Best Places to Work in IT 2008: the winners

The Best Places to Work in IT Awards 2008 were celebrated at the Intercontinental Hotel, Park Lane on 22 February. Here we profile the winners, whose effective and innovative employment practices have put their IT departments at the top of the list.

The Best Places to Work in IT Awards 2008 were celebrated at the Intercontinental Hotel, Park Lane on 22 February. Here we profile the winners, whose effective and innovative employment practices have put their IT departments at the top of the list.

Watch the video of the awards ceremony and interviews with the winners >>


Yorkshire Water

Best of the Best

Category winner: Utilities & telecoms

The Best Places to Work judges were impressed with the "sense of fun" that Yorkshire Water has instilled into working life at its IT department.

Staff at Yorkshire Water are encouraged to take part in work-time volunteering, with 75% of the department involved with community projects over the past year.

This includes mentoring in primary schools and the voluntary sector, One Million Green Fingers (a campaign to give children outdoor learning experiences by creating 350 sustainable school gardens by 2010) and dressing up as taps and toilets to promote Water Aid.

When it comes to professional development, the firm sees it as important for staff to learn about other areas of the business. It runs a scheme where IT staff can spend time with work groups and operational colleagues to better understand the wider business and the way customers use technology.

Yorkshire Water also runs six-month placements across IT for graduates, trainees and others to gain an understanding of the department and to widen personal development. It also runs an IT mentoring programme and a buddy system for new employees.

The company said its IT department "promotes a healthy work-life balance". It runs a range of initiatives to support this, including a diversity policy aimed at improving the quality and performance of the business.

The company said, "We have a positive profile in the wider Yorkshire community and have established a culture that embraces diversity through an open environment where difference is respected and innovation can flourish."

There are also opportunities for flexible contracts with flexible working hours suiting family commitments, part-time working and job sharing, "keep in touch" get-togethers, and flexible return to work following maternity leave.

The company provides flexible retirement packages for staff aged 50 and above, a cycle to work scheme and working from home and hot-desking facilities at local offices.

Judges' comments

Judges felt that Yorkshire Water had distinguished itself with its total commitment to providing an environment and lifestyle that staff feel comfortable in.

With a culture that is flexible and fun, judges said the company had made every effort to nurture a happy workforce.

Measures to give staff a complete picture of the company were also commended, and judges said its overall approach to staff training and development was excellent.

Judges applauded the department's approach to its place in the community, with its cycle to work scheme and charitable activities.


Sweet & Maxwell

Category winner: Business and professional services

Legal publisher Sweet & Maxwell makes the most of its connections to the Thomson publishing group to expand and diversify the career paths it offers IT professionals.

These connections allow it to offer a healthy work-life balance, including a seven-hour day, "shifted" hours, as well as options to work from home for between one day a week to fulltime. Staff can also buy or sell up to three days' leave a year.

There are three development pathways (technology specialist, project management and business leadership), and work on projects with a global impact is available.

The firm spends about £850 per person per year on training. About 2.5 days a year are spent face to face with an instructor, and there are computer-based learning facilities and a 2,700 e-book library supplemented with 250 actual books for self-study. The firm aims to apply training in practice quickly, and audits its effectiveness under International Standards Organization 9000 accreditation.

As well as a good range of fringe benefits, staff have free confidential access to advice via telephone or face to face for stress, medical, legal, financial, elder and younger care, and domestic problems.

The company fosters environmental awareness through its GreenPrint initiative to get staff to switch off monitors, cut paper use and recycle equipment. Money saved goes into other green initiatives and charitable commitments.

More than 90% of respondents to an annual internal staff survey rated the department's technical and soft skills highly. It won company-wide awards for both individual and group values two years running.

Judges' comments

Judges summarised their conclusions by saying that Sweet & Maxwell's IT department adds to the value of Thomson as a global corporation.

Judges said that it was doing many things over and above the norm. The judges especially liked the shifted hours, which allow those with childcare needs to work full time.



Category winner: Non-profit sector

Independent business school Ashridge won the non-profit sector award, with good results in all three areas of positive working environment, continued professional development and work-life balance.

The school builds a positive environment with social activities and schemes to involve IT in the business. One project saw IT inviting the rest of Ashridge to a workshop to help steer the inclusion of IT provision within its business delivery. In another project, IT managers invited representatives from the business to help formulate projects and budgets for future years.

There are plenty of programmes at the organisation to help IT staff improve their soft skills and career development, and to help them understand the customer experience.

There is also ample opportunity for moving up within the department. Karen Moyle, business development manager, said, "Ashridge really does support you and help you improve yourself. I started part-time as a waitress while I was at college, becoming a junior typist a year later and then moving up through various administrative and managerial roles."

Ashridge recognised the importance of a good work-life balance, saying, "There should be life outside of work - and a good quality life at that. We know that juggling work, family and/or caring responsibilities is not only about working women, but it is about our male and female staff caring for dependents, whether young, old or disabled."

The school said it does "all it can" to provide flexible working.

Judges' comments

Judges were impressed with a scheme that enables members of the IT department to job swap, and said the IT department's activities to promote IT-business integration went beyond most entrants in the category.

Judges said measures to give staff a good work-life balance were comprehensive, and that staff were benefiting from Ashridge's attitude to flexible working.


North Warwickshire Borough Council

Category winner: Local government

North Warwickshire Borough Council won the local government category with a strong emphasis on professional development and recognition of the importance of a good work-life balance.

The training members of staff receive depends on an individual's needs, and it includes free seminars, training to help staff utilise suppliers' skills, coaching, skill sharing, shadowing, web seminars and e-learning.

The council also aims to provide three pieces of "update training" in addition to accredited training.

It also stresses that work is allocated on the basis of skills, not roles, and tries to be flexible throughout the organisation.

There is an emphasis in the IT department on providing a supportive and fun environment, and this was reflected in the council's stress level survey where the department scored 17% - much lower than the council average.

"This proves tobogganing, curries, quizzes, charity days, bacon sandwiches and a generally supportive and a fun environment really works," the council said.

The IT department provides a flexi-time scheme as a benefit for support staff whose duties make it hard for them to homework. Staff can also job share, work school hours or condensed weeks, and accumulate leave for long trips.

For home working, the department provides secure, remote access for support staff, and tries to reduce the impact on their home life.

Voice over IP phones are being used so that home workers can take calls as if they were in the office. Project workers can also work at home and can use Blackberries when out.

Judges' comments

Judges said the council's commitment to providing a flexible and enjoyable atmosphere for staff went beyond other entrants in the category.

Judges said it was evident that staff were benefiting from the council's efforts, citing the low levels of stress of staff members as a significant achievement.

The judges said of the council, "The tipping point was the focus on general welfare, not just technical functionality, but that it punches above its weight on diversity and flexibility."


The Coal Authority

Category winner: Central government

The Coal Authority has focused on good communications to create a positive working atmosphere.

The executive team has a genuine open door policy for all staff and encourages discussion and feedback.

A web forum called "Earsay", which allows staff to make efficiency suggestions directly to the CEO, has resulted in many benefits such as the purchase of a pool of environmentally friendly vehicles reducing carbon emissions by 20 tonnes per year.

The IT department's generous training budget encourages both technical and personal development. The department has five qualified Prince 2 Practitioners. All IT staff have undergone ITIL awareness training.

The Coal Authority has supported staff in obtaining a range of qualifications including ITIL service manager and ISEB security management qualifications, a diploma in business analysis, an MSc in geographic information science, Royal Geographical Society Chartered Geographer and a BA in business studies.

The IT department has a high female staff ratio, with 40% of staff women including the head of IT.

Additionally, 15% of all staff enjoy flexible working arrangements, including senior management. In the IT department, members of staff with young children work flexibly to suit their needs, including reduced hours, four day weeks and school-friendly hours.

The IT department is also hosting a "technology open day" to encourage staff to come and find out more about what the team does, ask questions about technology use at work and home, and take the opportunity to try out some of the new services the team has delivered.

Judges' comments

The judges were impressed by the non-traditional scope of training. Judges said The Coal Authority shows a unique commitment to investing in staff training.

Despite winning a Best Places to Work in IT Award in 2007, the Coal Authority has not rested on its laurels. Throughout the past year it has reviewed and extended flexibility within the organisation.


Virgin Atlantic Airlines

Category winner: Travel

Virgin Atlantic Airlines was the winner for the travel category, with the company's commitment to motivating staff impressing judges.

Virgin Atlantic Airlines runs both job shadowing and secondment schemes. Job shadowing, Virgin Atlantic Airlines said, is part of all induction programmes, so IT staff can experience working at the frontline in airports. Selected staff can also opt for secondments to the line areas for between three and six months.

Virgin Atlantic Airlines also supports staff development by encouraging them to take Open University courses in IT or in softer, people-related skills.

Flexible working at the airline is the norm, not the exception. IT staff have two flexi-days per month where they can work longer hours and then take time off in lieu to allow for family commitments such as the school run and child care.

Some IT staff also work compressed hours for four days a week, and have three-day weekends because they commute long distances. Part-time contracts are encouraged, as are work at home days where the project allows it.

The company also looks for feedback from staff, with an annual "Plane Speaking" survey, which is managed by independent consultant ISR.

Judges' comments

Judges said the company's staff development programmes were helping keep staff motivated. They reserved special praise for the job shadowing and the secondment schemes.

They also felt that the measures to promote flexible working made it a desirable place to work, and allowed for staff to balance work and life commitments with minimal disruption. Making flexible working the norm, rather than an exception, showed the airline's commitment to providing staff with a good work-life balance, judges said.


Norwich Union

Category winner: Financial services

Norwich Union's professional development and work-life balance were picked out by the judges as key distinguishers in its success in the category.

To support the professional development of its staff, Norwich Union makes individuals responsible for their own careers. The company supports this with initiatives such as personal development plans setting out clear objectives, and professional development managers who provide support and guidance.

To help workers achieve a good work-life balance, the company allows them to manage their own time based on the core hours, which enables them to take time off in lieu, leave early or start late. Working from home is also offered on a needs basis and Norwich Union offers staff technology such as laptops, Blackberries and PDAs to facilitate this.

To help it monitor staff contentment, in 2004 the company implemented progress measurement to get the views of its people.

Since then the company has had two surveys per year to measure staff perceptions of the company and management teams. It also holds regular open forum sessions for staff to discuss the issues raised and receives feedback from the meetings, from which it can act to redress any concerns.

The company has helped motivate its 959 IT staff by including them in its own awards scheme.

The "Valued, instant and personal awards", as they are known, were introduced to recognise and reward staff contributions.

The awards have helped motivate staff and have contributed to staff feeling respected and appreciated for their contributions.

Judges' comments

The judges said financial services had in previous years been one of the most keenly fought categories in the awards and that this year was no exception.

Judges liked the fact that staff are expected to devote 80% of their time to their job, with the other 20% to be devoted to personal development.

They said Norwich Union is especially strong on continued professional development and work-life balance, and said that this was particularly impressive because the company has a large IT department spread across two locations.



Category winner: IT software & hardware suppliers

The winner of the IT software and hardware award went to Erudine, a company with 35 IT staff.

Erudine has used the XP programming methodology to help its developers become more rounded programmers by working closely with colleagues and exchanging ideas and methods.

Every morning and Wednesday afternoon is dedicated to personal development and "show and tell" sessions. In total, about 15% of the working week is devoted to training, Erudine said. This free time allows Erudine's developers to explore their own avenues of interest or present ideas in brief seminars.

The company said it actively discourages late or weekend working. In terms of work-life balance, about five people work from home each month, particularly those with longer commutes to the office. People who work from home are always contactable and available for meetings via conference calls.

In addition, Erudine said fathers of new babies are encouraged to take paternity leave at the statutory two weeks, and are given the option to work from home where possible. New mothers are eased back into work when they return from maternity leave by first working two or three days a week.

Judges' comments

The judges were pleased to see how Erudine managed to maintain the feeling of a small team through growth. They particularly liked the employee-led task forces, and the commitment and focus on delivery, not on the number of hours worked.

"Erudine demonstrated a willingness to challenge conventional views on how to create a good working environment. It also has creative management, but in a tough, commercial environment," judges said.


The Internet Group

Category winner: IT services

The Internet Group has established a work environment and culture in which people enjoy working and can thrive both individually and as a close-knit team.

The firm was described as buzzy and different by the judges. The Internet Group aims to provide careers, not just jobs, and looks to turn technical staff into professional business people.

The company measures customer resolution issue time as a measure of team performance, tying the team to a business goal.

It gives each member of the IT team a personal development roadmap, with all The Internet Group staff being mentored.

Staff receive 30 days of training per year. The company pays for training, materials and exams, and automatically gives pay rises to everyone who gains a new accreditation.

Judges' comments

Judges were impressed with The Internet Group's personal development roadmap and 30 days training a year.

Judges also approved of The Internet Group's attitude to green issues and carbon neutrality.

Judges were also impressed by the firm's commitment to personal development. It felt it displayed more originality than other entrants in the category, and described the link between pay rises and accreditation as unique.

Judges commended the company for recognising the practical issues surrounding working mothers.



Category winner: Retail

Sainsbury's brought its IT systems in-house in April 2006, taking 462 of its 570 headcount from Accenture. Much work since has focused on inculcating the company's culture.

Internal communications are a key part of this. Staff are provided with weekly updates. The leadership team hosts quarterly auditorium events. Added to this, Sainsbury's held its first in-house IT conference last July.

Each staff member has a personal development plan they review with their line manager twice-yearly. Training is focused on developing technical, behavioural, business-facing and supplier-management skills. Training often leads to follow-on modules and qualifications.

Sainsbury's develops staff technical and retail awareness through an annual IT showcase where suppliers show new products. It encourages staff to work in stores over Easter and Christmas, adopt a store, job-shadow, visit stores and depots, and join taste panels.

Sainsbury's also tries to ensure that 10% of staff benefit from internal promotions and development.

Work-life balance and equality and diversity are important to Sainsbury's.

Its governance process ensures that all IT projects align with business objectives.

The IT department assesses project progress continually and corrections are swift. Post-implementation reviews identify problems and avoid repetition.

The department takes part in the company's annual staff survey. IT Colleague Council representatives pass on results and facilitate action plans. It aims to improve its overall score by 5%.

Sainsbury's encourages staff to take up professional training and qualifications to build its knowledge base, and it benchmarks against comparable organisations.

Judges' comments

Judges were impressed with the wide range of activities that followed the re-incorporation of the IT department. There is strong emphasis on communication through guest speaker events, a newsletter and information-sharing events.

Judges also liked the IT Community Focus Group, which co-ordinates colleague volunteering opportunities, which take place in work time. The IT department is strong on diversity, and 18% of the IT department is aged over 50.



Category winner: Entertainment and leisure

Betfair processes more than 300 bets per second. This creates an intense environment that Betfair has been at pains to ameliorate with a work climate that seeks innovation and lets employees share in the success of the business.

The company organises many sport-themed events in-office, as well as summer and Christmas parties, plus team-building events.

Other initiatives include one-to-one sessions with the CTO to share opinions on progress a green initiative that followed from staff concerns about their environmental impact forums of up to 10 employees to share ideas on how to make Betfair a better place to work cash rewards for implemented ideas free breakfasts and weekly beer busts and yoga, nutrition and relaxation classes.

To keep its cutting edge in platform performance, the company has introduced a raft of initiatives, including shifting to agile development practices.

On the staffing side it has introduced structured mentoring and a buddy scheme for new staff, along with an intensive talent management and development programme for senior managers using executive coaching and self-assessment tools.

In the quest for young talent it now runs a 19-month graduate development programme that rotates through engineering disciplines and includes delivering a project. This year it also plans to start a sabbatical programme and a Betfair engineering academy with a university-style approach to developing certificated technical skills.

Betfair is flexible where possible about supporting people who want to work from home regularly. A semi-annual staff survey measures staff satisfaction, especially in regard to well-being and work-life balance.

Judges' comments

Judges said the communication is strong at Betfair, where IT employees are involved in sharing skills and knowledge through various structured forums.

The judges particularly liked the graduate development programme, with its 19-month rotational format across different areas. They were also impressed by its links with London universities and its sponsoring of students' final-year projects.


West Yorkshire Police

Category winner: Emergency services

A focus on flexible working and career development has boosted the IT department's reputation within the force.

The department introduced non-core hours flexitime and a career grading scheme that means promotion is based on experience and skills and not time served. All senior and team managers have had their leadership styles identified and their impact on others assessed.

A full training-needs analysis has identified both professional and personal requirements. The department encourages secondments to and from other organisations.

The department has made a special effort to address diversity. For example, it started a modern apprenticeship scheme that allows 16- to 24-year-olds to work in the department. It is also working with the British Autism Society to identify placements.

It hosted a national conference for women in IT to develop and encourage women to progress in the industry . As a result, one woman in West Yorkshire Police moved from her clerical role to become an IT team manager, and four women from the force's administration signed up for degrees in IT.

The department also worked with trade unions to develop personnel guidelines to working practices to ensure it approaches the opportunities fairly.

It holds a regular awards lunch for all staff deserving of special merit from the organisation, and for those who have achieved an award or qualification such as ITIL or Prince 2. It monitors all staff to ensure that they do not overwork and gives time off in lieu.

Judges' comments

Judges liked the range of activities across the board, and nuggets of originality, such as linking with a local theatre company to help customer focus, and working with the British Autism Society for placements in the department.

Time off to compensate extra hours worked to meet deadlines was attractive, as was the modern apprenticeship scheme aimed at 16- to 24-year-olds.


Britannia Building Society

Category winner: Banking

Britannia Building Society's 239 IT staff can rest assured that it is one of the best places to work in the financial services sector.

Just some of the perks of a job at Britannia Building Society are fast-track management training, a dental care plan, a tax-free bicycle purchase scheme and cycling facilities, as well as a staff mortgage and savings scheme.

The company puts the importance of being a good place to work at the top of its strategy.

Its rural location offers market town amenities and the beauty of the Staffordshire Moorlands, which the company strives to protect through staff initiatives such as a car-sharing scheme, free buses and showers for cyclists.

Britannia has also improved working conditions through a £10m investment in improving the workplace with ergonomic spaces, and meeting and catering facilities.

The company helps staff move through the ranks by providing forward-looking training. In the IT department structural review this year, 33 of the 60 vacancies were filled by promoting people from within the IT department and 21 were filled from the rest of Britannia.

In Britannia Building Society's latest staff satisfaction survey, 91% of staff said that they are satisfied with their role, 97% with their employer and 95% would recommend working for Britannia.

Judges' comments

The judges said the building society was the clear winner in this category.

"When can I start working there?" asked one judge.

The judges were impressed with the focus on staff retention, with vacancies filled by internal promotion. They were also impressed by the fast-track management training scheme.


WSP Group

Category winner: Construction, agriculture and mining

Planning, design, implementation and maintenance consulting company WSP Group boasts high levels of staff loyalty, motivation and focus.

The company provides various rewards and incentive schemes and promotes a good work-life balance, having a staff turnover of only 5%.

WSP supports flexible and home working by providing free home broadband and laptop computers, with 73% of staff saying that WSP provided a good or excellent work-life balance.

Staff contributions to the business are recognised through regular IT employee awards. Staff who come up with an idea are rewarded by being involved in the resulting work project.

Survey results showed 84% believed their suggestions and opinions were used, and 88% said that knowledge and experience was shared between staff.

The positive team culture at WSP Group is promoted through regular feedback meetings, an annual IT conference, local and group induction days for new employees, and monthly social evenings. The company also has an online IT community portal for employee feedback, an employee magazine, a suggestion scheme, and lunchtime films, seminars and discussions.

In terms of professional development, staff have access to a variety of online courses and a personal development review system.

Each of the company's more than 50 IT staff spends about 10 company days a year on IT training, with an annual budget of £1,000 per person.

In the past year, nine employees attained degrees or professional qualifications that were sponsored by the company.

WSP scored highly as an equal opportunity employer, with 88% of staff saying that they were treated equally regardless of gender, cultural background or sexual orientation.

The company also offers a free assistance programme to provide confidential guidance, independent advice and professional counselling.

Judges' comments

Judges said WSP Group's buddy scheme for out of hours working was highly original and they praised the company for its focus on negotiation training.

The company was also commended for responding to staff needs by providing mobile devices and hiring more staff in the past year to reduce workloads.

A survey showed 92% of staff said their workload was achievable and only 32% felt they had a heavy workload, compared with 63% before the hiring exercise.


Procter & Gamble

Category winner: Manufacturing and engineering

Manufacturing firm Procter & Gamble's decision to strengthen its IT professional development and external certification in the past year has paid off, with the company beating its rivals to win the manufacturing and engineering category for a second year in a row.

Procter & Gamble's IT department has a strong focus on business, professional development and flexible working.

Each of the company's more than 120 IT professionals spends about 15 days a year on IT and corporate training, with typical annual training budgets of £6,000 per person.

The company conducts regular career development reviews and in a personal development plan IT staff can choose between the clearly defined career paths of operational excellence, technical mastery, and business and leadership skills.

They have access to several different flexible working arrangements including home working, reduced work schedules, family leave and sabbaticals.

Regular community events ensure that home and office workers connect to strengthen friendships and working relationships.

In the past year, team activities have included car racing, wine tastings, curry clubs and community projects such as repainting Egham village hall.

Staff can take advantage of stress counselling services, house purchase assistance in the form of financial guarantees, interest-free relief loans and free access to independent financial advice at work.

A company survey of IT staff showed 77% felt empowered to make work decisions, 90% said they were proud to work for Procter & Gamble, 85% said the company was on track to deliver business results, and 81% felt their input was valued.

Judges' comments

The judges said Procter & Gamble had provided strong evidence of its focus on business and career development.

They were impressed by the programme for managers to provide weekly computing lessons in local schools and the introduction of a quarterly newsletter to increase interaction between staff in the north and south of the country.

The newsletter celebrates successes, provides greater exposure to UK IT roles available, and increases awareness of social and charity events, all of which benefit Procter & Gamble's IT staff, said the judges.

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