Sir Robert McAlpine builds on its future-proofed reward strategy with a family focus

As a construction and civil engineering business with a history spanning over 150 years, family-friendly benefits may not be an obvious thing that springs to mind when considering Sir Robert McAlpine’s reward strategy. However, as a family-owned and run organisation, the employer recognises the importance of providing support and assistance that evolves along with its workforce. Karen Brookes, executive director of people and infrastructure at Sir Robert McAlpine, explains: “It is about trying to ensure that we look after our people and we provide a range of benefits that allows us to reward and recognise at the various levels in the organisation, and in a modern, forward-looking way.

“[This] is why our Family First piece is so important for us, in terms of being able to respond to people’s needs now and moving forward. It seems to be constantly changing with Covid-19 [Coronavirus] and everything that’s going on.”

A first for family support

Sir Robert McAlpine introduced its working parents leave package in March 2020, following a trial period. It offers any new parent, whether through birth, adoption or surrogacy, 26-weeks paid leave, irrespective of gender or sexual orientation and is available to employees after 12 months’ service at the organisation. It also introduced a carer’s policy, for staff with caring responsibilities. The plans for the scheme came from the desire to break the mould in what is a traditionally male-dominated sector, and consider how the organisation could support the changing family construct, explains Brookes. She has noted that the younger generations coming through the organisation place more value on work-life balance, such as the Family First policy, over salary and bonus: “Momentum has been building over the last couple of years around the agile and flexible-working agenda, and the need, irrespective of whether you are the mum or the dad, to juggle families and to be able to flex working hours in a contract of employment around that family.

“So we’ve been working to change all of those policies to make them much more future proofed and much more applicable to families, however that make up of a family might be. Families nowadays are very different. It was about trying to make sure we are as inclusive as we could be around the family.”

Inclusive employer

The organisation has seven affinity networks which represent: working families; Black, Asian and minority ethnic (Bame); lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender plus (LGBT+); age; gender; ability and social mobility. The networks are chaired by employee volunteers and each is sponsored by a board member. The networks raised the issue of becoming a more family-focused organisation, which led to the initial discussions around the Family First initiative.

“The consequence of that was that we came up with an approach that said, ‘okay, we need to be really radical and we’re going to pull our maternity, paternity and carers policy all in together into a family-first approach,” explains Brookes. “Definitely for the first time in construction, and probably for the first time in a lot of different sectors, we said we’d match our maternity leave with paternity, and we’re going to treat mothers and fathers exactly the same.”

It was for the Family First policy that Sir Robert McAlpine was awarded the Best benefits to support work-life balance award at the Employee Benefits Awards 2020. The organisation also offers flexible working in terms of adjusted start and finish times, part-time positions and job shares.

The Family First initiative supports the organisation in being an inclusive employer; it aims to attract more female candidates and individuals from different ethnic backgrounds in order to truly reflect the communities in which it works. “The competitive nature of the construction sector and the marketplace, retention and the whole attraction piece, is clearly a big area for us,” says Brookes. “I think we’ve been at the front, I’m not saying we’re leading the way, in terms of agile and flexible working, and introducing the Family First policy.”

Work-life balance

In addition to flexible-working arrangements and the Family First policy, Sir Robert McAlpine offers employees a sabbatical programme, but made a distinctive change to this a few years ago.  “Sabbaticals have always been predominantly an unpaid thing,” says Brookes. “So what we did was introduce a sabbatical bank element as part of the policy.”

As long as an employee takes the minimum holiday required each year, they can bank some of their leave days  into their sabbatical bank. This means that an employee could be in a position after a few years to take several weeks off as a paid sabbatical. “With Covid-19, we’ve made a slight change in that clearly people haven’t been able to take holidays, so we’ve allowed them to pay those [days] into their sabbatical bank as well,” says Brookes.

Wellbeing to combat the pandemic 

Sir Robert McAlpine has always placed employees’ health and wellbeing high on its priority list with an employee assistance programme (EAP), mental health first aiders and discounted gym membership, for example. But during the pandemic, the employer realised that it needed to take a different tack and address different issues. This included supporting the mental and physical wellbeing of all employees, whether they were working on site, at home, or had been placed on furlough. Staff were able to use the EAP for help with issues such as stress or fatigue, and the organisation used its communication channels to support other areas of wellbeing. “We’ve recorded quite a few webinars, and short, sharp ‘call and connects’ with both populations: people that were retained and people that were furloughed, to make sure that we are addressing the questions that they’ve got,” explains Brookes. “There was a daily exercise [webinar] from an external organisation and there was [a focus on] food: how to ensure that [employees] are eating well as well as exercising, and what [they] need to do in terms of mental wellbeing.”

Financial wellbeing

Like many organisations that have been adversely affected by the pandemic, Sir Robert McAlpine put a pay reduction in place. The board took a 40% pay reduction and the rest of the organisation volunteered to take a 20% reduction, in line with furloughed staff who received 80% of pay. The organisation also put in place a hardship fund, which is a grant paid out to individuals who were facing financial difficulties. It paid out for situations such for parents who were struggling because they could not work due to sites closing during the pandemic, or to help with rental deposits or to pay utility bills. “Hopefully it is not a regular occurrence, but something that as a family-orientated business, we felt we needed to do to support people,” says Brookes.

She believes that some of the most valuable benefits the organisation offers are the Family First policy, the hardship grant and flexible working. These provide employees with an experience that aligns with their own values and helps to support local communities. “I think younger people are more interested in the things that sit around salary and bonus; they are interested in what [an employer’s] family-related policies are, [its] record on the environment, and what [it is] doing on net zero carbon and sustainable building. They are much more interested in that more holistic picture in terms of the world they’re bringing their children up in, and having a decent world for them to inherit.”

At a glance

Sir Robert McAlpine is a construction and engineering organisation with approximately 2,200 employees. Job roles are varied but include section engineer, package engineer, planner, design manager, work manager, project director and office manager.

The workforce comprises 79% male employees, 17% female; the average age of employee is 41 and the average length of service is six years.

Business objectives that impact employee benefits

The organisation has an objective to become the best place to work and to acheive profitable growth through its Build Sure commitment on projects.

Career history

Karen Brookes, executive director of people and infrastructure, joined Sir Robert McAlpine in July 2017. Throughout her career she has held various positions including personnel office, head of HR operations and HR director.

At Sir Robert McAlpine, Brookes cites some of her key acievements as the  development and deployment of its reward and recognition approach, policies and processes including its job family framework; a behavioural competence model aligned to organisational values; and a salary structure that enables benchmarking internally and externally to ensure the organisation remains competitive, but that provides career path routes and transparency to aid the growth and development of its people.

This has enabled the organisation to tackle issues such as tracking and working to close the gender pay gap, and addressing retention and attraction, which is critical to the ongoing success of the business.

Brookes has also introduced policies and benefits that complement the organisation’s family heritage and values, including an agile and flexible-working policy. the Family First Policy, birthday leave day, and the affinity networks.