Walk down a high street anywhere in London and you’d struggle to avoid a branch of Foxtons. Famed for its yellow and green branding, glowing glass box offices and sharply dressed staff zipping around in liveried Minis, the estate agency is ubiquitous in England’s capital, with 59 branches spanning Camden to Canary Wharf and Woolwich to Wood Green.
But the company’s prestigious almost 40-year history has not been without its controversies. Partly renowned for its reportedly aggressive sales tactics, in 2008 it found itself at the High Court defending some of its business practices against the Office of Fair Trading. And with its reputation for upmarket properties, for several years the firm’s Brixton office was the focus of anti-gentrification protests in the formerly deprived area, with local people claiming rising prices were forcing them out. Several instances of vandalism at the branch culminated in 2015 with protestors smashing the trademark floor-to-ceiling windows.
And although not one but two dedicated Twitter accounts exist for Foxtons customers to vent their frustrations against the company, it seems this is very much only half the story. The firm currently boasts a 4.7-star rating out of five on customer review site Trustpilot and, despite “a hint of sharp practices in the past”, things have moved on in recent years, according to chief people officer Sarah Mason. Having joined the company in 2018, Mason is all too aware of the link between employer and customer brands: “I’m very focused on one driving the other – we get our people practices right; that will drive a great customer experience.”
The business is certainly closer to getting its people practices right since the start of Mason’s tenure. With her role being newly created and three separate recruitment, training and personnel teams previously reporting to different departments, her main focus has been uniting the people team. What was ‘recruitment’ is now a talent acquisition team, previously focused on a high volume of entry-level hires to cope with the demands of the high-growth housing market, but now using an evidence-based approach to bring the right fit of people into the business. “If we don’t get the right people in at the start, the rest of the people practices fall over,” explains Mason.
The former ‘training’ team has been rebadged as L&D too. Although not wanting to dispense completely with the rigorous induction that has won the business awards and given it a reputation in the industry for being akin to National Service, Mason instead wanted to “spread out” the team’s remit with the introduction of digital learning and coaching platforms. “Their purpose should be enabling learning to drive performance, and we want everyone to have development opportunities,” she says.
Mason has also changed the remit of the former ‘personnel’ department, which mainly spent its time on “processes and red tape”, as well as sending out birthday cards to every member of staff, to one that is more advisory focused and uses data to drive outcomes. “Two of our advisers have done their Level 5 CIPD qualification, and another is completing it at the moment,” says Mason. “We want them to be experts in their field and have a real advisory focus, rather than just being the people that send out cards,” says Mason.
Such mammoth changes might seem daunting to some, but Mason – who has a master’s in organisational change – actually found the firm was more receptive than most. “I’ve worked in other companies where you finally launch an initiative and hit a brick wall,” she says. “But here, people say ‘you’ve been brought in as an expert – tell us what you need and we’ll do it’.”
The newly refreshed and empowered team was, then, in a strong position when the Covid-19 pandemic hit. For Mason and her senior colleagues, the most important part of the company’s reaction was being responsible, and doing more than was required. When government guidelines after the first national lockdown allowed estate agents to reopen their doors with a day’s notice, Foxtons instead took two weeks to ensure the right health and safety measures were in place, and that staff were comfortable with them. “We knew that would be at the cost of losing business for doing the right thing, but it just couldn’t happen,” she says. “And we’re OK with that.”
But as well as bringing its own set of challenges, Covid also pushed back other projects Mason had planned for 2020, including building on her already-successful I&D strategy. While the company is an unusually diverse industry “outlier” – 43 per cent of its employees have an ethnic minority background, and it has close to a 50/50 gender split – engagement surveys revealed staff thought it fell short on inclusion. To rectify this, as well as actively listening to those in minority groups, educating leaders and putting in place processes to support inclusion, Mason and her team focused on employee networks for different groups, including black, female and LGBT+ staff, with senior employees running each one. The company has seen a three-fold increase in involvement, as well as recent surveys revealing that 93 per cent of staff now believe Foxtons supports a diverse, inclusive workplace. And, pandemic permitting, Mason has plans to expand these efforts into disability inclusion too. “Like so many HR people, lots of resource has been dedicated to Covid this year,” she says. “But hopefully it’s something we can look at in 2021.”