So do contractors do more inspiring work than architects? Who hands out the most motors? Are engineers more generous with holidays than consultants? Which firms give you the most maternity benefits? The best pensions? Which is the most fun to work for? David Rogers analyses the data

The 50 firms in this Good Employer Guide were chosen out of all the firms in the British construction industry who wanted to take part. The winners were selected according to how their staff rated them in a questionnaire. We also collected some information on the demographics and values of the companies, and what they offered staff in the way of perks.

The result was a table that combined a series of objective facts about the employers with a series subjective judgments made by the people who worked for them.

As you would expect, all the firms did well when it came to their workers’ ratings. There were some variations between disciplines, but sometimes only at two decimal places. Contractors were felt to have the most social responsibility, did the most inspiring work and had the best leaders, whereas consultants and architect had the smartest working practices and the happiest workers. Remarkably, there was a four-way tie when workers reported on how able they were to contribute.

When it came to variations between individual companies, the results were more pronounced; among the best were firms such as Rider Levett Bucknall and Ramboll Whitbybird, but the highest level of general satisfaction was reached by the staff of Edward Cullinan Architects, who reported extraordinary levels of inspiration and ability to contribute. On the other hand, the winner of the feel good factor was consultant CNP.

A more difficult question is the extent to which the benefits offered by a company tally with leadership, inspiration and so on. To answer this, we need to make use of a statistical technique known as Spearman rank correlation; this gives a measure of how closely two sets of variables are linked (a result of 1 is a perfect fit, –1 a perfectly inverse fit, and 0 means no link at all).

Applied to the results of the questionnaire, there is a surprising similarity of results. If we measure the happiness of employees against the number of discretionary benefits offered, we find a positive correlation of 0.35. However, this result is skewed by the anomalous case of AA Projects, whose staff reported very high levels of satisfaction despite being offered little in the way of perks. If we take AA out of the picture, there is a stronger correlation of 0.4.

There are similar positive values for holidays and churn rates, supporting the uncontroversial points that all work and no play is not good for you, and the more staff leave, the less happy the rest are likely to be.

The lack of a stronger positive correlation (that is, anything greater than 0.5) suggests that staff morale also depends on intangibles that lie outside the contract of employment, in the company’s culture, the type of work it does, the quality of its leaders, the development of intraoffice feuds and romances, the state of play on the squash ladder, and, of course, the amount and relative distribution of pay.

Work, play and family life

Turning to what the companies told us about themselves, one group of questions looked at their attitude to where staff work, when they work and whether they are allowed to stop for any extended period.

These questions are important because they give an indication of companies’ attitude to their employees’ work–life balance and the demands of family life, which the modern company is supposed to take seriously; its staff certainly do.

When it comes to flexitime, the industry is split down the middle, with 24 of our 50 firms offering it and 26 not. The story is the same with home working: 23 companies offer it, 27 do not.

One area where there is near unanimity is study leave: only three firms do not allow staff to take these as a matter of course. This is not surprising: the industry depends on technical knowledge, and it makes sense to allow staff the time to acquire it themselves, at relatively low cost. Also, staff passing professional exams raises firms’ prestige.

When it comes to sabbaticals and career breaks, which promise fewer returns to a company’s skills base, 19 firms allow staff to take career breaks and 20 offer sabbaticals (although the questionnaire didn’t ask whether these were paid).

Which type of firm offered the best terms? The answer is, as the table above makes clear, the contractors. Eight out of the 10 main and specialist contractors offered career breaks and sabbaticals and six offered home working. On the other hand, if flexitime is what’s important, then the architects were out in front; they were less friendly to career breaks. With the exception of Ramboll Whitbybird, the eight engineers in the top 50 are relatively sparing in offering these benefits; the 18 consultants were somewhere in between.

A more contentious issue, perhaps, is maternity and paternity leave. This is another litmus test of a firm’s attitude to its workers’ wellbeing, and as with flexitime and home working there is no consensus.

Engineers are the most sympathetic to fathers and mothers, albeit by a slender margin. These figures do not include the four firms that said they tailored maternity benefits to individual cases, or offered extra benefits as a kind a discretionary bonus.

Among the firms that did offer benefits beyond the statutory minimum, there was a big difference in their relative generosity. Some merely offered mothers the retention of their car or petrol allowance, or a return to work bonus. Some operated extraordinarily complex formulae (90% of your average earnings for six weeks, then 90% of the average weekly wage for 20 weeks, then 20% of salary for 20 weeks). Most offered about six weeks at full pay. The most generous firm, by far, was Davis Langdon, which payed mothers their full salary for six months.

For paternity leave, many offered two weeks at full pay; the least generous arrangement, apart from those that offered nothing above the statutory minimum, was two days at full pay. The prize for the best terms was won by Edward Cullinan: three weeks for staff with a year’s service.

Holidays are another divisive subject. Although the averages in the table suggest that consultants insist on 25 days a year where as engineers are relaxed about 30, the results are skewed by one or two extremely generous cases. Among engineers, Wallace Whittle offers 34 days; the rest offer about 25. The contractors are spread evenly between 24 and Wates’ 31. The consultants are a bit less generous, with the exception of John Rowan (34). The most extreme category, however, is architecture. Most firms offer twenty-something days (the least generous being Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s 20 days, reflecting American firms’ historical tendency to offer higher pay in rather than longer holidays). Taylor Young allows 32 and Architecture plb offers 35, but the winner by a mile and eight days is Edward Cullinan’s 43 – probably long enough to mount an expedition across the Andes.

In Building’s last two surveys of employees’ attitudes (21 April and 7 July 2006), it emerged clearly that work–life balance was important to employees, and that they took it into account when selecting an employer. If recruitment continues to be a seller’s market future surveys may find firms giving a bit more ground on where and when their staff do what they do.

Cars, health care and pensions

Surprisingly, four of the firms in our top 50 offered their employees no pension at all. Although they are generous in other ways, this is likely to be a disincentive to retaining staff in the longer term (although this is not reflected in their churn rates).

Engineers are the most generous when it comes to offering pensions in general (100%), and non-contributory ones in particular (33%). About a fifth of architects and contractors offer non-contributory pensions.

The industry was united in believing cars were for fee earners, although some larger companies, such as Willmott Dixon, were extremely liberal with motors. The odd profession out is the architects, who are much less likely to offer a car, but much more likely to offer them to all their staff, if they did.

This picture is repeated for healthcare: about half of consultants, contractors and engineers offer private healthcare schemes to all employees; architects, again, are the least likely to provide this: only one in five offer it to all staff. In contrast, nine out of 10 contractors offer private healthcare.

How we chose the top 50

The organisations included in this guide were chosen from all companies who responded to an advert in Building calling for entries. Those who expressed an interest were sent questionnaires asking for details of the benefits they offered their staff, over and above salaries and bonuses. In addition, these employers were asked to describe the sectors they worked in and their staff demographics.

After the questionnaires were returned, a sample of employees was sent an online opinion survey asking them to rank their strength of feeling with regards to series of statements that related to six areas being measured: Social responsibility, smarter working, the feel good factor, leadership, inspiration and ability to contribute.

Using a simple weighting system to rank responses, a score was calculated for each set of employees. Companies that scored below the required “pass mark” overall, or in any of the six categories, were eliminated. The top 50 of those that remained were then listed alphabetically in the tables.

The companies were also asked to list the benefits they offered that made them stand out from the crowd (“top benefits”) and to provide a short personal statement that reflected the company’s ethos, mission or vision.

A series of negative statements were also put to the employees participating in the survey and, while responses to these were not used to score the employing company, they were used to check the veracity of responses to the positive statements.

Nearly 15,000 employee surveys were issued, in general, to professional, technical and office-based staff; a minority were issued to trade and site-based staff. Employees with purely administrative roles were not surveyed. For firms with more than 400 non-administrative employees, a random sample was selected to provide a statistically significant pool of opinion.

Notes on icons

  • Number of employees is the average number of full-time equivalent employees employed in the UK during the 2006/7 financial year, excluding sub-consultants and staff on fixed term contracts of less than six-months.
  • Number of days of holiday is taken as maximum number of days holiday allowance of an employee at the end of their fifth year of service. This number excludes days that may be bought through salary sacrifice or benefits schemes.
  • Churn rate is percentage of leavers during the 2006/7 financial year
  • “Health care” refers to membership of a private health scheme
  • “Car “ refers to a company car or private car petrol allowance
  • “Enhanced maternity benefits” refers to maternity benefits over the statutory minimum offered as a matter of course, not only on a discretionary basis.
  • “Enhanced paternity benefits” refers to enhanced paternity benefits over the statutory minimum offered as a matter of course, not only on a discretionary basis.

Key to staff ratings:

Social responsibility
How seriously the company takes its responsibilities towards the safety of its staff and the betterment of the construction industry and wider community.

Smarter working
How the company encourages a realistic balance between the work and personal lives of its employees.

Feel good factor
The level of fun and enjoyment staff members get from working within their own companies.

How well employees believe their company is being led and how well looked after they are by their managers.

Are employees inspired by the type of projects the company is involved in and are they getting a “buzz” from working on them?

Ability to contribute
How well employees feel they are able to participate in decisions that affect them and do they feel the company listens to them.

Notes on companies

Only staff in project and building consultancy were surveyed

Faber Maunsell
Only staff in building division were surveyed

Henry Riley
This firm is part of Riley Consulting

Ramboll Whitbybird
Company data and staff ratings relate to Whitbybird prior to its recent merger

Rider Levett Bucknall
Company data and staff ratings relate to Bucknall Austin prior to its rebranding

All companies
Site-based staff without individual e-mail addresses were not surveyed.