Bringing work to life: Winning employers show how

( Skifield operator NZSki, infrastructure specialist Downer EDI Works, accountancy firm BDO Spicers Taranaki and Manukau City Council are among the winners in the EEO Trust Work & Life Awards 2009 announced on 29 October.

“People count, rather than just being counted as a cost, in all these winning organisations,” says Dr Philippa Reed, EEO Trust Chief Executive. “These employers make decisions that back their philosophies and values around staff management, even in difficult times. They tackle the difficult issues.”

The Awards, now in their 12th year, celebrate organisations which actively invest in their businesses by investing in their diverse workforces. The Awards attracted a record 55 entries this year and were celebrated by 350 people at an Auckland War Memorial Museum dinner. Māori Party co-leader and Minister of Disability Issues Hon. Tariana Turia presented the Awards.

“Every organisation that entered this year’s EEO Trust Work & Life Awards is working hard to make a positive difference to the lives of those they work with, knowing that the payoffs show in productivity, loyalty and better bottom lines,” says Dr Reed. “The employers are of all sizes, from all sectors, and they demonstrate why long-term staff development is important, even when the economic environment gets tough.”

NZSki, which runs skifields at Coronet Peak, The Remarkables and Mt Hutt, won both the Supreme Award and the Tomorrow’s Workforce Award for NZSki U, its extensive training and development programme to grow leaders, improve retention and highlight career paths in a seasonal industry. Highly commended was Wellington’s Skilled Migrant Programme, a partnership between recruiters The Johnson Group, Victoria University and the Rotary Club of Wellington.

National infrastructure giant Downer EDI Works won the new Department of Labour-backed Skills Highway Award for Way2Work, a literacy and numeracy training programme which has so far involved nearly a third of its 3,300 employees. Hamilton company Longveld Engineering was highly commended in the same category.

Manukau City Council won the Work & Life/Diversity Initiative Award for its staff health and wellbeing programme, Wellness Connection, which has reduced absenteeism and boosted staff engagement.

Auckland television production company RSVP Productions won the Workplace Diversity Award for its embrace of employees living with disability. Caughey Preston Trust, which runs a large hospital and rest home in Remuera, Auckland, was highly commended.

New Plymouth accountancy firm BDO Spicers Taranaki won the Workplace Work & Life Award for its policies that promote flexible working alongside employee health and wellness.

Winners of the Walk The Talk Award, which recognises leadership in diversity management, were Mark Witchalls, co-owner of frozen-goods manufacturer Blenheim Foods Marlborough, and Jim Burdett, founder and chief executive of Auckland mental health services provider Mind and Body Consultants.

The judges were: Alison Quesnel, General Manager NZ for natural health product company Blackmores; Paul Hellyer, IBM New Zealand Human Resources Manager; Philippa Reed, EEO Trust Chief Executive; and Jenny Thornton, former Director of the Upskilling Programme Office, Department of Labour.

Winners’ stories in more detail

Supreme Award Winner and Winner of Tomorrow’s Workforce Award: NZSki. The Supreme Award recognises all-round impact and innovation, and is chosen from the winners in each category. The Tomorrow’s Workforce Award celebrates innovative approaches to preparing for the needs of the future workforce.

In winter, NZSki’s permanent team of 40 is supplemented by nearly 1000 seasonal employees, who work in 16 departments as varied as ski field operations, childcare and catering. Traditionally, NZSki has relied on temporary job-hunters, often young people on their OE looking for fast, fun jobs for a few months – “one-season wonders” as NZSki Human Resources Manager Kevin Sharpe calls them.

There were few ongoing job opportunities to offer to career-minded Kiwis in the past, he says, and those who did return in subsequent years were not always the best performers.

In a bid to attract and keep top talent, the company asked its mostly young employees what motivated and engaged them at work. In response, it has created a high-performing, values-driven culture over the last three years, offering a range of national on-the-job qualifications, and training and mentoring to show employees a career path in a seasonal industry.

The programme is underpinned by clear values. NZSki promises its people “life as it ought to be”, exhorting its mainly Generation Y employees to look out for each other, to achieve better results through “co-operating interdependently”, to take responsibility and to be purpose-driven and motivated.

In a year when business failures, job losses and swine flu hit the headlines, NZSki has seen revenue increase by 169 per cent, package sales treble and its staff retention rate rise from the traditional 30 per cent to nearly 60 per cent. The workforce is now 64 per cent New Zealanders, compared to 34 per cent in previous years.

The EEO Trust Work & Life Awards judges praised the vision and energy of Kevin Sharpe and NZSki CEO, James Coddington, in their goal to develop long-term leaders from within. The company has found a key to keeping Generation Y engaged and committed at work. “Part of it is freedom,” says Alison Quesnel, one of four judges, “but it’s also about feeling that they have a say.”

The partnership of The Johnson Group, Victoria University and the Rotary Club of Wellington was highly commended in Tomorrow’s Workforce Award. Judges praised the commitment and cooperation underpinning the unique Skilled Migrant Programme, which pools the educational resources of Victoria University’s School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies, the mentoring skills of Rotary Club of Wellington members, and the human resources expertise of recruiter The Johnson Group.

The initiative targets talented migrants with permanent residence whose native language is not English and who have been unable to land a job matching their qualifications in New Zealand. The programme prepares them to find jobs which match their skills and experience.

Students must have a university or equivalent qualification, at least two years’ work experience, and good English. Each intake of 12 migrants begins with five weeks of study at Victoria University, learning New Zealand English and exploring local social conventions.

The Johnson Group finds the students six-week internships with local employers. Throughout, Rotary members take on roles as varied as classroom volunteers, guest lecturers and job mentors. The programme has had 85 students since 2005; 68 are now working in jobs which match their skills and aspirations.

The course is, in the words of its participants, life-changing. Here’s Filipino Rodolfo Divino, now working for the Holiday Inn’s banquet and conferences team: “No one can exactly tell the profound positive impact of this course both mentally and emotionally, except those who were the product of this programme – us.”

Skills Highway Award: Downer EDI Works. The Skills Highway Award, introduced this year with the support of the Department of Labour, celebrates workplaces that successfully tackle literacy and numeracy skills development.

Engineering and infrastructure company Downer EDI Works has 3,300 employees across the country. After achieving good results from a 2007 literacy project for foremen and team leaders, Works developed a programme for frontline workers.

The result was Way2Work, a four-day programme developed under the Government’s upskilling strategy. It started in June last year and will have covered nearly 1000 employees in 39 locations from Kaitaia to Invercargill by the end of this year.

More than 70 per cent of those doing Way2Work have no school qualifications, but they earn five safety-related unit standards and can add credits to earn a national certificate in civil infrastructure.

The benefits, says Works General Manager of HR Chris Meade, include lower staff turnover and less absenteeism. Workplace safety has improved, with a steady decline in incidents as Way2Work was introduced alongside a dedicated safety training programme.

One employee says, “I have learned to stand back and look at a job before going full-tilt into it.” Another writes: “I’m trying some of the things I’ve learnt with my kids. I try to get them to point out some dangerous things around our house and on the roads when we go for walks.”

Chris Meade says that although Way2Work costs $1800 per learner, it’s more than just good business sense. “Empowering a workforce of men and women to get the most from life is a great achievement in any terms,” she says. “The human side matters.”

Highly commended: Longveld Engineering. Due to local skills shortages, migrants make up one-third of the 60-strong workforce at Hamilton stainless steel fabricator Longveld Engineering. Just two of the migrants speak English as their first language.

The company goes to a great deal of effort to help new migrants settle, but last year realised that some employees’ lack of fluency was hampering performance.

The remedy was a tailored programme that offers the 10 employees who needed help 1.5 hours of on-site numeracy and literacy training each week. Activities include filling in workplace forms, matching safety signs with words, and simple numeracy skills.

“Some of the trainees have gobbled up the course material unexpectedly quickly in their desire to learn,” says Pam Roa, Business Services Manager and Director. Components of a national certificate in occupational safety and health have since been included, so employees can earn a qualification as they learn.

Supervisor Tony Northcott says, “The employees in my team who are involved in the literacy and numeracy programme have improved out of sight. Their enthusiasm for their work has lifted dramatically and they continue to improve communication skills with the rest of the team.”

Work & Life/Diversity Initiative Award: Manukau City Council. A little over a year after launching a staff wellness programme for its 1200 employees, Manukau City Council has substantially reduced absenteeism, improved staff engagement and encouraged resilience, readying the organisation for its amalgamation into the Auckland ‘super city’.

“We wanted to encourage staff to take responsibility for their own health – physical, mental and spiritual – by raising awareness and changing negative behaviours related to stress, nutrition and exercise,” says Syd Sykes, Health & Safety Manager.

“We know that healthy people are more productive in the workplace and also enjoy better work-life balance. We also know that a healthy workplace culture creates an environment where staff are willing to go the extra mile for their organisation.”

Wellness Connection was launched in 2008 in the hope that 60 per cent of staff would be involved over a three-year period. The target was reached in just six months. The programme started with a 12-week virtual race, with teams of two to three people using pedometers to monitor their exercise and travel around a virtual racetrack. The challenge captivated staff, with 98 teams entering.

Other elements were health checks, healthy eating sessions, a corporate weight-loss programme and Pilates classes. Resilience workshops were very popular, and more than 20 staff members volunteered to be “wellness champions”, cheerleading the programme.

The programme appears to have had a major impact on absenteeism, which fell by a third in just eight months, representing big savings to the council. “Apart from the obvious spin-offs, the bonus has been that the activities have boosted staff morale and created some great team-bonding opportunities,” says Syd Sykes. “We also saw the potential for those taking part to be influential amongst their colleagues, families and wider communities.”

Workplace Diversity Award: RSVP Productions. This award celebrates organisations that make the most of a diverse workforce. RSVP Productions, founded by documentary maker Robyn Scott-Vincent, produces the Sunday morning TV One programme Attitude, which reflects the aspirations and lifestyles of those living with disability.

When the company started making the show five years ago, New Zealand didn’t appear to have any young presenters, producers or editors with disabilities, despite the fact that one in five New Zealanders lives with disability.

So RSVP Productions decided to develop them itself, providing workplace flexibility to accommodate their needs and equipping them for an eventual mainstream career. Robyn Scott-Vincent, who was sensitised to disability issues by her late son’s learning needs, was also conscious that people living with disability face barriers to employment, leading to talent being overlooked.

RSVP’s team of 11 now includes four people who are quadriplegic, one who is paraplegic and one who has cerebral palsy. Five of these employees are presenters. RSVP ensures that its employees face no physical barriers at work and has made it possible for them to work from home if necessary by providing technical support and backing applications for Government equipment grants.

Jai Waite, who has quadriplegia and has been trained as an editor, can work from home to minimise fatigue. “There’s a focus on what I can do rather than what I can’t,” he says.

Robyn Scott-Vincent believes that giving people flexibility to use their initiative and create their own timetables maximises productivity. “RSVP’s employees treat the flexibility of work hours with respect and are able to work to their full potential. Professionalism is expected at all times, whatever the employee’s physical or intellectual ability.”

Superb organisation helps flexibility work in a deadline-driven environment, with office manager Robyn Barker keeping tabs on people’s whereabouts and story progress, making sure no one is overloaded but deadlines are met.

Says Robyn Scott Vincent: “Everyone who works on the programme is passionate about what we do. We all really do want to ensure everyone has an ordinary life. And working is a huge part of that for most of us.

Highly Commended: Caughey Preston Trust. Effectively managing a diverse workforce to create a cohesive team is critical to the success of Auckland’s Caughey Preston Trust, a rest home, hospital and dementia unit for 220 people staffed by a diverse workforce of roughly the same size. Two-thirds of staff are immigrants and more than half are aged over 50, with some staff in their 70s working full-time.

Deep human values underpin the entire organisational philosophy, with General Manager Gloria Budgen’s job description requiring her “to stimulate, motivate and earn the full support of employees while ensuring equal opportunities exist for all”.

A range of work-life initiatives such as domestic leave, study leave, discretionary leave, and flexible starting and finishing times have created a supportive workplace and engaged workforce with relatively low staff turnover.

Immigrants are supported into their jobs and phased retirement planning enables older workers to move gradually out of the workplace. A number of employees with disabilities are given the support they need, while young employees also receive additional support and training.

Workplace Work & Life Award: BDO Spicers Taranaki. This award celebrates organisations which make the most of the diverse talents of their employees by enabling them to balance work demands and their lives outside work.

Accountancy firm BDO Spicers Taranaki has fully flexible working hours, provided neither clients nor colleagues are inconvenienced. “The minimum number of weekly working hours is 24, but even this can be averaged out,” says Practice Manager Margaret Doyle.

The firm is owned by five principals and employs 79 staff, many of whom work part-time. Job-sharing and part-time work are available at every level of the firm, with flexibility to move from part-time to full-time work and back again while staying in the same role.

People are given personal responsibility for their workloads and careers, and the firm’s flat structure encourages sharing of knowledge and contacts. The payroll system has been designed so people are paid for their actual weekly hours. ‘Leisure banking’ means hours can be banked and paid out at a later date, or accrued.

Margaret Doyle says that in the early days of the transition away from a more command-and-control culture, it was sometimes a “challenge” watching people leaving in droves at 2pm on a Friday. “We addressed the challenges by living the culture and generally getting over ourselves.”

Increased productivity and reduced staff turnover are the main benefits of this high level of flexibility. Margaret Doyle says that if people can choose when they work, they will work when they are most productive.

“There’s no need for clock-watching. We promote positivity and a general respect for each other. To be successful, we need full flexibility, honesty and commitment by all staff. The core value of our organisation is complete trust.”

Walk the Talk Award: Mark Witchalls, Blenheim Foods Marlborough; Jim Burdett, Mind and Body Consultants. This award celebrates leaders who make a difference in their management of a diverse workforce.

Mark Witchalls, who owns Blenheim Foods Marlborough with his wife Shelly, wins the Walk the Talk Award for creating a workplace that offers opportunities for disabled people. The company, which makes frozen foods for takeaway outlets, has three part-time staff, all of whom live with mental illness.

Mark Witchalls adapted production methods and communication styles to help get the best out of his staff, who were often long-term unemployed before coming to the company. They are loyal and productive employees, says Mark Witchalls. In the years since purchasing the business, turnover has increased by 25 per cent and market share has steadily increased.

Mental health expert Jim Burdett, who shares the Walk the Talk Award, says that people have to be mad to work for Auckland-based Mind and Body Consultants. He founded the company with three people 11 years ago and now employs 42 staff, almost all of whom have had experience of mental illness, to deliver mental health support services. The company turns over $2 million annually.

Staff describe Jim Burdett as a principled man who role-models daily that living with mental illness is not a weakness – but a strength that brings wisdom and resilience.

Media Release 30 October 2009 from Equal Employment Opportunities Trust

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