As Brexit uncertainty looks set to constrain employers’ ability to recruit and the skills gap widens, Debika Ray looks at what benefits the best employers are providing this year to keep their offices happy – and full


On paper, we all know the characteristics of a good employer – it is one that offers a decent salary, a healthy quota of leave, opportunities to train and develop, a generous benefits package and a good work-life balance. When selecting the top 50, our judges considered all these factors except pay with the aim of identifying the best employment practices in the sector. 

Architects showed these qualities in abundance by dominating Building’s 2017 list of top construction employers, taking over from consultants, which appeared on our list in the greatest numbers last year. The former accounted for 19 of the top 50 companies, up from 18 in 2016, while the latter fell from 19 to 16. This year’s list was completed by seven contractors, six engineers and two housebuilders. 

The architects were also the smallest firms: on average, including support staff, they had 98 full-time members of staff, with one, David Miller Architects, employing just 17 people overall. On the other end of the scale, contractors had an average of 937 employees – a number buoyed by such behemoths as Mace (3,554 members of staff) and Interserve (2,644). 

Overall, companies in the top 50 were smaller than last year, with 260 members of staff on average including support staff, compared with 336 in 2016. At 12%, average staff turnover stayed more or less level between 2015 and 2016 for this set of companies. It will be interesting to see if more about the consequences of the Brexit deal on the economy will be visible in next year’s figures.

The top 50 performed admirably, offering a minimum of 23 days of holiday on average, excluding bank holidays – three days more than the statutory obligation – with 29 companies offering more than 30 days to some employees.  

Added attractions

On average they provided 48 hours of training to each employee this year, down slightly from last year’s average of 52 – with some (Alinea, Doig+Smith, Elliott Wood Partnership, P+HS, Rider Levett Bucknall, Troup Bywaters + Anders) providing between 80 and 100 hours in training, and engineers offering the most on average (53). 

Only nine companies offered all their staff the opportunity to work abroad, less than last year’s 11 – perhaps reflecting the fact that this year’s 50 were smaller, so maybe have less of a presence outside the UK. 

Like last year, few firms – only 11 – said they offered maternity leave just on minimum statutory terms, with the rest offering enhanced benefits, ranging from one week at full pay to up to six months of paid maternity leave (Assael, Max Fordham, Phelan Construction). Contractor Gowing and Hunt, which has 40 staff, said it offers full pay for the duration of the maternity leave. Similarly, only 11 companies offered paternity leave just on statutory terms, with the rest paying staff for some or all of the two-week entitlement and others offering much more (Webb Yates Engineers, for example, allows eight fully paid weeks). 

This was the first year we asked firms about shared parental leave. In general, companies reported that take-up has been low, with some estimating that around 1% of eligible parents opted for it in the year leading up to March 2017. Our top 50 companies showed mixed results – while only 18 had any takers, some witnessed great enthusiasm, with 50%-100% of new fathers taking up the option at Solomons Europe, HTA Design, Pollard Thomas Edwards, Keegans, Max Arnold, Interserve and Thomas & Adamson. This policy was only introduced in 2015, so it remains to be seen if it will become more popular as it becomes more widely known.

Contractual entitlements are all well and good, but for an employer to really keep their staff happy, they have to do more than tick boxes. Those that won high employee ratings and the judges’ approval augmented generous employment packages with non-quantifiable benefits and actively fostered working environments in which staff could flourish in both personal and professional senses. 

Non-tangible benefits

Assael Architecture, the judges’ favourite company, is a great example of this – on top of conventional, albeit enhanced, benefits such as private healthcare and up to 24 weeks of fully paid maternity leave, it rewards staff for length of service with an extra five days of holiday after five years, and a sabbatical and £3,000 round-the-world ticket after 10 years. It also places emphasis on employee wellbeing, holding weekly mindfulness sessions and training mental health first-aiders, with 94% of employees giving it the highest available score in this area. 

Mental health and wellbeing cropped up several times in this year’s line-up, with offers ranging from yoga and meditation groups at Architype to counselling, awareness days, health MOTs and even on-site massages at Alinea. London-based architect JTP revealed an astute understanding of the stresses of urban life by offering an interest-free housing support loan that it claims has helped 15% of its staff secure homes to buy or rent. 

Meanwhile, Max Fordham and Architype strive to make employees feel included: the former offers all staff full equity partnership after four years, while the latter is 30% employee-owned. 

Most companies also demonstrated an awareness that staff have a life outside their job – all but six offered flexible working to all staff, while two-thirds offered sabbaticals and career breaks to all. And more than half the top 50 companies also offered a more traditional form of wellness support – a private healthcare package for everyone. 

Diversity figures

Diversity is another non-tangible factor that younger employees in particular value. Construction is still a predominantly white, male, heterosexual industry. Studies in recent years have shown that women form just 12.8% of the construction workforce, with concrete statistics for black, Asian, and minority ethnic and for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender representation harder to come by. 

When it comes to women, the employers in this guide did much better than the norm, but female staff still accounted for just 27% of staff on average. Architects led the pack, with women making up 40% of non-administrative staff – the same as last year – the smallest company in the top 50, David Miller, employs 10 women out of its 14 non-support staff. At 18%, consultants and engineers lagged even behind contractors (20%) – although still above average for the construction industry. 

When it came to employing people from ethnic minority backgrounds the sectors were relatively even, with the top 50 companies employing 12% non-white staff on average, which nearly reaches the 13% of the general British population made up by ethnic minorities. The companies in our top 50 seem conscious of the industry’s lack of diversity, and many mentioned work they were doing to tackle it, through memberships of bodies that champion women and minorities, as well as specific interventions within their companies. Contractor Interserve, for example, has trained diversity champions and holds quarterly meetings on the subject. Its initiatives include working with a charity to identify job opportunities for people with autism.

Clancy Consulting has also taken a supportive approach with employees diagnosed with autism, launching an initiative to find out more about the condition and to promote understanding.

Finally, Architype mentioned something that may soon become more urgent – it has confirmed personally to the nationals of other EU countries working at its business that it will help them retain residency status in the UK if required. It is a matter that several businesses in the top 50 are undoubtedly already thinking about and one that, over the next few years, may become an important factor in how good an employer many feel they are working for. 

See the full top 50 list here 

The top five

1. Assael

Assael, a previous winner in 2015 and top-five finalist in 2016, took the top spot this year for being a true all-rounder. It offers a solid range of benefits – up to 40 days of annual leave, among the best maternity and paternity terms, imaginative rewards for length of service and a personal allowance for training. But what really shines through is its understanding of the needs of today’s employees, from attending to their mental health to helping parents with childcare costs, to offering flexible working across the business. The firm monitors staff workload weekly and encourages social interaction through a Friday afternoon get-together. Its efforts are evidently working – since last year, it has brought staff turnover down from 15% to 4%.

2. Alinea

Alinea impressed the judges with its strong emphasis on inclusion and wellbeing, and its efforts to develop its staff. The company runs awareness days on issues such as disability and mental health, and offers a counselling service as well as subsidised gym membership, yoga and mindfulness sessions. It invited recommendations on physical changes to the office and brought in plants, massage chairs and a quiet zone as a result. In 2017, it introduced leadership training for all partners and the 80 hours of training allocated to each person is among the highest numbers in the Top 50. A whopping 96% of respondents to its staff survey said they would be very likely to recommend Alinea to someone entering the industry.

3. Architype

Architype took the number-one slot in 2016 and continued to impress this year. Its ethos originates in the fact it started life as a co-operative and is 30% employee-owned, which it aspires to raise to 100%. Its employee ownership trust meets quarterly to have a say on the business and spending plans. This structure perhaps explains its transparent, flexible and respectful approach to management. The company offers extremely flexible working hours, with 30-minute tea breaks twice a day, and emphasises that managers do not receive any special privileges. A home-built kiln for cooking and an allotment for growing fresh vegetables at its Hereford office adds to the communal atmosphere. 

4. JTP

At JTP, 47% of technical staff and 31% of the board are women, with 19% of employees from ethnic minority backgrounds. The offer of interest-free housing support loans is a stand-out benefit and the fact that 10 out of 13 of its partners joined below senior level demonstrates the firm’s commitment to career development. The company boasts of having reduced overtime by 25% in two years through active commitment to avoiding a long hours culture, and offers a minimum 28 days of annual leave. It also supports parents with six months’ fully paid maternity leave and two weeks of paternity leave at full pay. Staff feedback suggests its approach is proactive and rigorous. 

5. Max Fordham

The only new entry in the top five this year, Max Fordham stands out for its strong record on employee participation. It offers every employee full equity partnership after four years – everyone is treated as a partner-in-waiting from day one and included in strategic discussions and planning. The firm has embraced flexible working arrangements and allows staff to bank extra hours they work. It also has a strong diversity and inclusion policy, implemented by a group promoting inclusion and raising awareness. Staff feedback is glowing, with one respondent saying: “Each employee is treated as a member of the Max Fordham family.”

See the full top 50 list here