Give 130 young engineers £65,000 and a conference hall in Stockholm and what do you get? Emily Wright discovered the answer at WSP’s latest Taskforce jamboree

The air in the Clarion Hotel in Stockholm smells of perfume and cigarettes. A constant stream of young professionals pass through the foyer and back again from sub-zero smokes. Groups huddle together around the communal ashtrays, hoods and big casual coats thrown over their jackets and ties. Suits are accessorised with oversized bangles, trendy haircuts and chunky belts. The groups of guests are clearly delegates at a conference but there is something different about them.

In fact, everything about this WSP staff conference feels different to your average construction industry gathering. Not only is the event attended overwhelmingly by twentysomethings, the entire two-day programme has been conceived and organised by them.

All 130 delegates are members of Taskforce, a global network of young WSP staff. The scheme was set up by the company in 1995 to give its twentysomethings the chance to influence how the group is run. There are now Taskforce groups set up in WSP’s operations in Sweden, Finland, South Africa and the USA. Every year, between 10 and 12 applicants from each country are taken on to the two-year scheme to research business-related topics and deliver their findings to WSP’s senior managers. The annual Synergy conference is the climax to a year’s hard graft for the Taskforcers.

This year’s conference is being held outside the UK for the first time, and it’s the Nordic group’s chance to show their international colleagues a good time. The atmosphere is bursting with enthusiasm, energy and snapps-fuelled networking.

Over lunch with the UK and Swedish groups, WSP’s chief executive Chris Cole explains how Taskforce has developed over the 11 years since he set it up. “I was worried that it might flop after its honeymoon period but it just grew and grew. Now we have 130 young delegates here from four continents.”

The thing about Taskforce, he adds, is that the members are trusted. “Throughout the year they do most of the work off their own bat. Then with the Synergy conference they are left completely to their own devices. The executives are just guests, nothing more. The members organise this event themselves.”

There are nods and murmurs of agreement from around the table. Warren Porter, 27, is a fire engineer in WSP’s Manchester office and in his second year as a Taskforce member. He says the scheme has given him confidence. “It was beginning to seem like moving up in my career was impossible. I think a lot of people feel like that when they’re young. Taskforce gave me something to aim for.”

One of his first-year colleagues, 29-year-old structural engineer Dan Gent, agrees. “Taskforce shows you what opportunities are out there – the stuff you’d never know about if you just stayed in your day job.”

This is exactly the point, says Cole. “People on the scheme learn about wider issues. They also see how different cultures work and live. And if you look at the people who were part of Taskforce 10 or so years ago, they are now at a senior management level.”

There are practical benefits for the company, too. “Presenting information is a vital skill to have in the workplace,” says Cole. “Taskforce members get the chance to practise research and presentation skills in their two years – it’s a great experience.”

Everybody at the table shudders at the mention of presentations. “The first time I had to do it I wrote my notes in ink on prompt cards but by the time I’d got in the words had been washed away because I was sweating so much,” laughs Porter.

The first time I did a presentation I was sweating so much the words on my prompt cards washed away

Warren Porter

“You’re presenting to a powerhouse of a room,” chips in Gent. “It’s all WSP’s big names and that’s pretty terrifying.”

For this year’s conference, which cost the company £65,000, the group has secured some impressive internal and external speakers including WSP’s tall buildings expert, Ahmad Rahimian, who is leading the structural engineering team on the Freedom Tower, and Stephen Krook, who set up internet company Globalnet when he was 25, and eight years later is the chief executive of Swedish electricity company GodEL.

There are also presentations from the groups themselves, not all so serious. The US team are all in their first year and, when they take to the stage to report on what they have been up to, they do so in Ali G and Borat costumes. An all-American boy from Philadelphia has a shot at a Staines accent and has the entire conference in stitches.

Competition for a place in Taskforce is high, and it’s no wonder, given that members get to travel abroad, socialise with WSP’s top brass and make a name for themselves in the company. For every place, there are about 30 applicants and to get in, as a minimum, candidates have to do a presentation and be interviewed by an executive and one of the team members. “The application process is tough,” says Susan Nilsson, a business project manager in WSP’s Stockholm office and deputy of the Nordic Taskforce. Swedish applicants spend half a day in a workshop to see how they get on together. “It’s vital we see how they work with other people and how they would fit into the group,” Nilsson says.

WSP’s executives decided the conference should be held in Stockholm to give the delegates a global perspective on the business. The surroundings have certainly left an impression on Warren Porter. “The offices here are amazing,” he exclaims, over tea and doughnuts later in the afternoon. “There’s even a sauna. Can you believe it? You can fit 20 people in there! It’s such a different work culture out here. There’s so much space in the city. I can’t stop staring out the windows.”

He’s not the only one overwhelmed by the experience. By the end of the first day, there’s a spring in the step of every delegate and they’re enthusiastically discussing the evening’s entertainment, a dinner for all the members followed by a drink or 10 in the hotel’s bars.

By 1am, Teemu Sihvola, head of the Nordic Taskforce is exhausted. He pulls up a chair, opens a beer and explains how he pulled off what most attendees are describing as the best Synergy conference ever.

Taskforce members are by definition a headstrong bunch and Sihvola has had to use all his skills and energy to organise 130 of them from four continents. “I listen,” he says. “They argue and debate and argue some more and I stay very quiet, wait for things to calm down and cut through them all with a plan. It seems to work well.” He says organising the event was no mean feat. “I got married earlier this year and that was a nightmare to organise. It wasn’t as bad as this though,” he laughs, “not nearly so stressful.”

As Friday night eats further and further into Saturday morning, the WSP party is still raging in two hotel bars. Chris Cole, who has vowed not to be the first to go to bed, is still shuttling between the two, and Sihvola and Porter are offering their final, slurred thoughts on Taskforce. “It innovates and supports,” offers Sihvola. “Oh, shut up,” laughs Porter. “Taskforce just improves the way young people get on in the company. It’s like a ship. If one person runs off in one direction, nothing will change but if everyone leans to one side of the ship, then it will very slowly begin to change course. That’s like Taskforce.”

Sihvola stares incredulously at Porter, who has now slumped back in his chair, and, says: “Or put another way, Taskforce lets us take responsibility for ourselves, meet each other, network and get to know what we need to know to make it big.”

Porter ponders this for a minute then concludes: “Yeah. I’d go with that. That’s way better than the ship thing.”