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Culture Underpins Worklife Balance

A unique culture lies at the heart of one law firm’s commitment to work-life balance. Auckland lawyers Meredith Connell won the Large Organisation Award at this year’s EEO Trust Work & Life Awards.
Partners and staff say the firm’s culture is critical in that it guides all decisions, creates a sense of belonging, reinforces behavioural norms and provides a point of difference from other firms. Over the last six years, the firm has grown from about 80 to 160 people; growth which has forced a greater overt commitment to the maintenance and communication of the firm’s culture.

During 2006, CEO Hugh Caughley has conducted a series of culture seminars to inform all staff about “How we do things around here”. Meredith Connell’s major business focus is criminal prosecution work. Legal and support staff are actively involved in serious criminal prosecution matters. Hugh Caughley says it is a very demanding work environment which requires great professional dedication, skill and strength of character. “It is utterly appropriate that the firm should provide all the support programmes necessary to assist staff, not only to perform well professionally, but also to maintain a sense of balance as far as the rest of their lives is concerned,” he says. “As a specialised law firm, Meredith Connell needs to recruit and retain people with an unusual personality profile and an even more unusual skill base. Once such people are identified and trained, the need to retain them is fundamental for the future of the firm.”

Despite the size of the firm, Meredith Connell does not have an HR team. The HR function is shared between Hugh Caughley, the finance manager and partners.This obviously does not prevent great HR practices; as well as winning the EEO award this year, Meredith Connell won the Employer of Choice Award at the 2005 New Zealand Law Awards. Managers focus on adapting expectations around new situations as they arise in people’s lives. As a result, nearly half of Meredith Connell’s employees have flexible work arrangements that take account of their family circumstances, health or other personal situations.

A culture that supports work-life balance is also behind Conversa Global’s success at this year’s EEO Trust Work & Life Awards. Since 1997, the Auckland research consultancy has developed a remuneration strategy which directly rewards people for their outputs on a daily basis. The system includes a base salary, bonuses based on well defined performance criteria, regular performance reviews, bonuses based on company performance and a generous education budget. This creates a culture which encourages Conversa Global’s 18 staff to take individual responsibility for meeting their targets and balancing work with the rest of their lives.

People can choose when and where they work. For example, some staff with children limit their hours of availability during the week or are not available for work at all during school holidays. Director and co-founder Steve Allen has two school-aged children and is often at home in the afternoon to spend time with them. “We work extremely hard at Conversa, but like many businesses there are peaks and troughs, so when there is a trough I am able to get out of the office and pursue other interests without feeling overly guilty about not being at work. “Both the Conversa philosophy and system support enable me to take advantage of down-time.” Mr Allen says he has seen very few other businesses that are so informal about employee hours. “A very high standard is expected from employees and these standards have consistently been delivered to, or exceeded, which makes me believe we have a successful formula.”

Conversa Global’s performance has been impressive; company revenue has grown by nearly 500 percent in five years, while staff numbers have not even doubled. Culture change was essential to the business success of another EEO Trust Work & Life Awards winner, ABB based at Kinleith. ABB took over responsibility for the maintenance and stores related support at the Kinleith Pulp & Paper Mill at the beginning of 2003. The outsourcing process resulted in low staff morale and insecurity, creating a major challenge for the new management team.

One of the first initiatives was a series of ‘Forest Camps’ for all employees to help identify individual and team values and to set goals. From the Forest Camps, a cross-section of managers and staff developed the company’s vision, mission statement, values and goals. A ‘Pathfinders’ group was then formed to organise staff functions, facilitate communication and develop an induction package.

Staff surveys in 2003 and 2005 show a significant shift in organisational culture to more constructive and co-operative attitudes. Meredith Connell too reports substantial benefits from its emphasis on a supportive workplace culture. Turnover of professional staff is around five percent and of support staff 15 percent. Both these figures are half of legal industry averages. “As employees in law firms tend to be mobile, independent, confident and discerning people, they tend not to remain in a firm when they are dissatisfied. “Meredith Connell’s retention levels are therefore a major achievement,” Mr Caughley says.
High staff retention is also a key benefit of Conversa Global’s approach to supporting work-life balance.

No-one has left the company to work for a competitor in the past five years and the three women who have taken parental leave have all returned to work for Conversa Global. Conversa Global directors believe that a critical element of work-life balance is providing a challenging and interesting environment for people – an environment that people want to get up in the morning for. “Balance is an individual thing. What is most important is the core philosophy underpinning how things are done. If that’s in place, individuals will devise tactics to make it work for them.”

This article was written for HRINZ Publication by: Philippa Reed, Chief Executive, EEO Trust.

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