Creating Happy, Engaged Workplaces in a Traditional Industry

In: BlogDate: Jul 27, 2021By: Billy Burgess

Gemma Beadle, the HR Manager at Advanced Technology Services UK, has a passion for wellbeing in the workplace. Joined by ATS Site Manager, Damien O’Neill, Gemma spoke at the 2017 Happy Workplaces conference about ATS’s achievements in creating a happy workplace.

While there are various obstacles in the way of creating a happy workplace, Gemma says ATS are committed to doing so, believing “it’s the right thing to do for your people and your organisation.”

View Gemma and Damien's full talk below.

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Creating Happy, Engaged Workplaces in a Traditional Industry

Gemma: Hi, everybody! I am Gemma Beadle. I was going to say I’m the HR Manager, but I think after Louise’s presentation I’m the ‘Human Being’ Manager for the UK. That’s for Advanced Technology Services, ATS for short. Damien O’Neil is my colleague; he’s the Site Manager for ATS, and he’ll introduce himself in the second half of the presentation.

So we’re here today to talk about how ATS is creating happy workplaces. Now, we’re absolutely not the experts and still have a lot to do, but we are really proud of what we’ve achieved so far and the positive impact that it’s had on our people, on our customers, and on our business.

Just a brief introduction to ATS: we are a US-owned business; we have about 3,500 employees globally. We provide services in IT support, industrial parts management, and factory maintenance services. In the UK, our focus is the factory maintenance. So we are a customer service business in the manufacturing environment. I think Louise had mentioned pipes and people; we’re machines and people.

In terms of creating happy workplaces, as Henry mentioned, it can feel really tough for some organisations; we all have different challenges. Maybe for some, it’s impossible. But our message is to find a way because this stuff really does work, and it’s the right thing to do for your people and your organisation.

Just to share some of the challenges we face at ATS: first of all, our business model means that typically when we engage with a customer, about 70% of employees will transfer from the customer to ATS. That means that 70% of employees of any one team actually have a shared inherited culture that doesn’t always align with those of ATS and our values. The second challenge is our employees are regionally based, so they’re not in a central head office location. They’re actually based on our customers’ sides, so every day they’re immersed in another company’s culture. The third thing is, it’s an industrial environment, so quite often where we’re working is around factories; just as often, old factories. Again, they’re our customers’ premises, so it’s very difficult to do anything to do much about that environmental impact to the actual physical environment.

Even with these challenges, we’ve managed to make an improvement in terms of our employee engagement score. We’re measured with Best Companies, we do the annual survey. In 2012 we got the One to Watch award and this year we got our Two-Star award, which we’re really proud of. Although it’s not just about the score; we’ve mentioned that quite a bit today. It’s something you feel, and when you go onto our sites it does feel different.

So that’s taken lots of hard work from everybody - everybody in the team engaging in our mission to be a brilliant company to work for. We’ve looked at areas around recruitment, so that focus on no compromise over recruiting against your values rather than skill set, looked at employee feedback, and also our leadership development are our kind of gatekeepers to culture in those regional areas and our customer sites.

Today I just want to focus on what we’ve been doing about right person, right seat. That’s about people’s alignment to company values and making sure they’re in a job where they can be successful. So we found out that other initiatives in our business that we’ve brought in actually have little impact if there was a right person right seat issue within a team that was causing some disruption.

A story that just reminded me the importance of making sure this right person right seat has some focus in your business was something I read in a book by Jim Collins - I think it was Good to Great - which was around David Maxwell’s bus ride. In 1981, he was brought into Company Corp Fannie Mae - which is a mortgage company - at that point to turn the company around because it was losing a million pounds per week. When he was brought in, everybody said, “What are we going to do? What’s the plan?” and he said that was the wrong first question: he said that it was wrong to decide where to drive the bus until you got the right people on it, and the wrong people off it. He turned about 14 of the 26 people got off the bus, in terms of his team. When he left that business, it was earning four million pounds per week.

So what’s ATS been doing? In 2012, we introduced a tool called the People Analyser which allowed us to measure our employees against our values and also allowed us to highlight any wrong seat issues. It’s a great tool; we found it a really insightful process, but we did struggle as a business to do anything with the information and we were procrastinating over dealing with issues. But then in 2015, we met Happy and we started to do some leadership development with them and then I guess this was our lightbulb moment. Previously we’d focused on the business in all of these situations: how is this impacting the business? How are we going to resolve this for the business? And I think that’s why our managers found a disconnect on how to deal with the issues.

What we decided to do was have a new challenge, and that was to care enough about the people to help them to be the best versions of themselves and that was whether it was with our business, or outside of our business. That presented a range of solutions on how to help people better themselves, so that could have been exiting ATS; or redeployment into a new role; or development, support, and training, so it really just depends on the individual. The key to all this was:

  • Respect
  • Honesty
  • Integrity

So it was about turning the human element back on because these situations are difficult, so it’s easy to switch that off and go back to the traditional HR process and not think about the individual.

This change in focus seemed to help our managers address the ‘people issues’. We have got several examples, but today we just want to talk about one. Initially, there was a personality clash in a small team and this escalated over a period of 18 months. What started off as what we thought was just two people not getting along—we tried the ‘bashing heads together’ approach: “You might get on, these are your goals, get on with it.” We ended up with one person feeling isolated and held back, two people feeling that the other person was being carried because they couldn’t do their job properly; we had to whole team atmosphere feeling awful, so nobody was enjoying working in that environment and the manager just didn’t know what to do. Everybody was just angry that ATS had let that happen and hadn’t supported them; at this point, the engagement score was zero for that team.

So it was a total mess. The grievance process failed and the team seemed to be collapsing; we were on the verge of losing people. Following the Happy Leadership Development  Training that we’d done, we refocused. We decided to really think about how individuals in that situation felt, and at this point we gave one person the opportunity to step out of that team into another team and start their career within a different environment. What happened was that that person is now a respected key member of that team, whereas in the other team it didn’t feel like that at all, and maybe they were having time off because it was a stressful situation.

The rest of the team are in a brilliant place: the team’s grown since, provided additional services for the customer; the revenue in that team has grown. Overall, it’s become a really positive story and the only difference was thinking about the individuals and how they felt rather than the business.

Final thought: one of the key learnings from that particular situation was not procrastinating. The earlier and the sooner you can have these conversations with people using respect, integrity, and honesty, the greater opportunity have to deal with it in a much better way than the traditional processes.


Damien: Good afternoon, I’m Damien. I’m a Site Manager for ATS. My site’s in Titchfield which is on the south coast near Portsmouth. I’m based on a customer’s site: it’s an aerospace manufacturer; there’s about 900 employees on the site, but ATS team are 25 technicians and engineers. I’m here to give you some examples of the things that we’ve done in building trust and then getting out of the team’s way. The other thing I’m here to do is celebrate a mistake, so through this story you’ll see where we went a little bit wrong.

This is my team. We had an issue: the issue was that, through time and circumstance, our shift patterns and the way that our team worked did not work for anybody. It didn’t work for the individuals, our customer, or the business. The effect it was having on the business was we were heavily reliant on voluntary overtime, so we were constantly having to persuade and cajole our employees to volunteer for this overtime. It didn’t work for the individuals because they felt like they were under pressure to volunteer all the time. And it didn’t work for the customer because it was costing them a lot of money in additional overtime payments. This came to a head about two months ago.

We decided as a leadership team we were going to fix this issue. We have a regular weekly management meeting and we spent the whole of one of these sorting this issue out. We sat down with my team and we devised an amazing shift pattern. It met all the needs of everybody: the customer, the business, and all the employees. I was sure it was fantastic. So I went out to the team, presented them with their new shift patterns, and then it all went wrong. The initial reaction was positive, but after a while, people looked at the new shift patterns, took it home to their partners and families and realised the impact it was going to have on them in terms of work/life balance. The next day I came to work, there was a very different atmosphere onsite. I had people coming up to me saying, “If you go ahead with this, I’m going to have to leave.” Other people got into arguments at home. This was not good. Bearing in mind, this was after we’d been through happy. Not good—hence the ‘celebrating mistakes’ bit.

We carried on with the wrong direction. We were having discussions around enforcing this through a consultation process and we were even thinking about who we were going to lose out of our team. Bearing in mind we’d been through the right person, right seat, so we believed we had the right people. Fortunately, we stopped. After the weekend, we reflected as a leadership team and decided: let’s go back to what we were taught through the Happy Leadership Programme. So we got the technicians in a room, told them what the issues were, told them the guidelines, and let them get on with it.

Two hours later, we had a shift pattern that fulfils the needs of everybody. It worked for the individual, so it wasn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. They came up with their own individual work patterns, meaning they only work four days per week - which is virtually unheard of in our industry. They have a much better work/life balance and more control over when they work. It works for the business: I know now who’s working when, all the way out to the end of the year. I have no overtime issues; all my overtime is covered to the end of the year. Also, it saved £5,500 this year for our customer in overtime payments.

So a real good example of the success of this methodology, and the potential pitfalls and how easy it is to slip into the old mindset and the old way of doing things despite everything we’ve been through as an organisation. We carried this theme on—and I’ve got another team, where I could give them even more freedom. We decided to go for it. They’re a Plan Maintenance Team; they service our customer’s machines. They take the machine away from the customer, out of production, so it’s sat there not making money. They service it and give it back to the customer. A typical service takes five days. The factory runs 18 hours a day. For every hour that machine’s down, that’s £100 per hour. What used to happen was the guys worked five days a week on a traditional rota basis and when they’re not there servicing the machine, it remains out of action. So we changed tactics.

We got the guys in a room, told them what the rules were: they had to work 37 hours a week, they had to deliver what they agreed with the customer, and they just had to let me know what they were doing so if I knew if they were supposed to be at work or not. We now serviced the machine in three days instead of five, so we give the machine back earlier. We estimate that will save our customer £11,000 a year in downtime—this year alone. Forecast for next year: potentially up to £50,000.

The team are engaged; they get to work pretty much when they want. The factory’s open from 6am to midnight, so they can work any time between those hours. The guys can go to sports day with their children, plan around holidays, and other things. This team is really driving success within our customer’s organisation. The effect it’s having is they’re doing a better job; the machines are working better than they ever have done, reducing breakdowns; it’s been a real success for us and the team.

Read these statements and discuss amongst yourselves where you feel your organisation fits on this scale and where would you like to be and how would that feel.

Which statement is true for your organisations? (Share examples).

  1. We micromanage our employees to get results.
  2. We get out of the way and let our employees do what they do best.
  3. Somewhere between A and B.

The message that we were trying to get across was that firstly, this stuff works and, despite the challenges, it can work. The right person, right seat, we believe is the fundamental start to this because without that, you’re not going to get anywhere. But once you get people in the right seats, you need to get out of the way and let them get on with doing their jobs.

In her role as the ATS HR Manager, Gemma Beadle has become passionate about creating wellbeing in the workplace. 

ATS is a US-owned, international organisation that provides IT support, industrial parts management, and factory maintenance services. ATS employees are regionally-based and not in a central head office location. They tend to be based on the customers’ premises, which exposes them to other companies' culture.

The physical working environment also poses certain challenges to workplace happiness, as the customer premises are quite often old factories. Despite this, Gemma claims the feeling is noticeably different on ATS sites. 

A lot of this stems from unity – the ATS staff unite to ensure it’s an excellent company to work for. Of foremost importance, however, is the notion of right person, right seat. ATS realised that minor initiatives will have little impact if an employee isn’t aligned with company values or in a position that allows them to be successful. 

Gemma took inspiration from David Maxwell’s bus ride analogy. When Maxwell became CEO of mortgage company Fannie Mae in 1981, the company was losing US$1m a day. But before tackling the financial woes, Maxwell declared they couldn’t make a decision on where to drive the bus until they got the right people on it, and the wrong people off of it. 

This inspired ATS to stop focusing on how to resolve business-specific issues and instead pay more attention to people. They were led by the question, “how can we help them to be the best versions of themselves irrespective of their position at ATS?” There was no catch-all solution, and they approached each individual with respect, honesty and integrity.  

Damien O’Neill became an ATS Site Manager in 2015 and immediately relished the freedom and support to try new things and grow an amazing team. He manages an aerospace manufacturer’s site in Titchfield. His leadership team employed principles they learned from Happy Leadership Development Training. They were previously in a position where the shift patterns and the way the team was working just was proving unsatisfactory for the individuals, the customer, and the business.

After making some changes, the team is now engaged and are given the option to work when they want so long as it fits into the factory’s opening times. As a result they’re doing a better job, the machines are working better than ever and they’re saving the customer money.

What You Will Learn in This Video

  • There are various obstacles in the way of creating a happy workplace, but it’s the right thing to do for your people and your organisation

  • The "right person, right seat" ethos is the best way to resolve business issues

  • What made ATS stop focusing on resolving business-specific issues and instead pay more attention to people

  • Approach each individual with respect, honesty and integrity in order to help them to be the best versions of themselves

  • Lessons from the Happy Leadership Development Training have enhanced workplace happiness and productivity at ATS' Titchfield site

Related resources

  • Click here to watch more videos from the 2017 Happy Workplaces conference

  • The Happy Manifesto by Henry Stewart – click here to get your free eBook, full of great ideas for creating a happy workplace

  • Happy Workplaces Have Lower Costs, a blog by Henry Stewart about how happy workplaces not only earn more, but have significantly lower costs

  • The Benefits of Happy Workplaces in the Public Sector, a blog by Henry Stewart about how happier, more engaged employees generate higher productivity and success in the public sector

  • Click here to watch a two-minute video of Henry explaining the financial evidence and academic research behind happy workplaces. 

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About Gemma and Damien

Gemma Beadle has worked in HR since 2004. She randomly shared a taxi with an HR Director who inspired her to make a career move into the field. She has a passion for wellbeing in the workplace, which connects to her own personal journey to improve her health. She is working on creating a happy and healthy workplace at ATS.

Damien O'Neill is a site manager at Advanced Technology Services, UK. He joined the Navy at 17 and spent eight years completing a marine engineering apprenticeship. After 12 years, Damien had changed and the structure he once craved was frustrating and stifling. He found ATS in 2015 and was immediately drawn in by the culture, as it lined up with his personal values. 

Next Conference: 2025 Happy Workplaces Conference

Our Happy Workplaces Conference is our biggest event of the year, and we'd love for you to join us on Wednesday 25th June!

Our 2024 event was our first ever hybrid event, and so we hope to run next year's in the same way. We will host up to 50 people face-to-face at Happy's HQ in Aldgate, London, and we can host up to 200 people online via Zoom. However you choose to join, there will be interaction, discussion, space for reflection and opportunities to network with others.

Stay tuned for full details of our speakers for next year's event. As always, our speakers share practical, hands-on ideas that you can implement to create happy and engaged workplaces.

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