How HR brings a sense of fun at Peer 1 Hosting

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A tree house, a slide and set of swings are common sights in a children's nursery. But at Southampton web company Peer 1 Hosting, it is these light touches that make staff smile and drive performance. Katie Jacobs reports.

In many workplaces, making a mistake is still seen unequivocally as A Very Bad Thing. Not so at Peer 1, the website hosting company with a UK HQ overlooking the Solent. Here, mistakes are celebrated, pinned on the ‘Cock-up of the month’ wall for everyone to laugh at and learn from.

“We believe anything is possible and we want our people to think like that, so if you make a mistake, that’s ok,” says HR director Helen Ives. “Everyone makes mistakes. We want to learn from it. We want people to take risks knowing we as an organisation have got their backs. We will never punish people for taking a gamble and getting it wrong.”

The ‘Cock-up of the month’ wall isn’t the only thing different about this Southampton office. There are also swings, space hoppers, a tree house and an office dog wandering about. Then there’s the slide connecting the first and ground floors (which HR can confirm is much faster than taking the stairs).

“The slide is a symbol of our culture,” says Ives. “A sense of fun and play is one of our values. We want people to work hard and play hard.” And although the slide and swings might come off as slightly gimmicky (they certainly helped Peer 1 get into the local press when the office opened this year), Ives says they help to create an environment in which people can live the values of this young, fun, innovative organisation.

“Someone said to me: ‘I can come to the office in the morning, walk through the doors and it puts a smile on my face’,” she says. “That’s what we are looking to achieve.” And for companies that might not be able to afford or have space for a full-on playground, Ives is keen to point out that many smaller innovations can give positive results for minimum investment.

“It might be a small thing like moving leaders out of offices and into open plan – that’s zero cost,” she says. “Or creating a day a month where you order food in and get people to collaborate. Or clearing desks to create a space where people can chill and talk.” It’s these small things that have had the biggest impact at Peer 1. Every few months, people switch desks, allowing collaboration across functions.

“If you mix up cross-functionally, you have more opportunity for innovation and collaboration,” Ives explains. “We want people in finance to talk with passion about what our developers do, and our developers to speak with passion about what our salespeople do.”

However, she concedes there are times when it is not practical to have cross-functional teams; when making an acquisition, for example, productivity will need to come before creativity. “You need to flex and change depending on what you’re doing,” she says.

Adapting to change

As Peer 1 grows, it’s in an almost constant state of flux. Agility is critical, but so is structure. It entered the UK market only in 2009 (it was founded in the US in 1999) and is growing fast. “Our stage of OD is growing up from spotty teenager to fully-fledged adult,” says Ives. “As a company scales and grows, you have to introduce structure and frameworks. How do you do that without losing your entrepreneurial spirit? My role is about creating frameworks, not rules. We have frameworks, but also situations where we go outside them.”

“We take a few risks for sure in HR,” she continues, when asked whether the function itself can be innovative. Ives joined the company in February as its first HR director. “They were looking for someone to bring a modern twist to HR,” she says. “Someone who wants to embrace possibilities, throw the best practice out the window and do it differently.”

She cites the company’s recent leadership development programme, which involved “taking 80 leaders offsite and getting messy”. “We made it all about relationships, heart, challenging each other and getting out of our comfort zones,” she recalls. The few days culminated in everyone’s 360 reports being read out. “It felt so high risk,” she says. “Not one strategy conversation happened. But as a result, you have such strong relationships and such strong alignment to values and culture that when you come back to the day job and do the strategy and the business planning, it sticks.”

A nursery for talent

Southampton might seem an odd choice for a technology company’s UK HQ, but Ives says the “rich, deep talent pool” from nearby universities is important and lends it a relatively young workforce. So it’s no surprise Ives says “cross-generational differences” are a challenge – and flexibility is one of her main tools.

“It’s all about choice and flexibility, which is tough for HR as we love standardisation,” she says. “We need to design things differently for younger people.” Benefits, for example. Ives is exploring giving people cash allowances for them to spend as they see fit, whether that’s on hitchhiking around Mexico or healthcare.

It all comes back to what drives Ives, who trained as a psychologist: motivating and energising people differently. “The worst thing in the world is walking into work in the morning and feeling like you have to put a suit of armour on and be something you’re not,” she says.

“For me, it’s about creating an environment where you can bring your whole self to work. I’m truly passionate about the impact that makes on the bottom line. If you enable people to be their whole self, you get people who thrive on innovation and using their initiative.” 

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