Seven takeaways from Day Two of the EOA Annual Conference 2021

The theme of “happy people, happy workforce” was championed as Day Two of the EOA Annual Conference 2021 continued the theme built up on day one.

This theme was abundant in the EO Stories Celebration as 6 winners were announced at the event, kicking off the second day of the conference. To read up on the winners click here >>

Here are seven takeaways from Day Two of the event on Wednesday 17th November:

1. Our survey said: ‘It’s not mandatory to be miserable at work’

Employee-owned Clarasys was on hand to share its employee engagement strategies that have helped it achieve the accolade of being named in the top five best mid-sized companies to work for. Matt Cheung, who co-founded management consultancy firm Clarasys in 2011 and was appointed CEO in 2017, noted the firm’s highest ESAT score was after it became an EOT and was 93.5%.

He added: “We believe if people are happier at work, they do better work for their clients, they’re likely to stay longer with the firm and they’re likely to be healthier, so there are financial benefits to making sure people are happy at work. And to be honest, who said you shouldn’t have fun at work? It’s not mandatory to be miserable at work, you should enjoy what you do.

“If you are not currently measuring employee satisfaction, then you should. We get great insight into how people are feeling about a range of questions. Surveying everyone regularly makes a real difference and allows you to understand how the business is doing from your employees’ point of view.”

 2. Private channels prove busier for employees ‘less comfortable voicing concerns publicly’

Network ROI, a managed IT services company, detailed how its employees have a say in the business. Stuart Gunn, service desk manager and head of the Employee Ownership Council, says it is a “huge advantage to have it there” to bridge the gap between management and employees. He said: “We have open channels and private channels for those not so happy to stick their heads above the parapet if they are not happy about something, and then I can put it into ‘soft speak’.”

He added that the private channels, such as messages on Teams or emails to Stuart, are a lot busier than the open channels “as people are more comfortable asking me and then I put questions forward as being from an ‘employee’ without naming.”

3. Learning the hard way on when to consult the new employee owners

Creative strategic communications agency Emperor said that it learned the hard way about good communication after the lockdown came into force in March 2020, two months after it had transitioned to employee ownership. Executive Director Kingsley James said there were some decisions it had to make quickly and decisively, but admitted: “In hindsight, whilst they were good decisions we took, we didn’t really consult with our partners in perhaps the ways we should have done.

“We learned that you have got to make decisions and making them quickly is very important, but we need to make sure we run it past the employee board. We did not get that straight away; it didn’t come naturally. Now, 18 months on, we would do some of those things differently.”

4. Putting employee wellbeing at the forefront of a business

Architects Architype, which has a reputation as a leading sustainable design practice in the UK and is currently 30% employee owned but on a road map to full EO, says staff retention in the past decade has been at 90% and believe “that wouldn’t be as high without employee ownership”.

Lisa Edwards, Practice Manager and Employee Trustee, says its wellbeing offering includes: toil for time off in lieu, where architects working long hours on big projects are encouraged to take the time back; a buddy system; weekly team meetings including a five-minute guided meditation or mindfulness; a weekly fun podcast; setting up a wellbeing channel with tips and a place to discuss experiences; providing a mental health flow chart so employees are aware of where to go to seek help; two mental health first aiders; and is an endometriosis-friendly employer. Also, more widely, it set up The Architect Mental Wellbeing Forum.

She added: “People feel more comfortable now sharing personal information as we are all human beings, not robots, and we can sometimes bring these things into work life.”

5. Why are so many architects EO?

Talking of architects, in the networking sessions, the question ‘why are so many architects EO?’ was raised after Catherine Carlton, of EO specialist law firm Stephens Scown, revealed it is seeing a certain type of business more inclined to consider an EO model – namely architects. Some 30% of the EO sector is around the built environment, a lot of which are architects. In the last three years, construction as an EO sector has been one of the fastest growing areas and that has been driven by architects.

Jeremy Gadd, of EOA Conference Headline Sponsor J Gadd Associates, said: “Fundamentally, architect firms can be more difficult to sell, but that’s not the only reason. Legacy is also important to a lot of them and something they are concerned about and EO sits very comfortably in that space. They also enjoy that sense of collaboration and passing on skills to others and EO allows them to do that.”

6. There remains a bespoke application of employee ownership principles

Sue Lawrence was on hand at the conference as the founder of Independent Directors and Trustees Limited, which launched the 2021 EOT Governance Survey in October 2021. The survey is of EOT companies who have transitioned to EOT status at least two years previously. The survey is still live and ongoing, but she shared some insights from the survey thus far.

Two main conclusions were that:

  • Some consistency can be seen across all respondents, particularly on governance structures, although the detail evidences the differing ways of applying the EOT model and there remains a bespoke application of EO principles.
  • Most respondents recognised that their legal documentation does not adequately cover the practical application on being an EO company

7. Give yourself time over ‘one of the biggest decisions for you and your business’

Jeremy Gadd, as part of the session titled ‘How to become employee owned’, talked about preparing for transition and then making it happen. He says there needs to be a recognition that “this is likely one of the biggest decisions for you and your business”; to allow yourself time to think this through; and the fact that changing ownership is a major change project.

He also highlighted the need, as part of the research process, to “look at all options” and how that will prove important later; and, if you can, to speak to others who have experienced this change for themselves to “get yourself into a position where you are really comfortable about what you are doing as, after all, you would do that about anything else within your business”.

This is just a snapshot of the sessions and commentary on Day Two of the virtual EOA Annual Conference 2021, the sessions from which are available on demand for 60 days after the event. To find out more or to register, click here >>

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