Employer profile: The British Library

U_library_maryC.jpgThe British Library’s primarily public-funded status poses challenges over pay, so with staff generally looking for a better employment deal it has turned its attention to employee benefits, says Vicki Taylor

The British Library is a unique organisation that receives and files a copy of every item published in the UK, including newspapers, comics, magazines and books.

Its imposing flagship building in St Pancras, London is visited by around 19,000 people each month, including researchers, academics, entrepreneurs, students and school children, and houses a collection of 150 million items, reading rooms and a conference centre.

Despite its heavy footfall, the library is keenly aware it is not immune from the digital revolution and realises users increasingly expect to find what they are looking for at the click of the button rather than at the turn of a page. As a result, the library has embarked on a project to digitalise 100,000 of its books and part of its newspaper collection to make some information accessible online.

Mary Canavan, director of HR, explains this approach has even had an impact on its annual report. “This year, we are going to be publishing our annual report purely online and that is a step in saying, ‘if we are serious about [the internet], this is what we are going to be doing’.”

The library also faces challenges caused by the huge volume of items it has to store. “Our storage capacity is full or nearly full and we are in the middle of building what will be the biggest robotic storage facility in the world in Yorkshire’s Boston Spa,” explains Canavan.

This site is home to 1,000 of the library’s 2,100 employees. It houses many of the library’s administrative services and is not generally open to the public. Items stored at the facility are transported overnight to London if requested by a reader.

British Library employees are also based at London’s Newspaper Library and at the House of Lords, as well as the main site.

While many of them view the library as an employer of choice in its field, pay can be an issue. The library though is bound by tight pay constraints because it is 80% government funded.

When Canavan joined the British Library four years ago, she asked employees [about] the issues they faced: “Without question, everyone said ‘we don’t get paid very well’.”

For this reason, the organisation’s benefits package took on greater significance. “We had to focus on the benefits side to make the overall pay and benefits package as attractive as possible in terms of retaining our existing employees and attracting new staff. That is where we had the flexibility and could be creative,” she adds.

One of her first tasks was to pull all of the information about its existing package together into a benefits booklet for staff, which was published for the first time last year. This was intended to increase employees’ understanding of the benefits that were already in place, which include a generous defined benefit pension scheme.

But the organisation has also worked hard to introduce new benefits for employees.

Until now, for example, childcare vouchers were only offered to its London-based staff, but this month, these will be rolled out across all its sites. At the start of this month, the organisation also introduced a voluntary benefits scheme offering discounts on products such as holidays and theatre tickets through a password-protected website.

One of the main areas Canavan has been keen to introduce benefits around is health and wellbeing. Last month, the library held a second annual health event at both its main London building and Boston Spa site. These two-day events have enabled employees to take advantage of a range of free health assessments, including bone density tests, liver function checks, and cholesterol and diabetes tests. Providers were also brought onsite to talk about the library’s discounted gym memberships and voluntary private medical insurance schemes, as well as to give advice on issues such as healthy eating and stopping smoking.

“The [events] have been a resounding success. Last year we had a few people who had no idea that they had diabetes and high blood pressure. Even if it is just five or six people you have captured [at an early stage] before it becomes a life-threatening illness then [the health fairs are] worth their weight in gold,” Canavan explains.

She believes the events, which are backed up by a programme of voluntary health benefits, such as Indian head massage, yoga classes and osteopath appointments, have impacted on productivity and absence levels.

“Our sickness [absence] has gone down from over ten days to 7.5 days [a year] over three years, which is quite a good reduction. In part, that is down to our wellbeing initiatives and [employees] having more energy and more motivation to come to work,” she says.

The wellbeing programme has also helped to boost the standing of the HR department among employees. “HR is [often] seen as the bad guys. [We] bring in performance management or managing attendance [and] we are seen as the culprits, but this has been wonderful to have this great feedback.”

While the new benefits are clearly appreciated by employees, Canavan realises there is still a way to go to meet expectations around pay. As the organisation is 80% government-funded, the Treasury has to approve how much of the library’s allocated budget can be spent on salaries.

One of the achievements Canavan is particularly proud of is securing a pot of money to award performance-related bonuses two years ago, although this will have to be re-negotiated this year. If the Treasury does not approve this for a second time, there will be some money left in the pot from the previous deal to reward exceptional staff, but Canavan realises this is not ideal. “The challenge is staff saying that it is not going up year-on-year in terms of what is there to reward good performance. This is one of the challenges [in] the public sector in terms of what you have around your pay remit and what you can spend on staff,” she says.

Another issue facing Canavan and her team is that the library historically has very long pay scales. It has set itself a target to reduce these over the next eight-to-ten years. “If you wanted to shorten the scales [more quickly] it would mean you would have to move huge numbers of staff up four or five points on the scale. They would get significant pay increases and we couldn’t afford that,” she explains.

However, it is not just the constraints around pay that have led the library to look more closely at its benefits offering. “Today, staff want more. Pay on its own is not a motivator. We all need to have a reasonable amount of pay in terms of paying [for] mortgages and living [expenses], but it is far wider than that in terms of what [would satisfy] staff, motivate them and also attract them to come and work for an organisation.”

One advantage of being linked to the civil service, however, is the defined benefit pension scheme offered to permanent employees or those on contracts of more than 11 months. It attracts employer contributions upwards of 17%, while employee contributions are set at 3.5%. There is also another scheme , called the partnership pension, which is also available to temporary or casual employees, and to staff on fixed-term contracts of less than 11 months. Individuals can join and pay no contributions, but will still receive age-related contributions of up to 12.5%. Those who do put money in are eligible for additional matched contributions of up to 3%.

However, even with its recent drive on benefits and the fact that working for the library represents the pinnacle of many employees’ careers, the organisation has not been immune from the general war for talent that many employers are struggling with. In particular, Canavan says it has been difficult to find HR staff. “I have found it hard to get high-calibre HR people in. That has been a difficulty [which], in part, is because it is a incredibly competitive market out there in HR at the moment.”

Although this makes recruitment hard, Canavan believes the situation is good for the HR field.

“Every organisation at long last is recognising the value of HR. One of the things that attracted me [to the British Library] is that the chief executive recognises the value of HR and the development of a proactive people strategy,” she adds.

With this backing, Canavan and her 33-strong HR team intend to continue striving to make the library an employer of choice. Next on the agenda are plans for separate health sessions for men and women aimed at tackling issues pertinent to them, as well as lunchtime talks on healthy eating issues. “There is always room for improvement,” Canavan concludes.

The British Library at a glance

The British Library was set up in 1972 under an Act of Parliament. It brought together eight organisations, including the library department of the British Museum and the National Lending Library for Science and Technology.

The library has three main sites: its flagship building in St Pancras, London, the Newspaper Library in Colindale, north London and Boston Spa in Yorkshire. The latter houses many of the library’s administrative services and is not generally open to the public.

The library is 80% government funded, while the remaining 20% of funds is raised through sponsorship and fundraising. It has an average footfall of 228,000 through the doors of the main London site each year and houses a collection of more than 150 million items. The site also hosts regular exhibitions and lectures, and has an adjoining conference centre available for hire.

Career profile

Mary Canavan joined the British Library as director of HR four years ago after being headhunted for the post. Prior to moving to the organisation, Canavan worked for five different London local authorities.

She began her career at Camden Council, while also studying for her Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) qualifications and prior to joining the library was head of HR at the Romford-based London Borough of Havering for five years.

She has worked in all areas of HR, but has specialist knowledge in industrial relations. Her work at the British Library marks the biggest involvement she has had in compensation and benefits so far.

On being headhunted for her current position, Canavan says: “I wanted to be a director and I think it is fair to say I was also thinking at that time that I didn’t want to spend all of my career in local government, although I was very clear that I wanted to stay in the public sector. That is where my value base is.”

Paying to keep on learning

Simon Marcelli is a corporate strategist in the finance and corporate resources team at the British Library. He takes advantage of a range of the benefits on offer, including the pension scheme, learning and development award, season ticket loan, and health and wellbeing perks.

As part of the library’s scheme which allows employees to request financial help of up to £500 a year for non-work related training, Marcelli receives assistance for his Open University Degree in the History of Medicine. “As for the wellbeing programme, I have never seen anything like it. I have had the benefits of the Japanese seated acupressure massage and osteopathy, as well as a range of tests at the [recent] health day,” he says.

Marcelli also values the free entry to national museums and galleries he receives by showing his staff card. “In the case of the Velazquez exhibition at The National Gallery I was able to get in even though it was sold out,” he adds.

What are the benefits?

Although the library sits outside of the mainstream civil service, permanent employees and staff on contracts of longer than 11 months are eligible to join the principal civil service defined benefit scheme. Employees must contribute 3.5%, while the library’s contributions start at 17%. There are other schemes on offer for temporary staff that also provide employer contributions.

Childcare vouchers are available to all employees. There is also an on-site nursery at the Boston Spa site, where employees can get 10% discount on places, and discounted school holiday play schemes in London and Yorkshire.

Career development support
Staff taking qualifications relevant to their role may recieve sponsorship of study costs and paid study leave.

Personal development
Support of up to £500 a year is available for qualifications or courses not directly relevant to employees’ jobs.

Wellbeing benefits
An employee assistance programme, discounted private medical cover, and voluntary benefits such as yoga classes.

Flexible working
Staff can choose from a variety of flexible working arrangements including compressed hours, part-time work, job shares and career breaks.

Voluntary benefits
Interest-free season ticket loans and free admission to national museums and galleries.