Employee-friendly approach a must

As Clear Communications moves from being a traditional telco into the online world it's coming up with initiatives to retain and attract skilled staff.

As Clear Communications moves from being a traditional telco into the online world it's coming up with initiatives to retain and attract skilled staff. Kirstin Mills spoke to Clear's director of business transformation and human resources Peter Merry about the changes he's introduced since coming on board last year.

How have the changes in Clear’s business reflected the way it handles human resources?

As we move our business away from being a traditional telco to a business more aligned with the online world, critical to our success is going to be to get the right people in our business and keep those people who we have with us.

People are no longer satisfied with traditional employment models. They want a work environment, which offers many things - important things like: the balance between work and home life; rewards and benefits which meet a modern life style and which extend beyond pay; a work environment they feel comfortable in; and a management style, which is different from the old command and control.

Obviously running through all of this there has to be a strong commercial ethic. You can’t get too warm and fuzzy – we’re running a business here in an extremely competitive and fast-moving environment.

When you started with Clear, what did you see as the issues facing the company?

There was more of a telco about us and less of the online. I think we’ve made quite big strides since our new shareholder [BT] took over. I was lucky to join the business just after they’d moved through a period of uncertainty I guess. Now we have the groundwork and confidence to move forward.

Since we had that security, our online services division was able to kick in and was able to accelerate the move away from the old telco echoes towards the business that we need and want to be. And that in turn made the timing right for the sorts of things we’re doing now on a HR front. Had we tried to do those things prior to that time, it would have been entirely inappropriate - whereas now it’s the right thing for us to be doing. It makes commercial sense.

So what concrete things have you done?

We’re trialling a number of things after consultation with our staff. We held some focus groups and one of the questions we asked was if you could introduce five new benefits into the business, what would they be? From that we had a number of ideas.

The children’s play area in the café was one of them. We have a number of working mothers in our business and they were saying this work life/family life balance is hard to achieve. One woman’s caregiver was bringing her child into see her at lunch-time and she said: “Wouldn’t it be nice if when my children visit me at lunch-time, there were facilities for the children?” We’ve had extremely positive feedback from it. What we’re trying to do is be smart. Do the easy things that add real value to people’s life.

Another thing that came up was maternity benefits. That will be significantly more expensive. What our people said to us was, "when you have a baby it’s expensive". So what we have done is introduced – for our permanent full-time staff – 14 weeks’ paid maternity leave. You get this in the form of a loan. When you come back and work for the company it becomes a non-repayable grant after a year. You have to have worked for the business for about a year to be eligible.

If you come back to full-time employment after 14 weeks then we have a return to work incentive grant, which is an extra four weeks. One of our people said to us that there’s a danger here – that you’re bribing us to come back after 14 weeks. Our response was "no way". First of all, there’s nothing to say that you have to spend that money on yourself. Put it in a trust fund and let it pay for the first year of university if you like.

The reason for providing this money is that many people want to return to work and yet there are costs associated with doing that – caregivers and so on. This may help you to make that transition, but there’s no pressure; the choice is yours.

So what’s in it for Clear?

We believe that this will assist good employees to return to us. What we want to do in this highly competitive environment is make this a place in which people want to work. We also think that when the message gets out, that people will find this attractive. It’s attractive from a financial point of view, and we’ll also be seen to be doing the right thing.

This is the first in a number of steps we hope to take towards dealing with the issue of parenting in a two-income household. Again, we always want to be commercially sensible so we’ve taken it one step at a time

What about parental leave for fathers?

Some people have said this hasn’t gone as far as it ought to have gone. You can’t build Rome in a day and we always have to do the financially sensitive thing. Our stated long-term objective is to do the right thing for parents, but we had to prioritise. The fact is women have the babies and the New Zealand labour legislation differentiates between maternity absence and parental leave. We’ve addressed maternity absence first because that’s where the priority lies and later we’ll extend that as and where we can. We have to monitor the affordability.

Where did the idea of having mountain bikes for lunch-time use come from?

Many of our people go out and exercise at lunch-time and one of the messages that came through in the focus groups was: what about recreational facilities? The example was mountain bikes and that’s where we got the idea from.

We put them in here on a trial basis and the bikes are well used. We’re always striking a commercially sensible balance. We don’t want to be faddish. We want to provide benefits which are of true value rather than just window dressing.

You also have a casual dress code?

When we were looking for things that would make for a more relaxed, less corporate environment, we talked about casual dress codes. The difference between our casual dress code and many other casual dress codes is that we immediately went for a five-day-a-week casual dress code. We didn’t say only Fridays.

In the States they have formal workdays now – there’s been a backlash. They make a fun thing out of it and come in wearing tuxedos. I think it’s great – and who knows, we may do that too, because the idea is to be able to laugh.

Life is serious. People have great pressures. Time poverty is a reality. People are spending more and more time at work and work needs to lighten up - for very sound commercial reasons. The commercial theme is the critical thing – we’re in business.

How do you measure the success of these initiatives?

There are no absolute measures on a day to day basis. But later in the year we will run a company-wide staff survey and the general questions will be “how are we doing? Are we meeting your needs?” And that’s how we’ll test.

We also prefer to use focus groups, which are pretty good, because they’re more intimate.

How important is it for Clear to be an employer of choice given you’re competing for staff in a global market?

It’s critical. In fact it’s our last defence. It’s a bit passé to be talking in these terms, because everybody wants to be an employer of choice. But there are those who talk about it and those who do things about it and we are doing our best to do things about it. I think that action and flexibility are the watchwords of our environment.

It must be critical to have the support of executive management given the costs that are involved.

Happily, we’ve got an executive team who think the same way and are extremely supportive of it.

But let’s talk about these costs. Casual dress code? There’s no cost. Children’s area? Not a huge cost. Mountain bikes? Not a great cost. The maternity benefit is a different thing.

We’re very aware of the fact that it’s all very well to introduce a whole bunch of superficial stuff into the business but what about the more meaningful benefits?

One of the things that came through in the focus groups is that people wanted to participate in the business – equity participation - so we have driven for that through our shareholder.

BT of course is a global giant and they have a number of, I guess you might call them, products in that area. We have succeeded in getting approval in introduce a BT share scheme into the business. So in amongst all these arguably light-weight benefits, which together incrementally amount to differentiation, we’re pleased to be able to offer these more substantial benefits.

Are there any differences between the way an old-style telco would have thought about these issues as opposed to the approach you’re now taking?

I think one of the major differences between an old-style organisation and the organisation we find ourselves being today, is the rapidity with which things are happening.

I’ve worked in bureaucratic businesses. You come up with an idea and there are committees and you think about it, talk about it, and stuff around and then finally somebody says no because that’s the easy thing to do and everyone shrugs their shoulders. Here we just talk about it and do it. There’s a sense of action here.

The [speed of the] Zfree launch epitomises the new Clear. If there really hadn't really been a collaborative, round-the-clock team effort by bright people who were inspired it wouldn’t have happened. I’d like our whole business to be like that.

Nothing succeeds like success. I think it’s absolutely outstanding and our people think so too which has lifted everyone. We try to celebrate that – that’s another thing we do here.

Many organisations have monthly get-togethers - drinks and everyone stands around. Departments stand together and talk to one another and everyone looks at their watches and leaves early. We’ve tried to do that differently. Every major business unit hosts – every six weeks - a celebration. We’ve had Ian Scherger’s crowd with a surf machine in the Atrium and a discotheque. We had St Patrick’s Day here with green and white balloons and Irish line dancing and an Irish band. It’s to have a laugh. Life is so serious – potentially.

Are you seeing any success with turnover rates yet?

Labour turnover figures are showing encouraging moves in the right direction and some of the feedback we’re getting from external interviews is good. I asked someone in an interview the other day “Why do you want to join Clear?”

The answer was: “you guys have turned a corner.”

What about benefits of being part of BT?

We’re very fortunate to have the links with BT. They have everything you would expect of a wealthy global player and we are able to plug into that. The BT Academy is a BT internal education and personal development institution, which is based out of Singapore.

It has a range of programmes available from, at the top end, attendance at top business schools, and at the opposite end, online learning programmes which would be beyond our capability to develop here. We wouldn’t have the resources or time to develop it here. We haven’t fully plugged into it yet, but it’s there and we will start to bring it online.

We have a number of people here on secondment from other parts of BT, and our intention would be that other people should have the opportunity for secondment to BT’s operations which are all over the world. BT has joint venture relationships with businesses all around the Pacific Rim.

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