If you work for AIT and the boss tells you to “get on yer bike”, it doesn’t mean you’re fired. To encourage eco-friendliness and staff fitness, the company has bought a fleet of bicycles for lunchtime exercise and transport between its three sites in Henley-on-Thames.
Staff at the firm are evidently proud of the innovative IT programs they produce for financial services firms: its latest package, Portrait, helps companies such as Nationwide track dealings with its customers — whether conducted by phone, internet, digital television, or WAP.
The entrepreneurial brothers Richard and Clive Hicks, along with Dave Woodhead, an IT expert, say they set out to redefine the experience of work in 1986. They chose a business — helping banks and building societies manage customer accounts through multi-media — that has since exploded.
The firm is now listed on the London Stock Exchange with an office in Cleveland, Ohio, and several other international offices. While other companies suffered, AIT’s sales went up by more than half last year. Despite the growth, staff at the Henley offices, surrounded by the green fields and the calming waters of the Thames, say the firm has done much to preserve its small-company feel. The firm’s intranet, for instance, has desk plans and mugshots so everyone knows who’s who and what they do. Stuart Rider says he gave up lucrative contract work to join the staff because he realised he had found a rare atmosphere. “I’ve been here 15 months,” he said. “After working here on several short-term projects, I realised that it would be a real wrench to leave. There is no sense of a big corporate mentality where people are treated as machines. The company listens and acts when staff are unhappy.”
AIT has an “artist in residence and visionnaire” called Richard Layzell, whose brief is to make office life fun. He has occasionally brought in novelties such as lurid-lipped “tea ladies”, who engage staff in salacious banter as they wander through the offices offering tea, cakes and kisses.
Each year, Layzell organises a family Christmas party and a summer event — perhaps a European city break for employees and guests.
The average age at the firm is 34, and a quarter of staff were recruited as graduates. Lindsay Anness, now 24 and AIT’s marketing manager, worked there during her degree and was impressed that her director was willing to write references for 25 job applications before she decided to take the job AIT had already offered. “They really care about what is right for you,” she said.
It is easy to see why staff recommend their friends, and 18% of new workers are recruited this way. Bonuses are generous, rising from £1,000 to £8,000, depending on the position. Outstanding achievers are rewarded by annual team breaks for up to 10 people. Activities might include anything from fossil hunting to massage.
Other perks include a subsidised personal trainer, a shopping delivery service (Waitrose at Work) and a concierge called Robert Lythgoe, who sorts out anything from faxing to ordering flowers. There are regular free lunches at a local restaurant, a subsidised canteen and free hot and cold drinks, toast and biscuits all day and night (costing the firm £454 per employee annually).
Training is excellent, with an average of 240 hours a year for most employees, and encouragement to change roles within the firm: a quarter of staff rotate jobs each year. There is a mentoring scheme, and advice for individuals on their development.
Communication is good and informal: everyone eats in the same canteen, and there are no directors’ parking spaces. There is also a system of small discussion groups providing a forum for suggestions.
“The whole environment makes it a pleasure to come to work,” said Jackie Skelland, senior receptionist — and 84% of her colleagues agreed.
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