Features

Manchester company UKFast takes HR innovation a step higher

Peter Crush , 23 Jan 2013

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In our third article exploring innovation, we visit Manchester-based web hosting provider UKFast, a company with an innovation that is just crazy enough to work: substituting HR for personal trainers and hikes up Mount Snowdon.

At a dizzying 28 levels up – on the last commercial floor of the 351ft City Tower – there’s nowhere in Manchester where staff work higher. This soaring space is home to UKFast, the web-hosting provider for the likes of Kellogg’s and BP. But to the 170-strong team that boosted turnover from £16 to £20 million in 2012, this is nothing. Everyone who works there has scaled Mount Snowdon, Wales’ highest peak.

All staff are taken up there by sports-mad company founder Lawrence Jones (pictured). They start from the Castell Cidwm Lakehouse, which Jones bought for this purpose in 2008. He’s climbed Snowdon over 100 times but never tires of seeing the sense of achievement in staff who, on their return, are supercharged with a vitality and verve to go the extra mile.

“I’ve always been concerned about people’s welfare,” says Jones. “People need hugs, not management-style one-to-ones, and positivity from exercise is a central part of my business. When UKFast was only four people strong, a colleague was going through a messy divorce. I said, ‘Right, we’re going to climb Snowdon, and we won’t come down till you’ve sorted yourself out.’ He did; and today he’s pretty much my longest-serving employee.”

From this initial trek, the Snowdon tradition (comprising a weekend away, and team-bonding games) is fully developed. But while this might appear a quirky induction into the UKFast family, there’s much more to it. This is a truly innovative and provocative business (like Manchester itself) that shuns convention and looks to sport to such an extent that its ‘HR director’ is not an HRD at all. He’s Jones’ sports personal trainer – Joe Cravagan (pictured).

“HR is dead,” says Jones, on the contribution Cravagan makes.

The two first met in 1999, and since then have barely been out of touch. And when UKFast began rapidly growing, Jones says it became obvious for Cravagan to not only be responsible for health and wellbeing and personal development, but career development too.

“Most people were at their happiest at school, when they were active, and had an active mind,” says Jones. “We don’t see why it should stop afterwards. We’re all about creating energy. Others might call it lunacy, but not here; it’s the way we live and breathe. It totally works. I feel we’re igniting something in Manchester that’s never been seen before.”

In Manchester, Cravagan now not only creates sports training plans, but also personal development plans – and often the two are linked.

“I run regular reviews, and those who feel they can better themselves are set a variety of goals. Everyone has career and work goals and everyone has sport-related goals.”

Because of Manchester’s booming tech-hub status and growing 24/7 culture, Jones says the fusion of health with career development works.

“We are the SAS of the internet,” he states. “We need to support clients globally, so I need to know staff have the energy and stamina to work at whatever times they are needed.”

UKFast recruits for these qualities. Jones says he looks out for the ‘paper-round gene’ – those who had paper rounds or other businesses while they were still at school; and that the set-up transforms introverted IT support staff into outgoing healthier people.

“Now we have people walking, cycling and running to work. They all say being here is nothing like they’ve ever experienced before.”

While Jones admits he will still lose people to rival tech firms, he says 92% who leave either come back or request to return, saying, “the grass is most definitely not greener”.

Other innovative practices include giving staff a £10,000 bonus for 10 years’ service; skiing trips for top staff, staying at Richard Branson’s house; and the annual UKFest – a festival for staff and their families. But Jones says it’s the sports revolution that’s created a local buzz. And, with a sports-linked-culture, he says he doesn’t need traditional HR at all.

“HR is nearly always a policing role. If you’re running your company well, you don’t need HR. I know that when it really matters, our people will give back more than you give them.”

As befits an innovative technology company, UKFast invests 25% of its turnover in R&D. But Jones says it’s the £70,000 he invests into the festival, or money for Friday beers, that best bodes well for the future.

“Commit yourself to the journey of real investment into your team and their wellbeing, and the rewards won’t be too far behind.”

The best thing, he says, is that his ideas are eminently scalable, and to those wanting to try this out themselves, he says his methods are not so Manchester-specific that they couldn’t work elsewhere.

“We have a universal model. The only structural advice I’ve ever sought has been from Richard Branson. I asked how he keeps a business as big as his fresh, and his people energised. His answer was simple: chop the business up and give people ownership. So we do the same. It means no one is too far away from support, and that’s why we don’t need HR. Everything is very collaborative.”

Sport offers UKFast the opportunity to establish leaders. “Nothing beats our running club for revealing who the high achievers are,” jokes Jones. “

It’s on these runs where some of our best management feedback comes. Here, we often say we have ‘legend-status’ people – those who won’t go home till the job’s done. We give this feeling to staff; but they give so much back to me.”

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Couldn't agree more

René de Kat 24 Jan 2013

I have no scientific proof, but from what I've seen in my career the teams that worked best, were those with friendship involved and high fun-factor. People do things, because they have to, but they do them better when they want to. When I setup a new company in Romania I focussed in the team, fun and support every single day and it worked. Long hours to meet deadlines were no problem. That said, it can't hurt to have 1-1 talks to discuss issues or to point out things to improve. However, that should work 2 ways: manager <- employee, not just top-down.

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