COVER STORY : New Zealand High Fliers

How do you engage and retain highly mobile young workers in an industry with traditionally high turnover? What sort of training helps empower workforce to get the most from life? Why should disability be bar to career success? And what have hacky sacks to do with workforce morale?
The answers to those sorts of questions are all about providing employees with what they need to give their best in the workplace. And as this year’s EEO Trust Work & Life Awards demonstrate, Kiwi companies whose activities range from snowsports to roadworks and from accountancy to cleaning are capable of coming up with plenty of creative solutions.
Some of these are focused on addressing the hurdles that make it difficult for specific groups – like new migrants – to prove their worth at work, others on generating great workforce morale. What they have in common is that they’re all about putting people first – and that has all sorts of spin-offs for business productivity.
“It’s about making people count – not counting people as cost,” says EEO chief executive Philippa Reed.
There had been some worries that the recession would reduce interest in this year’s awards, Reed admits.
“At the start of the year, people were suggesting that now is not the time for work-life balance. But actually we’ve seen that this is absolutely the time to focus on people making the most of their lives so they can make the most of their work.”
Entries have actually increased in number and in diversity with broad spread both in terms of industry sector, geographic location and workplace size. And what becomes clear in looking at them is that the initiatives taken to improve outcomes for one specific group have knock-on benefits – sometimes in unexpected ways, notes Reed.
For example, literacy programme designed to help new migrants not only had positive impact on their own morale and cooperation with their Kiwi workmates – it also helped give Kiwi workers with literacy problems the confidence to come forward.
“It meant that literacy issues, which for years had been masquerading as performance problems, were being seen for what they were and solved,” says Reed.
Then there are the positive social impacts – the pride of people able for the first time to help their kids out with homework.
In similar way, programmes designed to engage and retain Gen Y workers have beneficial spin-offs for older employees as well. That really stood out in the entry from South Island based skifield operator NZSki, which not only took out top place in the Tomorrow’s Workforce Award but earned this year’s Supreme Award.
A programme it initiated to get over the “one-season wonder” tendency of its mainly youthful workforce has succeeded in creating culture that both empowers staff and gives customers great experience. That was very evident when judges visited the company, says Reed.
“We were greeted not just as customers but like friends you can do something for. But emerging from programme designed to engage and retain younger workers has been refreshment of the whole organisational brand. As couple of older workers there said – it was great to be involved in the change and it had given them fresher attitude toward the work they do.”
Faced with huge seasonal fluctuations in staffing (40 permanent plus 1000 seasonal workers) and retention rate of just 30 percent, NZSki engaged with employees to explore their career aspirations. It then kicked off programme that featured range of career-development initiatives including support for staff to gain nationally recognised qualifications.
Working with Auckland company Zealmark, it designed and delivered series of leadership, induction and training events.
“These were designed to empower staff, encouraging them to go beyond the position description and make things happen,” says NZSki HR manager Kevin Sharpe.
The next step was creation of the NZSki-U programme – an umbrella for range of development, coaching, training and mentoring initiatives (including healthcare packages and scholarship) to shape snow-sports leaders of the future. The company worked with two ITOs, Skills Active and Aviation, Tourism and Travel Training to deliver qualification specifically recognising skills and development in snow sports.
It was unique partnering initiative and earned great response – more than 700 employees signed up for it. Since then, the company has created dedicated 21-month Diploma in Snowsports Adventure Tourism through Queenstown Resort College.
The benefits of this new approach are already apparent in the company’s soaring staff retention (from 30 percent to 60 percent) and engagement rates. The company has also seen its revenue rise by 169 percent with package sales shooting up by 304 percent.
EEO Awards judge Alison Quesnel credits NZSki CEO James Coddington as having brought great deal of vision and energy to the company. “I feel he has worked very hard with his HR manager to find out what Gen Y wants to make them enjoy work and want to stay in workplace. Part of it is freedom, but it’s also about feeling they have say.”
But the Tomorrow’s Workforce Award is not just about younger workers – and skilled migrant programme that pools the educational resources of Victoria University’s School of Linguistics, the mentoring skills of Rotary Club members in Wellington and the human resources expertise of recruiter The Johnson Group earned highly commended citation for its life-changing initiatives.
Participants often start the course demoralised and without hope, but over the past four years, the 12-week programme has succeeded in preparing 85 skilled migrants to find jobs matching their skills.
Other initiatives uncovered in this workforce category range from an Otago Chamber of Commerce project that acts as go-between for apprentices and their employers, to development programme launched by Metrowater that challenges high-fliers to grow into the leaders of “tomorrow’s water workforce”.
At Manukau City Council, it was fresh approach to health that earned its Work & Life/Diversity Initiative Award. Wellness Connection, developed to address unplanned staff absenteeism, turned out to be the “best programme the organisation ever launched for the benefit of its employees”.
Apart from the obvious health spin-offs, the various activities it encouraged have “boosted staff morale and created some great team-bonding opportunities for staff across the organisation who wouldn’t necessarily have anything to do with one another”, says MCC health and safety manager Syd Sykes.
Take up was better than anticipated with three-year target for 60 percent staff involvement reached within the first six months. It also appears to have had major impact on absenteeism, which fell by third in just eight months.
While the Workplace Work & Life Award category might have been little slimmer than in previous years, there are several organisations proving that flexibility pays. The winner, accounting firm BDO Spicers in Taranaki is certainly counting the positive benefits of having “maximum flexibility subject only to client needs”. Because its 79-strong staff choose exactly when it suits them to work, the office carpark is often full on wet Saturday.
Job-sharing and part-time work are available at every level of the firm with options to move from part- to full-time work and back while staying in the same role – policy that really suits staff with changing family needs. Apart from improving productivity, building loyalty and reducing staff turnover, the company’s flexible one-team approach means there’s no shortage of job candidates when positions do become available.
“The core value of our organisation is complete trust,” says practice manager Margaret Doyle. “There’s no need for clock-watching.”
Wellington law firm Morrison Kent has used flexible work hours to woo senior women and support partners’ ability to better manage their work and life commitments. And amongst the younger workforce

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