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Why Galliard Homes was able to react quickly to the Covid-19 pandemic

23 Apr 2020 By Jenny Roper

The firm was one of the first in construction to close sites to stop the virus spreading, but its private ownership and fast-paced, enterprising culture bring other benefits too 

When People Management interviews Galliard Homes group HR director Victoria Anthony (on the phone rather than in person as originally planned), it’s just two days after the residential and commercial property developer is one of the first to close all sites in the wake of coronavirus.

Despite having told pubs, restaurants and non-essential shops to shut, the government has said construction sites can stay open as long as social distancing measures, whereby staff stay two metres apart, are observed. But Anthony is adamant this isn’t a realistic or responsible option. “In Wimbledon [at Stadia Three, a residential scheme of around 600 apartments] before we shut we had 600 people on site. There’s absolutely no way in the lunch queue for the canteen, for example, we could be operating social distancing,” she says. 

“So we’re treating this like a Christmas shutdown period; we’ve secured the site with skeleton crew just taking deliveries, and are now deciding whether there are works that can be done, like demolition, where it’s just three or four people operating machinery miles apart.”

Anthony explains that the speed with which it was able to take the decision to close sites was typical of the family-owned, London-based business. “Because of our privately owned structure we don’t have to ask permission from a number of investors. Sometimes we can make decisions in a 48-hour period where it would take other developers months. Equally, in a time like this, we just got loads of people on a phone call and said ‘morally we think this is the right thing to do – let’s do it’.”

But this fast-paced, family culture comes with challenges. When Anthony joined the business in 2014 it was to establish an HR function from scratch. The company knew it was now a big enough player to need HR, but “what that looked like, no one really knew”.

“There were no processes and one of the first things we did was put decent contracts together and bring in an HR system as we had virtually no records on anyone,” she says. “And then it was introducing competency-based interviews rather than recruitment being ‘I worked with this person when I was at so and so’, which is historically how construction has recruited.”

The range of other HR activity also quickly introduced is dizzying. Today, the business is around 3,000 worker-strong – including sub-contractors – with 500-700 of these regular employees, depending on the time of year. Notable projects include Westminster’s Great Scotland Yard hotel and Baltimore Tower (nicknamed The Slinky) in the London Docklands area. The firm is also now much more nationwide, with urban regeneration work ongoing in Birmingham.

None of this would have been possible though, without proper HR support. “It’s such a competitive sector for skills; it’s provided the platform to say: ‘We do need to manage performance, we do need  to offer L&D and we should have future talent schemes,’” says Anthony. 

Specifically, the now six-strong people team has, since 2014, introduced a performance management system; set up a learning academy offering not just compliance and health and safety training as in the past, but management and leadership development, work experience, apprenticeships and graduate opportunities too; and launched a pension scheme where contributions are matched up to 10 per cent. “That was a two-year project; before we had half the population not even in the pension,” says Anthony. “It was not very generous at all… People would turn us down on that basis. Now, to some people’s minds it’s the best thing the HR team has done.”

Another large part of her team’s job today is the CSR side of fulfilling those criteria stipulated by local councils where Galliard is building. “On the employment side it might be that 60 per cent of people on site need to be from the local borough. Or we might have to offer tours for primary schools,” says Anthony. “Before, the business was just paying the fines for not doing those things. We’re now saying ‘we can do all this stuff’.”

She points out that this is all essentially in the company’s best interests anyway. The industry has long suffered skills shortages, so it’s imperative it works at grass roots to inspire people to join. “There’s still this stereotype of if you go into construction you’re a bricky wearing high vis, but actually we need highly skilled architects, accountants, IT staff…”

Such skills shortages are of course only set to worsen as the UK leaves the EU. “At last count I think we had 36 nationalities. And so we have offered every one of those families from the EU help, even if it’s just sitting alongside them while they’re keying in the details to get their settled status. And we’ve extended that to our sub-contractor population.”

But Anthony is encouraged that this is something Galliard’s compelling mix of entrepreneurial spirit and now more comprehensive employee value proposition will help it weather. “We won’t suit everybody. If you’re looking for a completely structured, black and white, very corporate environment it’s not going to work for you. But if you like the cut and thrust, you’ll thrive,” she says. “We’re not like other housing developers where you’d be building lots of the same. It’s ‘let’s put some modular units on the roof, let’s make a duplex penthouse...’.”

And the people team has significantly raised Galliard’s profile as an employer over recent years. “When I joined we had fewer than 50 followers on our LinkedIn profile; we’ve now hit 20,000. We don’t have a comms or PR team, it’s just the HR team saying ‘perhaps we should run a story on this’.”

It has been a busy five years then, with many more challenges of course lying ahead. The firm, when People Management speaks to Anthony, is deciding what percentage of workers it will need to temporarily lay off through the government’s job retention scheme – though it does also have a large number of staff who can work from home.

Which has actually brought the silver lining, as for many organisations, of spurring new and potentially smarter ways of working, says Anthony: “Until now we’ve never had a home working stance or approach. So we’ve had to very quickly get on board. It’s getting rid of that tunnel vision that everyone has to be in work to be effective. “It will definitely force us to work in a different way going forward. Which is always a good thing.”

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