It's no secret that the foundation of a thriving business is its people. More and more, businesses are coming to recognise that the well-being of their workforce is the cornerstone upon which success is built. This understanding is at the heart of the work done by Fiona Williams, Human Resources (HR) Director at Buro Happold, who has worked tirelessly to drive forward the agenda of equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) at her organisation.
Luke James, Co-Host of the Interview, met with Fiona to discuss issues ranging from building a sense of inclusion in a rapidly growing organisation to the challenges of leadership in a fast-moving business landscape.
I’m the UK HR Director for Buro Happold. We’re an international consultancy firm of engineers, designers and advisers that specialises in the built environment. We operate globally and over the past few years we’ve developed a strong growth trajectory that has seen us double in size to almost 3,000 employees. For us, that’s been a huge achievement, and there’s been plenty to keep us occupied in the HR department!
I’ve been with Buro Happold for twelve years now. When I was at uni, I studied for a degree in HR, and I got my first role as an administrator in an HR department. I’m a strong generalist, so I’ve always been in the business partnering space. I’m also very ambitious and I’m always trying to push myself. I started off here as a business partner and have now moved up to HR Director. One of the things that has kept me here is the potential to move horizontally as well as vertically: that’s allowed me to move across different business units and deepen my understanding of our business and its people.
It’s a huge area, and it’s constantly evolving. When I look across the industry, I’m pleased to see more companies taking EDI seriously. For us, the first step was to accept that it’s everyone’s responsibility, not just the HR Department. Then, you need top-down support and leadership as well as a grassroots approach. You need to create an environment where people can feel at home and identify your weak spots and gaps. No matter their background, people should be able to progress. So like many companies, we have support groups for our underrepresented employees, including business networks for women and LGBT+ people. We strive to provide equitable access to opportunities and remove barriers to success. It’s a continual journey: we’ll never be done, and there’ll always be more to do. So it’s crucial to always make small improvements instead of trying to achieve it all at once.
We’ve adopted certain themes to embed EDI throughout the business. For example, one path we’re taking to achieve equity is allyship. We’re trying to help people understand where there are barriers for others and how they can remove them. It’s important that people recognise that it isn’t about positive discrimination or favourite treatment: it’s about the challenges facing underrepresented groups and trying to walk a mile in their shoes. We need to have everyone buying into it and rowing in the same direction. Employees are much less forgiving these days, and they want companies to care about social value, sustainability, and well-being. So companies need to weave that into their fabric if they want to attract and retain people.
It’s difficult because progress can often be quite slow. For example, it might take 100 years to completely close the gender pay gap in this country. People can get quite frustrated when they notice the numbers don’t seem to be moving. So it’s important to create a long-term strategy to keep things moving forward and support that with regular interventions to keep people on track.
If I had the answer to that, I’d be a very rich person! It’s certainly a real challenge because the work always comes first. But there’s definitely been a sea change with employees being more willing to make the time, whether inside or outside of working hours. There’s definitely a balance with well-being, as we don’t want to take away people’s breaks or lunch hours. But we’ve found people are more willing to get involved because they see these issues as worthwhile causes.
That’s an interesting question. I think the pandemic really changed what the ideal of good leadership looked like. Things like well-being and EDI became key differentiators of business success. It brought a new emphasis to the traits of empathy, resilience, and authenticity. Hybrid work has also empowered different leadership styles, with the need to bring people together from inside and outside of the office to create high-performing teams. With the rise of AI and automation, leaders now need to be more open to interchangeable skills and help people move laterally between roles and adapt their skill sets.
Again, the pandemic was the catalyst that really brought the issue of well-being to the forefront. Leaders had to sit up and pay attention because we were watching it play out right before our eyes. We realised that we needed to put well-being front and centre of our strategy. We were very fortunate to be a company that let people work from home without affecting our productivity, and that has allowed us to roll out hybrid working throughout our business. That’s had a real impact on the bottom line and we’ve noticed a fall in the number of sick days being taken. We’ve really been thinking about the impact of wellbeing practices on the business and our managers have started to track key KPIs around the wellness of their teams. More and more, we’re starting to see our team leaders asking questions about well-being, and that makes me feel like we’ve come a long way.