Quintessa – Our EO Story
Quintessa was founded in March 1999 with the aim of providing an enjoyable and fulfilling working environment in which talented scientists and mathematicians could use their problem-solving skills to help clients address key issues. Our founder, David Hodgkinson, had a firm belief that allowing employees to contribute to all aspects of Quintessa would allow better decisions to be made by drawing on their knowledge and experience. He therefore decided to establish Quintessa as an employee-owned business. For the first 15 years, employees held shares directly in the company, but in July 2014 all shares in Quintessa were transferred to an Employee Ownership Trust (EOT) that holds these shares for the benefit of all employees. The purpose of the EOT is to provide a sustainable future for Quintessa as an independent company with an employee-owned ethos.
Today, Quintessa has 25 employee owners across two offices, in Warrington and Henley-on-Thames. We provide scientific, mathematical and strategic consultancy, software development and research to public and private organisations to facilitate a low carbon energy future. Our services cover decision support, geosciences, materials modelling, mathematics, risk assessment, software development and training. We are proud to work for some of the world’s leading science-based organisations and to date we have carried out more than 1000 projects for over 150 clients in 35 countries. Quintessa is, and plans to remain, an SME (Small/Medium-sized enterprise) focussed on providing high-quality specialised services.
The Past Year
In March 2020, in light of UK government advice, Quintessa introduced a policy of home working for its employees and stopped non-essential travel. This sudden transition to remote working was achieved thanks to solutions implemented by our IT team, in addition to pre-existing provisions for flexible and home working. New risk assessments and information security policies were drafted and implemented. Meetings, conferences and workshops were replaced with video conferencing. Office plants were re-homed in employees’ houses.
Over the last year, Quintessa employees have continued to work mainly from home in line with government guidance. Throughout, the Company Board and Managing Director have monitored the evolving situation and sought to provide as much clarity to the employee owners as possible. Company Board meetings have increased in frequency to become virtual monthly meetings, with a standing item on Covid-19 response. The Managing Director has sent out update emails at appropriate stages explaining the company’s response to changing government guidance and requirements. From August to October, we managed a successful partial return to the office for those who wished to work fully or partly from the office.
The nature of our work combined with further adaptations for home working and excellent support from our IT team has meant that Quintessa has fortunately been able to operate safely and effectively throughout the pandemic. However, like all businesses, there have been challenges to overcome: maintaining employee engagement and wellbeing without face-to-face interactions; supporting employee owners with home-schooling responsibilities; recruiting and training new employees; compensating for lost marketing and professional development opportunities. Quintessa’s ethos and our employee ownership culture have been crucial in shaping our response to the pandemic and the challenges it has presented.
At Quintessa, everyone is empowered to contribute to operational and strategic decisions. While the Company Board has the ultimate responsibility for the running of the company, in practice it delegates a very significant fraction of its responsibilities to the collective of employee owners. This means that all decisions other than certain legal, financial, insurance and employment matters are taken as a collective via 4-monthly management meetings, to which all permanent employees are invited (and generally attend). This model works for us in particular because Quintessa remains a small company with a flat management structure, allowing everyone who wishes to do so to contribute effectively to discussions. To facilitate this, the employees need to be informed and therefore all relevant company information (such as the financial accounts) is made available to everyone.
This level of transparency and engagement has persisted throughout the last year. Management meetings have been held virtually using videoconferencing solutions such as Zoom or Teams. These have been a forum for employees to discuss the potential impact of the pandemic on the company finances, to bring forward suggestions for use of software in communications, and to discuss the need for recruitment. Although we would prefer to be meeting in person at the traditional annual Away Days for some social activities, the remote Management meetings have kept all employees informed and involved in developments throughout the year.
Less formal modes of engagement are also commonplace at Quintessa and have continued in a virtual format over the last year, including appraisals, ad hoc one-to-one discussions with a director, and employee ownership “surgeries”. The surgeries are led by the two employee-elected Trustees and provide a more relaxed format than management meetings for employee owners to voice opinions and concerns. Topics covered by surgeries have ranged from planning a remote Christmas party to strategies for maintaining good mental health while working from home, and the agenda is decided by the employees. New initiatives for maintaining social engagement over the last year in the absence of office chats have included Monday morning ‘catch up’ meetings, Friday evening drinks, and virtual games and quizzes for various celebration days. The Managing Director has also held at least two one-on-one chats with all employees to discuss their wellbeing during lockdown and their thoughts about future working conditions, with further chats scheduled.
The unexpected period of disruption during the pandemic has presented difficulties for all of us, but also opportunities for improving the company. Our expanded use of platforms such as Microsoft Teams for internal communications will continue to benefit inter-office communications and employees working remotely. Reductions in business travel will reduce our carbon footprint.
This year has been a highly uncertain one in many respects. However, as employee owners, we have been able to take comfort in the fact that Quintessa is very unlikely to be sold or consumed by another entity; knowing that redundancies will always be the very last port of call in a crisis; and seeing our own values and ethics reflected in those of the company. We work in a team of like-minded individuals (our Quintessa family!) who we trust and are supported by. This has allowed us to get on with our jobs in a very efficient and effective manner, without added pressures from external shareholders, resulting in a flexible, stable and profitable business.