultants were the dominant group among the firms in the 2011 guide, making up 25 of the 61 firms and also having two firms in the top five - Buro Four and John Rowan & Partners. Architects - which also had a strong showing in the top five, with Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners and Assael - made up 10 of the firms, while engineers accounted for eight.

Contractors - including subcontractors and manufacturers - made up 17 of the firms but had just a single presence - Vinci - in the top five. In general, contractors were less generous than their counterparts in the professional services in enhancing benefits where a statutory minimum exists - such as maternity and paternity benefits, and paid holiday. However, on other discretionary benefits, such as private healthcare, the contractors were sometimes more generous than their peers - all but two of the contractors featured in this year’s guide offer a private health scheme to some or all staff.

Staff retention

One common theme among the firms featured is a reduction in staff turnover in 2010 compared with the previous year. This suggests that many firms, having carried out restructurings and redundancies in 2008 and 2009, have sought hard to keep a stable core of staff - by finding alternatives to further staff cuts even in a difficult market, and by acting to keep the loyalty of the employees that escaped the cuts.

The importance of a long-term strategy was repeatedly highlighted by the employers featured in the guide when they were asked to explain their response to market conditions. Some firms have altered the types of contracts offered to new staff to balance the reality of recession with the need to offer employees certainty over their future. Solutions include increasing the number of fixed term contracts offered to staff, to take account of fluctuating workload.

Many companies have also continued with moves introduced early on in the downturn to rebalance the rewards offered to junior and senior staff. For example, this year’s top employer, Roger Stirk Harbour + Partners, has fixed the earnings of its partners in proportion to those of the practice’s lowest paid fully-qualified architect. Currently, the earnings of the highest paid partner are no more than nine times those of the lowest paid architect.

Key benefits

A significant proportion of firms have chosen to invest in enhanced benefits for maternity (26%) and paternity (43%), seeing these as crucial to staff welfare. The most common boosts to statutory provisions were based on offering above the statutory minimum pay for part of the leave, although some firms also extended the leave on offer - in the case of Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, maternity pay is offered at 100% of salary for a full year.

There is also a trend towards firms incentivising women to return to work after having children, in a move that could benefit mothers concerned about the cost of childcare. Consultant Buro Four increases salary by 20% for six months on a mother’s return to work, while Assael offers four and a half days’ pay for four days’ work, with a free parking space - handy for those trying to juggle the start of the working day with the nursery run.

Offering staff more annual leave has also been seen as a way to incentivise employees, without necessarily adding large amounts to the cost of running a business. The average number of maximum paid days’ holiday offered by firms in the 2011 guide was 30.5, a rise from 26.3 in 2010.

Similarly, sabbaticals continue to offer firms a way of rewarding staff service that is practical during a recession - firms with uncertain or fluctuating workloads have been able to use sabbaticals during the downturn as an alternative to increasing redundancies, in a move often popular with employees. Eighty-five per cent of the firms featured in the guide offer sabbaticals to all or some staff - and in the case of one firm, Assael, 10 years’ service is rewarded with an extra month’s paid holiday and two round-the-world airline tickets, worth £3,000. Three staff have taken the practice up on this offer this year.

The social side and corporate social responsibility

Although the days of spiralling budgets for corporate entertainment are over for most firms, the top employers haven’t forgotten the role office (and out of office) culture plays in keeping staff on board.

Most of the firms in the guide offer traditional and sensibly costed social activities for staff, such as sports teams, days out or, in some cases, activities for employees’ nearest and dearest . The social club at Gelder, for example, organises family walks as part of its programme of events.

But another emerging trend is for companies to combine time spent out of the office with a charitable or other CSR purpose. One Gleeds volunteer recently spent two months working at a care centre in Botswana, which the company has supported by providing funding for new classrooms. At Margolis Office Environments, the staff have been given time as a group to work on schemes to help the local community including, recently, helping with the rebuilding of a local community church in Hampstead, London.

The most obvious way of benefiting both community and the industry is, however, to provide opportunities for people to gain experience of work in construction - and thereby to train the next generation of industry professionals. This is something that many of the firms in the guide have shown real leadership on - and is an investment of time and effort set to reap rewards for years to come.


Good Employers Guide 2011

Read the digital edition of this year’s guide, with over 50 pages profiling the firms that set the bar for employee and community relations. We also reveal this year’s top five construction employers.

Click here to view the digital edition