Communication pushes firm to the top

‘This just in…’ Wardrop Engineering hired news service to deliver company information to employees

Employees at Wardrop Engineering know James Popel as the face of human resources for the Canadian engineering, environmental and information technology consulting firm. Recently, they discovered the vice-president of HR also qualified for the last Boston marathon.

His success was one of the human interest stories carried on the company’s intranet news service. Sharing stories, whether they’re about the people or the business, is a priority for Wardrop, which has 13 locations — stretching from Vancouver in the West to Brockville, Ont., in the East — but no head office.

“Rather than being a cold, informal employer, we’re more of a collective,” says Popel. “We know more about one another and share in our successes and try to learn from one another.”

In a company that has worked on such high-profile projects as the Canadarm, Winnipeg’s landmark Provencher Bridge, the partial decommissioning of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor and the rebuilding of New York’s subway line under the former World Trade Center, Popel says the news service has helped gel employees who come from all over the world.

“We have a really diverse workforce in terms of countries they’re from, languages that are spoken and backgrounds. We have folks who have worked in South Africa, Russia, Kazakhstan, South America and people want to know about it,” he says, adding that the service crosses a wide spectrum of stories.

“We’ve got a story here about a tunnel-boring machine. Sounds dull to you and I but to the technical folks, that’s what they want to know.”

The idea for the news service came out of a cross-country tour by Popel and CEO Shayne Smith two years ago. Their focus was on developing a new vision and guiding principles. They got more than they bargained for when they met with Wardrop’s more than 700 employees. The pair soon realized everyone had a story worth sharing.

They hired an outside firm, Axiom News, to develop and edit the news service. It went online in September 2007, with little input from senior management.

“The benefits are fairly massive,” says Smith. “There’s absolutely no editorial control except that the reason they’re there in the first place is to share stories and ideas that relate to constructively reinforcing and improving our focus on our vision and our guiding principles. It can be critical, you can share a frustration, whatever. As long as it’s done in a respectful way.”

From Popel’s perspective, the investment in the news service has been worth it.

“What I see is that our engagement levels are up. The cooperation between business units is up. The rating of the company communications is up. The belief in the information we’re pushing is up,” he says.

Wardrop has made communication with employees a priority since its inception in 1955. Its vision statement is, “People, passion, performance trusted globally,” and it’s intentional that “people” comes first, says Smith.

“It’s not what you say, it’s what you do,” he says.

Opens books to employees

Wardrop is very open with employees, releasing raw results of its employee attitude survey to staff and allowing them to see Wardrop’s full financial statements. This removes the sense that managers are above their employees and underscores employees’ roles in the company, says Smith.

“Part of the role of management is to serve the people that report to them,” he explains. “That whole philosophy has bred passion. We were successful for many years because of that passion. The focus on performance is relatively recent.”

Employee activities

Wardrop has been recognized for keeping its workplace positive with casual dress days, social events, family days, Christmas parties and an annual hockey tournament. Last year, six teams and more than 140 employees competed for the coveted Wardrop Cup.

Popel calls these “gimmees.” They promote a healthy work atmosphere, but also go deeper by making employees feel they truly count, says Popel.

New compensation package

Recently, the company introduced a new compensation package in which employees who meet their performance goals share in Wardrop’s profits. This has added to the “team” atmosphere, says Popel.

“There were some questions and challenges around the design,” he says. “But the one thing that always held fairly consistent — and this was presenting it to the executive and the owners — was the belief that we had to do it. Yes, it was taking money out of our owners’ pockets in the short term but in the long term it’s the right thing to do in terms of retention, engagement, buy-in and helping to drive the company.”

Smith, who appreciates Popel’s strategic planning, even when they disagree, supported the initiative.

“If you truly value your people, you’ll want to invest in them strategically,” he says. “It’s the function of HR to keep the people part going. Numerous times, at the shareholder level and at the management team level, they’ve been sent back to the drawing board to enrich the program. This is not something that happens in many organizations.”

Owners deferred pay

Wardrop’s commitment to its employees shone through in 2004 when, during a slow period, the company’s owners deferred their salaries for three months rather than make drastic cuts, such as layoffs.

“It underscores the value we put in key people,” says Smith. “As senior shareholders it represents our leadership and shows that in good and bad times, we’re connected to our employees.”

The expectation is that these ideas show a return on investment, whether that’s lowering turnover rates or improving employee engagement, says Popel. Occasionally that has meant being brutally honest with managers or improving their leadership abilities.

“My job is not to win everyone over,” he says. “Sometimes it’s sitting down and saying, ‘You know what? You’re coming across as a self-serving jackass. People are not opening up to you. Managers are afraid to come to you. The perception of you is this and you know what? Either you need to change, or we’ve got to look at other options,’” he says.

Danielle Harder is a Whitby, Ont.-based freelance writer.

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