Promoting diversity brings rewards – good retention rates and a fresh way of approaching work challenges


They’re doing some great things at Abley Transportation Consultants. We talked to Managing Director Steve Abley about the company's commitment to ensuring diversity of staff and the benefits that brings.

Benefits for engineering employers

Employers looking for skilled people with engineering or engineering-related qualifications know the difficulties – it’s not just about recruiting the right person for the job but also retaining them. The strategy at Abley and its GIS arm Interpret Geospatial Solutions is to promote diversity in the workforce, achieved through flexibility around staff employment. The commitment to arranging work around staff needs obviously requires a lot of effort but it does bring payback – retention rates are high and the mixture of people provides a fresh way of thinking and approaching work challenges.

Flexibility to accommodate people’s changing needs

It’s still reasonably unusual for a firm which offers engineering and engineering-related services to have more women than men doing those jobs. This is the case at Abley, the result of a deliberate strategy and one the company has had to work hard at implementing. “I think we’ve been a particularly flexible employer,” Steve says. Almost every woman who has taken maternity leave has returned to the company, usually to a part-time role. However, Steve notes, this flexibility is not limited to the new mothers but is a way of being accommodating to families in general, “There’s a phase when both women and men have a greater need for that flexibility.”

He cautions that it’s easy to talk about being a flexible employer, “but you have to walk the talk.” Making the effort has been beneficial for the company in an industry where women often don’t return after having children. “You see a disproportionate percentage of men when it’s harder to come back as a part-time employee.”

Individual rather than group think

The diversity at Abley also refers to geographic and cultural differences – staff come from Australia, Belgium, China, Czech Republic, India, Ireland, Nepal, Pakistan, South Africa and South Korea as well as New Zealand.  Steve emphasises that the company hires on merit, but if someone’s background or career history means they bring an extra element to the team then they are more likely to be considered.

While recruiting a diverse range of staff obviously makes it easier to fill any gaps, the advantage goes beyond that. It means, Steve says, “that we don’t have ‘group think’ but ‘individual think’’ – engineering is a creative industry so you need creative thinkers. Having different types of people contributing their ideas can also make for a more intellectually challenging work environment.”

Jana Pfefferová says she found it difficult getting a job after moving to New Zealand from the Czech Republic, so was pleased to get an internship at Abley, and almost two years later works full time as a GIS consultant. Jana recently developed a mobile solution for Fulton Hogan staff working in the field building and fixing water utilities, for which she was awarded the New Zealand Eagle Technology Excellence in GIS Award 2015.

As well as enjoying her work environment – “the size of the company, the friendly people and the social activities all make it a nice place to work” – Jana sees the advantages a diverse workforce brings to the company. She explains that people with different experiences see approaches to a problem that others might not have considered and may bring specific expertise to a project because they’ve worked on something similar overseas.

Communication and feedback

Communication has been important in growing a team of one to the current 35. Steve says the company invites feedback from everyone about how it could do better as an employer. “I suppose there’s a level of tolerance or being more open minded to different perspectives when you’re working with people who aren’t exactly the same as you. You’re constantly reinventing but the benefits for a growth company are enormous.”

Another reward for investing in the retention of staff, says Steve, is that word gets around about the advantages of working for the company. “I think we now have a reputation as an exciting place to work – a good team, flexible employer and interesting work. It’s like using a fly wheel – it takes a bit of energy to get it going but once you’re away you’re in a sweet spot and that’s where we are, although we have to work hard to stay there.”

He points out that as the founder of the firm he has had to change along with it. “It’s been a personal growth story for me as well as the company. A team of one can be really ambitious; a team of 35 requires a wider skill set. Being open to change is critical.” The best part, says Steve, comes from seeing his staff produce high-quality work, “It makes me humble and very very proud of the team.”

Thanks to Steve and Jana for their time and advice. If you have any questions or comments, please get in touch

September 2015