An innovative and flexible approach to appraisals encourages career progression and gets the best out of staff, as Best Places to Work winners testify
When property and construction consultancy Davis Langdon relocated its finance, human resources and IT teams from London to Birmingham, it had to rebuild its entire IT department.
"Nearly all the London IT team did not want to move. So I had to create a new IT organisational structure at the new location," said Steve Anderson, who was brought into the company as the new IT director.
Although it was a challenge, there were benefits. "Effectively I could redesign the IT department from scratch," he said.
Anderson was in the fortunate position of being able to hire people he knew. "Several were colleagues from my previous job at another construction consultancy who were made redundant. I knew and trusted them, and they knew almost immediately what needed to be done."
Even so, setting up a large IT department in a new location was a huge effort to bring together, he said. "It took the best part of two years to stabilise the operational environment. I wanted people with a hunger for and commitment to excellence, quality and customer satisfaction; who were creative, had ideas and understood how IT can make a difference and add value to business."
These are key criteria against which the 42 Davis Langdon IT staff - twice as many as before the relocation - are now regularly appraised. "The single common factor is that they all have their hearts in the right place and are emotionally on the same page," said Anderson. "It took a lot of hand-holding, coaching and strong, assertive leadership, especially in the early days."
One of the senior managers who did relocate from London is proof that being appraised against new criteria can uncover previously hidden strengths. "He felt suffocated in the old IT environment, although business staff had a positive view of him. My task was to get him motivated by the new IT environment. He is now a completely different person, and undoubtedly the best person I have worked with," said Anderson.
Appraisal is an important tool to ensure staff reach their potential and meet the needs of the company. "I am passionate about good appraisal," said Anderson. "Some IT staff spend three or four days a week outside Birmingham, so it is important to manage their performance when they are not sitting alongside you every day."
But he does not see appraisal as something that can be left to a formal annual review. "I am sceptical about the value of the traditional annual review: there is a danger it can become a farce," he said.
Instead, Anderson instituted monthly one-to-one meetings between all his staff and their managers. "The idea originally came from my own experience of being managed. I wanted to know as soon as I could how I was thought to be performing, so I requested regular appraisals with my manager to focus on areas for improvement."
At Davis Langdon, managers now spend two hours with their subordinates regularly. Anderson acknowledges that it is an overhead, and sometimes it can be hard to fit it in. "But I believe the monthly appraisals are essential in order for staff to feel valued and encouraged, and for their line managers to monitor their ongoing performance," he said.
The manager goes through the employee's personal plan, which combines job description, person specification and a statement of their objectives, to check and review what their targets should be, their standards of performance and responsibilities, so everyone knows what is expected of them.
"Although the one-to-one meetings are the mainstay of our appraisals process, we also do a biannual appraisal, which is more formal and instigated by the HR department." But, Anderson emphasised that although the one-to-one meetings are informal and personal, they are not casual. "They are still performance reviews," he said.
Salary reviews take place at one of the biannual reviews. "Staff do not get an automatic salary rise for working hard," said Anderson. Pay rises are awarded for increasing their skills and capabilities and taking on more responsibility, or if the market rate for their skills has increased.
"However, staff do get bonuses for exceptional performance, and we also make bonus payments throughout the year on an ad hoc basis if they are well deserved."
Anderson said the monthly appraisals are more important at a time of rapid change in the new IT department, as it moves from being an efficiently functioning service provider towards taking its place as a strategic business partner within the company.
"I want to ensure IT can focus on adding the maximum business value," he said. "For IT staff that means there are new roles and challenges. We want staff to grow and develop while they are here."
This was first published in June 2005