UK: Building People

Last Updated: 27 August 2007

Originally published in Forward Thinking, August 2007

Forward Thinking talks to Alison Yiangou, finance director of architect firm Peter Yiangou Associates (PYA), about recent changes to the practice and their approach to people management.

Founded in 1981, PYA is a successful architectural practice in the Cotswolds, with projects valued from £250,000 to £10m. Smith & Williamson advises PYA on a number of people management issues.

How has people management changed for your practice?

We have expanded quite rapidly in the past year. In May 2006, the 6 partners appraised 5 staff, a year later we appraised 18 staff, and we’ve had 4 people join since spring 2007, so that shows how quickly we’ve grown! When you’re 10 or 11 people it’s really very different to when you’re 28 people.

The way I think of it is that a tadpole doesn’t need a skeleton but a frog does! When you get bigger you need different things to maintain the structure of your business.

So how did you go about developing your business structure?

Two years ago, we formed a Limited Liability Partnership (LLP). That’s how we first came into contact with Smith & Williamson Solomon Hare (Smith & Williamson’s Bristol office), when we needed advice on restructuring from a partnership to an LLP.

From this initial contact, we heard about Smith & Williamson’s HR workshops, which we thought could be useful to us. So we decided to attend a series of six HR workshops and were really impressed by the calibre of people. The workshops made us realise how much we needed to change – not just legal things like contracts, but in terms of doing the best for our staff.

What made you take the decision to ask for HR support?

There are two aspects to this. The first is that we’re not big enough to employ a specialist personnel manager. Asking Smith & Williamson to help us with people management is exactly like having an HR department on the end of the line. Second, the People Management team was able to help us with a complete revamp of our recruitment procedures, contracts of employment and staff handbook. They gave us an ‘HR MOT’, whereby they reviewed all of our HR practices and spoke to our members of staff individually in order to identify areas for improvement.

What issues emerged from the review?

Probably the main areas where we weren’t doing well enough were training and communication. Although we have a philosophy of open communication, when you grow quite quickly you suddenly realise that not everyone knows what’s going on in the way that they did when you were a smaller organisation.

How did you practically address these two issues?

We are developing our training policy and working with Smith & Williamson to encourage our employees to take day release courses to achieve further qualifications and develop their skills. We also encourage staff to undertake continuous professional development. To support this, we run in-house events and workshops, where specialists give talks on professional issues like sustainable buildings, planning law and contracts.

During staff appraisals, we are very careful to draw out any training needs that we think staff could benefit from or undertake themselves. We also have a follow-up process to make sure that those training needs are properly addressed. Regarding communication, Smith & Williamson made recommendations such as a staff notice board and a monthly lunch for the whole practice to talk about issues that have come up, how things are going and so on.

How did the review help you move your business forward?

It was helpful to have the issues about training and communication objectified. The People Management team offered actual practical support to help us bring in new measures, for example, they helped us draft our staff handbook. We gave them the basis of what we wanted in the handbook and they worked with us to make sure it included all the things it should from an employment legislation point of view. Our practice administrator is now working with Smith & Williamson to develop new training documents.

How does the People Management team work with you on a day-today basis?

Essentially it is a collaborative effort. The team provides their skills, knowledge and expertise on the legal requirements around staff issues like discipline, maternity leave, flexible working, paternity leave, end of leave, adoption leave and age discrimination.

They also give us letter formats for employee records and have suggested an induction process which we can adapt to our practice needs. Alternatively, we can send the team a proposal and they will review it to make sure we are complying with legislation. We can always check back with the People Management team to make sure everything is acceptable.

Going back to the staff handbook, this is a collaborative process because it combines things that we have to address, such as employment legislation, things that we should address, such as good practice, and things that we specifically want to address, such as the commitment to being a carbon neutral practice.

What staff management issues do you face?

Recently, a secretary returned from maternity leave and requested to reduce her days from five to two. The People Management team supported us with all the legal and practical implications. They also helped us with our latest round of recruitment advertising, from choosing an advertising firm to placing the ad.

On the rare occasion when a disciplinary issue has come up, the People Management team has talked us through it step by step. For example, if we have to write a letter to an employee, we can check the issues with the team and they will say, "look, you’re safer not saying this" or advise us on different levels of procedure.

What’s the most important aspect of people management for your practice?

The absolute bottom line is compliance and employment legislation, but the main thing for us as partners is how we look after our people. In an architectural practice your people are your main asset. We want our employees to feel happy and fulfilled as people, so we try to provide them with the support they need to fulfil their objectives in both their private and working lives. We have a philosophy that we work to live, not live to work, and a life-work balance is very important to us. If there’s a problem, our staff know that they can come and talk to us. We try to nip difficulties in the bud rather than let issues build up.

Which areas do you want to look at next with regard to people management?

Recently, we’ve been on Smith & Williamson’s workshop on performance management. Next we’ll be looking at team building and helping senior people to manage staff.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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