Woods Bagot: going global

In a business where people are the key to producing quality and profitability, Woods Bagot has built a workforce structure which genuinely supports its employees needs. Melissa Yen examines how the global mobility practices of the organisation assist in retaining key talent

Woods Bagot has built a workforce structure which genuinely supports its employees needs. Melissa Yen examines how the global mobility practices of the organisation assist in retaining key talent

Woods Bagot is an architecture, consulting and design studio. Since the company’s Adelaide launch in 1869, it has grown its operations with offices in 12 locations around the world, including Australia, Asia, the Middle East and Europe.

A number of years ago, the company had grown to work on larger, more complex projects, and it needed to restructure in order to accommodate further growth. It examined issues such as staffing levels for global projects, how the business could improve sustainability and how it could support international studios from its base in Australia.

A crucial part of the strategy involved global mobility, with a strong focus on workplace culture and retaining Generation Y employees as well as attracting further talent from across the globe. Woods Bagot finalised its people and culture strategic plan a year and a half ago.

“We do a lot of consulting with our team to find out what they want because, although our product is designed, it comes from our people, meaning our business literally is our people,” says Tamsin McLean, Woods Bagot’s human resources manager. “If they’re not on board with us, if we don’t understand what they need and what they want and make sure our business strategy and what our people want is aligned, then we are not going to be a sustainable business. We paid a lot of attention to what they were asking for and what they were wanting to do.”

A unique structure

While it may be unusual for a professional services firm to have shareholders, a board of seven directors decided in 2003 to expand the shareholder base of the organisation. This ultimately took the thinly spread ownership from individuals in Adelaide, Sydney, Melbourne, London and Asia to include studios across the world.

“We now have shareholders in every single studio. If you’re a principal, you actually have to be an owner of the business, so it’s not just a title or promotion that’s awarded to people. Ownership takes accountability to a different level. It is from this platform of expanded leadership that we have truly been able to operate as a global business – across borders, and without driving decisions out of a head office,” says McLean. This was the first critical decision in the different operational model.

As international business began to boom, Woods Bagot needed additional resources. These came in the form of Generation X and Y employees, which comprise 70 per cent of Woods Bagot’s workforce. The company consulted and surveyed staff, who wanted three main things from the company.

The first was a clear career path, as staff wanted to know where they were heading and did not want to get pigeonholed or stuck on one project. Secondly, they wanted some flexibility in the way they worked and did not want to work in a hierarchy, except in levels where accountability and authority were necessary. Finally, there was a general desire from staff to travel and take advantage of the fact that they were part of an international company.

“All of those things aligned with our business strategy,”McLean explains. “We thought, ‘hang on a minute, we shouldn’t just be waiting to see what projects are happening and making that decision. We should be picking out the people who will need to go overseas in two years time.’”

Timing was crucial in this process. The work-life balance of employees had to be considered, particularly for those who were younger, recently married or having children, ensuring that moving them was an ideal option.

“If you pinpoint someone to move when they’re too young, they might not have enough experience to be able to deliver their value. So there is not a very big window of opportunity to get it right unless they’re [business] partners and their personal life is committed to the plan as well.”

The process

Woods Bagot runs staff forums, face-to-face management meetings and an annual survey in order to gauge workplace culture and whether employees feel their career needs are being met. This allows HR and management to get a good picture of issues across the organisation by position, location and region. It also allows Woods Bagot to ascertain which employees should be transferred internationally based on their unique skill sets.

Meeting business needs can result in staff being sent overseas for a matter of days to participate in a design workshop, through to being relocated for a number of years. Sometimes an international move is initiated by the staff themselves. Such interest in international secondment is gauged upon appointment or during their annual performance reviews. Skills are then matched to a project, studio resource needs or to an employee who is interested in a location swap.

Employees are sent on a twelve month secondment, with negotiations taking place after ten months to see if it is beneficial for both the employee and the business for an extension. “It is a great way we can give our staff international experience without actually saying goodbye to them, while they go off and work with someone else,” says McLean.

Following completion of the survey, the information is collated and analysed and results personally delivered by HR to each location. In order to measure results year to year, both the highest and lowest scoring topics are noted with any major differences from the previous year being discussed directly with the team.

“If there is a positive swing or if there’s a negative slide, we put it out to the team and ask what they think happened, what they believe is going on,” explains McLean.

In the three years since Woods Bagot started this initiative, most employees have participated and become more confident in providing feedback and in being open about their own experience. Managers sit in on these discussions to help identify what the studio needs to do, assigns each person with a task to which they commit in order to maintain the company culture.

For overseas recruitment opportunities, vacancies are posted internally on the intranet, or emails are sent to global studios notifying them of available positions, with the approval of the local studio. “We like to put it out to our staff first. We give everyone the opportunity to work internationally or in another national centre,” says Katie Lintner, HR coordinator for Woods Bagot in Sydney.

Director as HR

There were a number of concerns when the idea of allowing staff to work across global projects from multiple locations was first raised. Some employees thought this would be difficult to manage, while others didn’t believe it could be done in a way that truly supported their own career development. There were also concerns that staff couldn’t meet expectations in the process or that key staff would be lost in some studios which could not afford to lose them.

Luckily for the HR department, Vince Pirrello, Sydney lead principal and director of Woods Bagot, took the plunge in introducing the concept to the other board members. Along with core operational and business responsibilities, Pirrello is also charged with ensuring HR issues are worked on and taken seriously.

“Your buildings don’t make you world class. It’s actually your people who create world class products for clients. You have to encourage, train and develop them. You’ve got to really focus on that and making your people believe in the cultural change,” Pirrello says.

A challenge for Pirrello has been teaching managers within the business to think more flexibly when it comes to global mobility and prove that this is more beneficial for them. He was able to demonstrate this in the early days by arranging for an employee exchange. The two employees communicated constantly via email and telephone and they shared the differences in their cultural experiences and how the exchange contributed to their learning and development. This process was also shared with other staff via the intranet.

“We’re working on encouraging the social dynamic to remain, because part of this is about remote teams as well. We’re all part of the same team, particularly because we move around so much and people need to maintain their social roots in order to feel like they’re still part of the team,” says McLean.

In the past, no real effort was made to encourage overseas workers to communicate back to their original studio. Any communication was simply, as McLean puts it, “contrived” by management.

“We were kind of telling them what to do or what to say and we were writing the newsletters. Now we’re encouraging them to do the communicating and they see and share things that we wouldn’t see.”

It all came down to thinking more strategically, says Pirrello. “If you think longer term, that is always an advantage. You think short-term, you’ll make decisions that are always wrong and you’ll lose people.”

Successes of the global studio

Woods Bagot has adopted what is termed a global studio model. In effect, decision making becomes a collaborative process, even at the management level within the business. As a result, decisions aren't the responsibility of one person within each studio and studios don't focus exclusively on their local markets. Ultimately, concerns about spending money on travel diminished as the organisation wanted as much face to face interaction as possible.

One of the key benefits of increased global mobility is that leadership teams are learning and collaborating more, according to McLean. "We are truly operating as an international firm, whereas before we had a bunch of offices in a bunch of different locations …

"We've moved our principals and corporate services team managers from being quite static in where they're based, to moving around a lot more. They travel around Australia and internationally; I visit every studio at least once a year. That means they get to know us personally and they're getting to know the directors more, so it makes the team more like one studio."

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