Case Study: How Birchwood Park attracts new talent


Opened at the turn of the millennium, Birchwood Park is a thriving business district on the outskirts of Warrington.

Initially established as a munitions filling factory during WWII, the site has worked to retain its industrial expertise, attracting excellence in mechanical and electrical engineering, as well as areas of technology and nuclear energy.

Currently, the site is home to more than 165 companies, 40% of which are nuclear-focused, and include Rolls-Royce, Schneider Electric, Ricoh and Bellway Homes. Between them the more than 165 companies on site are responsible for employing over 6,000 people.

The problem

The changing nature of work and the way we live has informed a shift in the expectations employees now have of their workplace.

Heightened mental health awareness and flexible working have, in part, galvanised this change, and businesses are transforming in response. A key problem for Birchwood Park and the companies based there is attracting and retaining talent.

“One of the things that we've researched over the years is companies are increasingly becoming more diverse in people they employ,” says Martin O’Rourke, commercial director at Birchwood Park.

“Being in an out-of-town business park we are very conscious that first of all we have to attract occupiers to site, and then those occupiers have got to be able to attract and, more importantly, retain their staff.”

Continually seeking to attract new business, Birchwood Park has to remain ahead of the curve when it comes to ‘what workers want’.

The park’s location, almost equidistant between the cities of Manchester and Liverpool, creates the perfect opportunity for attracting talent. But doing so for a population well-adjusted to ‘city-living’ is a challenge. O’Rourke adds, “If you are a graduate, and you're from Liverpool or Manchester you’re going to be used to the whole accessibility that a city centre provides.”

The method

Though O’Rourke realises that some sectors, like media, would never work at a site like Birchwood Park, when it comes to attracting talent in its specialist areas the park can succeed by introducing facilities that allow occupants to enjoy a certain quality of life.

As part of this commitment to the wellbeing of its occupants and their employees, site management moved to invest more in its environment and on-site amenities.

One of these amenities is the Engine Rooms, which is home to six eateries, nine meeting rooms and an auditorium, open for use by both occupiers and visiting businesses.

Realising what an asset this facility could be for those working there, £850,000 of funding for the development was provided by Warrington Borough Council. Though there are costs associated with the use of these facilities, The Engine Rooms runs at a loss and is again funded by local authority.

As well as the Engine Rooms, the surroundings of Birchwood Park have been landscaped, allowing for picnic space in the warmer months and walks around a central lake. The site is also home to an onsite gym and a nursery.

Though the management of each of these amenities is outsourced to individual companies, all are united under the ‘Expect More’ programme, which offers training and the opportunity to provide feedback to help develop the park’s culture.

O’Rourke says: “The Expect More programme was introduced to pull together all these disparate companies under one umbrella, for the benefit of Birchwood Park, and also the occupiers.”

The product of the ‘Expect More’ programme is Parklife in which, O’Rourke describes: “We try to effectively become the outsourced wellbeing facility for all the companies on site.”

Parklife wellbeing includes a programme of social events, including yoga classes, a park choir, movie nights and language classes. O’Rourke says: “We work hard to create a positive culture within our own on-site team of 120 people […] as if we don’t cultivate a positive culture ourselves it will never spread through to our customers.”

Different working environments, where people can go out, have informal meetings and breakout space are also part of the outsourced wellbeing at the park. O’Rourke adds, “Not all occupiers on site can provide those sorts of facilities because they haven't got the space, or they are not big enough so it allows us to do that for them.”

Birchwood’s events programme, and the onsite facilities are informed by the occupier’s needs and wants, which are routinely polled through surveys and face-to-face focus groups.

“We've got to continually stay fresh because one of the things on site that we're very conscious of is we don't know who's going to visit us - it could be royalty, it could be a potential new occupier for us, it could be an existing occupier's major client or a major customer - so we've got to make sure these facilities are the best possible,” he says.

Expect More Champions, which are a mix of team members from the leasing, facilities and catering and events teams, also provide input to the next developments for the park. “We research what our occupiers have valued over the years and what they would like to see at the park, and we look at trends to create our events and try and come up with new ideas.”

The result

Gradually implemented over the last seven years, the wellbeing program at Birchwood Park certainly seems to be working on some level.

The 1.1 million square foot site is 95% occupied at present and, when occupiers are planning to leave, the site has been successful in retaining contracts in 90% of cases. Looking to expand its area in the near future, Birchwood Park is also in early negotiations with new potential occupiers.

At the ground level, in the most recent pulse survey of people that work on-site, 89.9% of respondents said they felt small changes in the workplace would help to ease the symptoms of mental health issues and boost general wellbeing.

Flexible working hours seemed to be a key element to this change, given 86% of respondents to the survey listed it as a positive contribution to positive wellbeing.

Yoga (41%) and mindfulness sessions (58%) also proved popular choices, followed by green space surrounding the office (41%). Just over half of respondents (55%) said they had taken advantage of additional wellbeing initiatives that Birchwood Park provides before.

Companies occupying the site have begun to take the initiative and leverage park events and facilities within their own wellbeing programs to better cater to the requests of their employees.

“We are seeing more companies coming to us to set up corporate gym membership or arranging team bootcamp sessions,” says O’Rourke, adding that they are also opting for “more flexibility on lunch breaks to enable people to join in our lunch time events.”

“As a team,” O’Rourke adds, “we are always looking for ways to keep improving to ensure Birchwood Park provides an environment for our occupiers that helps motivate staff and increase productivity.”