Where HR is a hot property

During the dotcom boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s, internet start-up companies were busy splashing their venture capital on trendy offices, featuring fully stocked bars, retro arcade games, football tables and the like.

When the money ran out and the dotcom bubble burst, the majority of these firms went to the wall, but the spirit of the time – if not the loose approach to profit and loss – lives on in the unlikely setting of Maidenhead.

Mobile operator 3, the first UK firm to launch third generation (3G) mobile phone services such as video and music downloads, adopts a novel approach to office layout in its Berkshire headquarters, changing the look on a weekly basis so it can ‘invigorate’ its employees.

In recent months, staff and visitors have encountered a massive Valentine’s Day mural and a total Chinese New Year transformation in the foyer, while in the coming weeks the area will be turned into a basketball court. Local comedians have also appeared in the main dining area to entertain staff.

Di Macdonald, director of learning & development and culture at 3, admits that being based in Maidenhead can be a problem for retaining staff, so the company tries to make the workplace as welcoming as possible.

“Most of our staff don’t live around here, so we try and ‘create London’ as best we can by changing the look of the office,” she said. “We try and freshen it up, so people walk in on a Monday morning and feel invigorated.”

Initiatives such as internal office previews of marketing campaigns are part of the ethos at 3, which is to ensure all 2,400 staff feel involved with company activity, according to John Vickerman, people and property director at 3.

“We use staff as a way of getting our message across and also as a way of getting direct feedback,” he said. “We have quite a young workforce and people like to tell you what they think – they are not afraid to give you a poke in the eye.”

To encourage this sort of direct feedback, 3 uses its technology to communicate with employees, regularly sending video messages from the chief executive, in addition to e-mail newsletters and online opinion forums.

The company, which received 19,000 applications for 250 jobs last year, is also beginning to use its technology for recruitment, with video profiles of call centre workers in job advertisements available via 3G mobile phones and the 3 website. It is also planning to use video interviews to screen interviewees for certain roles. “If you are a technology company, you have to show that you are,” said Vickerman.

The 3 product plays a central role in all HR activity at the company, because staff have such a close identification with the brand, Vickerman said.

“The product is a big draw for people joining,” he said. “Engineers and technology people know this is the most interesting place to work in mobile as they are working on standards, which is pretty unique. And we are different to the usual mobile operator, in that we are more of an internet company.”

This commitment to developing the product means that many staff choose to work long hours, and Vickerman suggests that the potential loss of the UK’s opt-out from the EU Working Time Directive (Personnel Today, 26 April) would be damaging.

“The reality is that the UK is successful because people work hard,” he said. “Not many people work less than a 48-hour week here, but in our type of business, people want to do it, otherwise they will leave for a competitor.”

To ensure staff remain engaged in this culture, 3 adopts a ‘work hard, play hard’ approach and has put in place a number of initiatives to boost team spirit.

As well as the innovative approach to office design, which currently sees professional black and white portraits of a number of staff members in the main foyer area, the organisation runs a monthly recognition scheme, known as ‘3 Cheers’.

“Anyone can be nominated by anyone else to win prizes such as vouchers, and we get around 120 nominations every month,” said Vickerman. “It is simple but effective and even the most cynical of employees are touched if they actually win.”

‘Simple but effective’ sums up Vickerman’s approach to HR, something he has taken from his two year stint at Level 3, the US-based broadband provider.

“The US culture is to get things done that day and the HR policies are very progressive. I don’t believe in over-complicating HR and making everything esoteric.”

Of course, the backdrop to all this good people-related work is the harsh financial reality – faced by all start-ups – of actually getting into operational profit.

Having only set up in the UK in 2000, 3’s global operations suffered heavy losses in 2004 as it spent more than 500m on winning new customers, and Vickerman admits he is financially restricted at the moment.

“We are limited on HR budget,” he said. “We would like to expand our benefits programme, doing more in terms of flexibility. There is a strong family agenda coming from the government, and while we are compliant, we are not leading the way. But any start-up has to pay its way.”

These budget pressures mean that 3 pays no more than the average for the sector in base salary, but all levels of staff are incentivised with bonuses which are centred on delivery, a model which is working well, according to Vickerman. “People stay here because they enjoy it. We don’t lose people for salary reasons.”

What of Vickerman himself? He said the interesting hybrid of people and property – which he splits 70/30 in terms of time – keeps him interested.

Reporting directly to 3’s UK chief executive Bob Fuller, Vickerman admits the property aspect of his role gives him a good feel for the commercial side of the business, although he adds that HR is very much at the centre of the operation.

“In this sort of start-up environment, HR is responsible for the growth,” he said.

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