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Best for Fun at Work

In these tricky times, it is hard to imagine there is any room for fun at work. But some examples shine through to prove that there is always time for fun.

WINNER: OPUS INTERNATIONAL

When NCE asked for entries to the Employer Review Fun at Work category we expected news of
a lot of entertaining events and light-hearted activities along with a general feeling that the day job was hugely enjoyable. It was pre economic crisis and that was what we got.

When we started visiting our shortlisted companies, however, the credit crunch was beginning to bite and we realised that the concept of fun at work had another, more subtle side. Employees also wanted information on how the company was performing, the likely impact on their future and to feel that their employer was thinking long-term about protecting its biggest asset – its people, so they could feel as secure as possible and carry on enjoying that day job. It was a very, very close call but our winner in the Fun at Work category for 2008 is Opus International.

Open communication with staff is crucial to Opus. "The business has evolved from sound moral principles and as a result our teams go out of their way to help each other," said the Opus entry.

Those sound moral principles began in the New Zealand public works sector – the business was the result of privatisation of the public works department. The company is now 2,400 strong around the world, is part of Malaysian corporation UEN, and in the UK employs 370 people with ambitions to grow to 700 by 2011. The business has grown mostly by acquisition including Evans Grant, Veryards and, this year, Joynes Pike.

The culture, however, seems to emanate from the man at the top, Dr Kevin Thompson, who, rare in the engineering community, is said by his staff to be an empathetic people person and a brilliant communicator. "He knows the names of everyone in the company, and if he doesn’t know you then he makes a point of talking to you during his annual road show around all the business offices," says Emma Hutchinson from the Nottingham office. "He operates an open door policy, anyone can go to him for advice. He fosters that culture because he believes it filters down though all the other managers – and it does." Bev Chiang, also from Nottingham, concurs. "It’s open door all through. I came from a chartered accountant where you had to book appointments with your senior managers. This is so refreshing. If I have a problem I can go straight to Kevin or our UK managing director Trevor Crawley."

The business has been very upfront about the difficult times facing its employees in the UK. On the global scale it has been cautious about where it sets up, and it is currently working in Canada and Australia as well as the home base of New Zealand. "We are seeing the credit crunch as an opportunity," says marketing co-ordinator Cheryl Dudfield. "We are going to use any spare time people have for training or to go out and meet clients and help market the business. And we’ve always encouraged staff to move around the world, short-term or long-term – so we are offering extra opportunities to do that." Cheryl herself is part way through a job swap – she hails from New Zealand and is now working in Bristol, while her UK counterpart is sitting at Cheryl’s desk in Wellington.

In the regular Opus Update communication with staff, MD Trevor Crawley urged staff to take up similar opportunities. "As a global business we have opportunities that other companies do not have and in New Zealand and Australia we have a range of vacancies available," he said. He also indicated that those vacancies would be held, as far as possible, for existing Opus staff. "We are putting constraints on our external recruitment in preference for providing opportunities for people inside the business to relocate. We believe that the advantages of this, for the company and individuals and families concerned, far outweigh the benefits from external recruitment."

Meanwhile there is genuine fun to be had at the Opus offices. Unsurprisingly for a New Zealand business there’s a lot of time spent playing sport; community activities are encouraged, as is just going to the pub to get to keep up with your colleagues. It is a stated aim to reduce stress on staff, a policy that generates loyalty.

Former employees stay in touch via an alumni scheme and turn out in large numbers for reunions. "I’ve been at Opus for seven years and I have just loved it," says Dudfield. "I’ve got a deep loyalty to Opus and I would find it very hard to ever leave. "A fun and friendly environment
is always encouraged; the senior managers are role models for this positive work environment and are responsible for the high motivation within all of our teams. "Opus creates a positive, productive and rewarding workplace."

RUNNER UP: CONISBEE

Consibee’s office in North London is often described by staff and visitors as an "oasis", surrounding a courtyard with a pond. Staff are seated in teams rather than hierarchically and the open-plan environment gives a relaxed atmosphere where ideas, experience and banter can be exchanged freely.

Quarterly meetings keep everyone up to date on the state of the practice and any exciting new projects.

There are regular softball, football and cricket matches where sporting excellence is not paramount but enthusiasm and taking time to enjoy yourself is essential. A social committee organises outings and weekends away. "What is great is that everybody shares in contributing, from the lunchtime presentations, organising or performing at the office socials ... they are always fun!" says engineer Jenny Stevenson.

SHORTLISTED: THE STILWELL PARTNERSHIP

If you like motorsport, you’ll love The Stilwell Partnership. Boss Nick Stilwell’s passion for motorsport is a big part of day- to-day life at his 20-strong company which, works in highways and specialist areas like health and safety and noise consultancy. The Goodwood Festival of Speed and the inaugural A1 Grand Prix at Brands Hatch have featured on office days out. To foster an understanding of "speed in the right environment" all staff are also sent on compulsory driver training courses.

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