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InfoQ Homepage Articles Dialling in: Atkins and the Communication Challenge, Runners up to the 2017 Spark Award

Dialling in: Atkins and the Communication Challenge, Runners up to the 2017 Spark Award


Key Takeaways

  • Keeping people engaged in large, distributed organisations is hard 
  • Effective communication and collaboration means more effective business operations and more profit
  • Stop being initiative junkies and make meaningful change that sticks
  • Sharing things like personal objectives creates an environment of trust
  • Trust in distributed teams is key to high performance

Most organisations are like the biblical proverb: the left hand knows not what the right hand is doing. No matter how much companies invest in internal communications and co-ordinators whose job is to distribute information; no matter how many knowledge systems, online libraries or intranets attempt to share ideas and learning; no matter what informal and formal tribes, guilds and networks are created, in every office can be heard the familiar lament: ‘well, no-one ever tells us anything!’

Communication disconnects are a function of many things. Structures (the silos of departments or business units) can inhibit wider communication; while distance and scale amplify any communication blocks. The Allen Curve (first described by Professor Thomas Allen in the 1970s), shows the negative correlation between distance and frequency of interaction – more than 50 metres reduced communication to under once a week. Crucially, Allen discovered that distance reduced ALL forms of communication. It’s wasn’t just casual desk conversations that suffered, but phone calls and written messages as well.

If every organisation faces this challenge, then Atkins suffered a unique combination of difficulties. To begin with it is big with over 18,000 employees scattered over numerous offices around the world. Even within the UK, employees are spread across many locations. Secondly, it is made up of several different business groups, all drawing on the company’s core of engineering excellence, but in markets as different as rail and nuclear energy. Finally, Atkins is in essence a consultancy: with many staff ‘on secondment’, working on client sites that may be located far from an Atkins office, or on co-located major projects where it may feel more natural to be aligned with the project’s goals and outcomes. For those working on delivering infrastructure for the Olympics, or on experimental nuclear fusion that could revolutionise world power … no wonder the job itself may seem more pressing than the performance of Atkins as a business – the real issue is retaining the thread between the success of both.

It’s unsurprising then that Atkins was conscious of the challenge, but they were also starting to notice the problems caused by a disconnect. Caroline Brown, a Business Change Leader in Atkins' Energy business, commented that, “I realised things had changed over the course of my career. As we’d grown, people seemed less aware of the big picture. Even simple things, like data on performance felt more hidden away. The only real connectors were those who had been in the business and in different areas for many years and relying on a few individuals just doesn’t scale.”

Nick Welch, Operations Director in Atkins' Energy business, had a personal ‘aha’ moment listening to one of the leadership team complain that employees were ‘delegating upwards’. “To him,” Nick commented, “it was something worrying in our culture; that employees weren’t prepared to take responsibility or ownership. Instead they were running to senior managers to get decisions made. But I knew our people weren’t afraid of responsibility. These are engineers designing and building nuclear power stations, offshore wind farms, etc. – complex stuff. So if there was a decision bottleneck, then it was something that we were doing wrong as leaders. We weren’t giving people the information or power they needed to make high-quality decisions themselves. And because they’re conscientious and smart, that meant they were handing the decisions up to those who did have the bigger picture. It was obvious that we had to make a change.”

Andy Thompson, Market Lead for Offshore and Onshore Assets in Atkins' Energy business, agreed: “If we were going to get more effective, we needed to move from reassuring people ‘oh yes, that’s fine, go ahead’, to a proactive approach where people already had the power and the information so they didn’t need to ask permission.”

Weaning off the Initiative Junkies

Like many companies, Atkins has experienced plenty of re-structuring and reorganisations as the company decides how best to serve global customers. Separate Highways and Rail businesses had merged into ‘Transportation’, while Oil & Gas, Power and Renewables, and Nuclear had all come together as regional Energy businesses. It had meant a change, not only in the way people interacted with others to do their jobs, but even quite fundamental shifts in how business units were responsible for profit and loss.

Kathie Gilley, a Business Change Director, who now works in Information Services, knew that the immediate temptation was to search around for some consultancy and a new process.

“We were initiative junkies,” she acknowledged cheerfully. “We were good at showing our clients how they could improve matters at a deeper level, but when it came to doing the heavy lifting on change ourselves, we were far happier to slap on a new initiative. I was determined that we could do better. In particular, I was determined that we learn that change wasn’t a one-off response to units merging, but was a constant – something we needed to be thinking about all the time.

“So we started truly building expertise in-house. We recruited Business Change Leaders who would be part of each business unit, and connect with one another across the organisation as a whole. They weren’t external experts, but highly respected employees who were known for their operational abilities so that they had immediate buy-in from the teams. We encouraged them to experiment, to trial new ideas and then iterate on them – and it’s those ideas that are some of our biggest successes.”

As staff and actions were put in place, the organisation was also formulating and articulating a philosophy of collaboration. As CEO for UK and Europe, Nick Roberts, wrote: this is about building a culture that values networks over hierarchies; enables better connections to be made within and across our divisions; and empowers you with the information you need to quickly respond to opportunities in our markets and deliver solutions for our clients ahead of the competition.”

Collaboration and Connection in Action

Alignment and Personal Objectives

Philip Hoare, Managing Director of Atkins' UK Transportation division looks thoughtful when I ask him about one of the ideas the Business Change Leaders have suggested: “I can’t think why I didn’t do it before. It seems obvious now. I mean, why not?”

As part of the work the various teams have been doing to ensure that everyone understands how each unit and region’s objectives align to overall corporate goals and objectives, Philip has taken the decision to publicly share his personal objectives. They’re posted on Yammer for employees to look at and comment on. They’re intended to help share his own thinking, explore his motivation publicly and also act as a template for those thinking about how what they are personally working on is delivering against the year’s targets and objectives.

“For some time now, we’ve often had interdependent and shared objectives that ask us to collaborate with team or individuals to deliver on projects. The senior leadership team all show each other their objectives – why wouldn’t I share them with everyone?”

People might judge you, I suggest. They might criticise you if they think your actions later don’t align with your stated objectives.

“So they should,” he insists. “Then I know we’re getting this right. In fact, I think all of the management team should be publishing their objectives which include how we try to behave, as well as what we do in terms of hard targets.”

A focus on structures that facilitated collaboration was clear in several conversations. The company knew how destructive a focus on independent targets could be for overall value. “There’s no point in asking people to collaborate and help others, if you punish them for missing a target because that’s exactly what they did,” insisted Phil. “We’ve all seen how individual targets – not just for people, but for business units or silos – can drive selfish behaviour. It might be for the greater good of the company for one department to miss a profit target and pitch in on something else. Now, we’re far better able to build smarter targets and plans that are really aligned at all levels.”

Paul Dennett, Operations Director in Atkins' UK Transportation division, ruefully acknowledged: “I’ve spent a career writing business plans, and then never reading them again. For the first time we’re creating business plans people really care about. They really map your personal actions each day to the bigger picture.”

Connecting employees

Connections are formed in myriad ways – and just as Kathie had promised –Atkins was not tied to any single magic bullet of an initiative, but rather to a range of different actions and practices to help people connect.

One of the bigger ideas was a monthly call in Energy – the Open Minds call – and a bi-monthly call in Transportation, slightly re-branded to Open for Everyone. Using Skype Broadcast, these calls offered a chance for the leadership to openly share the bigger picture. Hooked up to the corporate Yammer, chat happens at the same time as the broadcast, meaning employees can ask questions in a chat window, speak up on the call or start threads that can be discussed later on.

Most sessions attract about 400 dial-ins, approximately 1/3 of the relevant business unit. While who makes up that 30-40% changes from month to month, the two Business Change Leaders acknowledge that there are some employees who never dial in. For some, working on secure sites, it’s impossible to dial in using the existing tools; for others, they’re simply not interested.

“But there are other forms of communication,” insists Laura Cameron, Business Change Leader in the UK Transportation division. “The call doesn’t suit everyone and that’s OK. Many of the best interactions are sparked by something in the call and then real connection can happen later. We try to reach people in lots of different ways but we’re also seeing a shift in attitude. People are beginning to recognise that if they have a burning issue or question, then the forum exists to raise it. Dialling in once a month is part of that.” One clear metric is that in the annual employee survey: the team have seen scores rocket on those who agree with the statement that “there are opportunities for giving feedback upwards to management”.

As might be expected in an engineering company working on projects of massive scale, much of the most important data is around safety, as well as financial performance and pipeline of sales. But there is also space for guest speakers from other areas, discussion and celebration of “things to be proud of”, initiatives which in themselves often feed back into the company’s focus on creating new ways of connecting people.

Horizontal Networks and Opportunities

I met several engineers whose projects had been highlighted in the calls and who had been awarded a voucher for the charity of their choice as a thank you. Jessica Rogers in Atkins' Energy business had created an event for a Society of Women Engineers Greater London Affiliate, securing Adriènne Kelbie, the CEO of the Office for Nuclear Regulation, as a keynote speaker. Although the event was very much a personal project for Jessica, as a major employer and promoter of female engineers, Atkins was proud of the networks she was forming throughout the industry as a whole. Alex Punter, an assistant engineer, had started a buddy system to help graduate engineers find placements and transfers around the business. Not only was the ability to try out different areas a major benefit (and often requested by graduates), but it built exactly the kind of long-term relationships and cross-functional employees the business wanted to promote. 

Several of the leaders pointed to the projects within these horizontal networks that were helping to share ideas and tackling particular tasks. A graduate network was looking at specific ways of working more closely with the Indian design team by organising exchanges and placements; or working with project teams to discover which tools were required and then selecting the most appropriate tools from the company’s new Office 365 suite to match the requirements (rather than the more typical roll-out of a new tool). An employee forum was making changes to how career development was planned and rolled out. A “win work” network was focusing on how the entire company could get better at bidding and pipeline management, selecting and rolling out tools and processes.

Team of Teams

If the Open Minds and Open for Everyone calls are inevitably more broadcast in nature, the two businesses have also begun a weekly collaborative briefing forum inspired by and named after the “Operations and Intelligence Briefing” instituted by General McChrystal as part of his Joint Special Operations Command. For the Transportation Divisionthese ‘calls’ are still for an impressive 200-300 people each time spread between polycon rooms and individual dial-ins. Structured to share information and opportunities, they also encourage the raising of specific operational questions and concerns with the main premise to set the environment and behaviours for a more open, agile and connected organisation. On the morning when I interviewed the team, they had just had their weekly call in which Norwegian colleagues had asked for advice on a bid, and had gone away armed with a series of case studies, connections and offers for help to follow up.

“We keep things short, of course, but we also deliberately try to keep things fluid,” said Paul Dennett, the Operations Director. “If there’s debate, we try and have it publicly because it helps people to see how the leadership is thinking and how we are making trade-offs. We also share all the numbers with complete transparency – because how can you make good decisions without that?”

The call has proved so popular, and effective, that it is being adopted by other business units as well – iterating on the format to ensure it suits their purposes.

Micro changes Matter

As founder of Spark the Change, I speak to a lot of businesses about how they are working and the changes they want to make and those they struggle with. With such a wide base to compare against, it amuses me how often the things companies worry about, are areas they actually excel in. Certainly, at Atkins, several interviewees confided their concerns that the organisation struggled with individuals taking responsibility for making change happen or that they weren’t very good at measuring real impact. I had to hide a smile – this was a company that seemed to me absolutely focused on real action and measurable results – not on top-down messaging or woolly mission statements.

There was the truly fundamental focus on safety and energy. Realising that in a company with thousands of staff working daily on client sites – car travel represented a serious safety risk as well as a major energy cost, there was a new push to get staff to car pool, to use public transport or to use tools such as Skype instead. The result was an impressive reduction from 300 miles of car travel per employee per month to under 100 miles. Everyone had a casual anecdote about what they’d learned while car sharing with other employees and how it had helped them build relationships with new colleagues. Communications opportunities extended to the toilets, where there were notices on the backs of the doors – this week’s message was encouraging staff to check laptop cables for fraying wires that might cause fires and order replacements. They were sufficiently graphic to make me reluctantly retire my own ailing charging pack.

Then there was the focus on small, individual improvements. Caroline Brown knew that while Atkins overall had excellent retention rates, it did sometimes lose staff to clients. She noticed that engineers spending a day or so in the office every month (back from a client’s site), often struggled to find a desk or even a car parking space. The local admin team in one of their big offices looked at it and took the problem away by ensuring that anyone out on secondment is given priority for parking and desk spaces – a little gesture that made it clear they were always welcome in their office. The business support team are now linking up across all of their offices to share best practice around explicitly linking a business objective to ‘wow’ clients to extending the same level of welcome and service to staff-out-on-site and visiting colleagues.

Conclusion: the journey to collaboration

“Sometimes change feels slow and frustrating,” acknowledged Kathie Gilley as she tried to sum up Atkins’s progress. “But I look back and I’m amazed how far we’ve come. Today any employee can ask the managing director any question on a monthly basis. We have a forum to share concerns and issues – and people do. There is no excuse for saying you don’t know how the company is performing or what’s the priority, because the information is shared openly and transparently. People are changing as well, from complaining about not knowing, they are taking responsibility for raising a question and finding out more. 

“Three years ago, we didn’t even know when there were different offices or businesses talking to the same client. We had no way of leveraging relationships another office might have spent years nurturing. Now we have a common database, a common approach and shared metrics. We’re more connected, but less centralised. We recognise the value of local specialisation, but also of global and scalable practises and I think we have them in a better balance. It really isn’t about control. It’s about collaboration.” 

About the Author

Helen Walton is the co-founder and CCO of Gamevy – an i-gaming software company, which has no bosses and a radical approach to how it is run. She has worked in marketing for many years, launching brands for Unilever, Boots, PZ Cussons and others. She has written on many subjects, especially Agile as the main writer on the VFQ series, which now forms the BCS Agile Practitioner qualification. She is also the co-founder of Spark the Change.


Spark the Change is a global movement dedicated to a radical approach to empowering people and building happier workplaces. It runs events in London, Toronto, Melbourne, Montreal, Amsterdam and Paris. The Spark Award celebrates organisations who are experimenting with ways of working differently or who epitomise a radical approach to working practices in their culture. Previous winners include GCHQ and Places for People. This year, the Spark Award is sponsored by HotelBeds. For more details of the next event, contact or tweet us @sparkthechange.

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