Ben Fillmore is the Managing Director of ehouse.
From being one of the earliest employees of the business, Ben has become an inspiring leader of a business renowned for excellent customer service.
ehouse are the established market-leader of creative marketing and design solutions for the property and leisure sectors. They help companies to develop their corporate identity and market their projects by providing excellent marketing solutions to national and international clients.
PG: Hi Ben, thanks for taking time out today. How did you find yourself with ehouse?
BF: After finishing university, I stumbled across ehouse, which had just got funding.
It was 2 guys, with MBAs from INSEAD, who I felt had some gravitas. This was 2003/4 and the job was called 'All-rounder'! There was no job spec, it was just get stuck in. There were 8 people in the business at the time - they needed someone to come in who could learn and develop with the business. The business grew very quickly over the next few years.
By 2007, we were probably about 100 people in scale. Then the recession struck and the hit to the property market was quick, immediate and sizeable. That had a significant impact on the business and our revenues effectively halved within 3 months. That was a very difficult period.
PG: Would you say that has been the toughest people challenge you'd faced?
BF: Definitely. We were left with the option that either half the people were going to lose their jobs or some were going to decide that they’ll take an offer of voluntary and move on.
Nevertheless, not enough people did take voluntary (redundancy), so we had to look at our wage bill and find novel ways of reducing it. The obvious way was to just go through a redundancy process. We didn’t want to do that so we came up with a scheme. We consulted the employees and put it to a democratic vote.
The options were (1) go ahead with redundancy, which would be quite large in scale, or alternatively (2) everybody worked a 4-day week whilst this situation prevails. There was a lot of uncertainty so we couldn’t offer any view on how long it could last.
Almost everyone (apart from I think 2) voted for 80% hours. That was a massive surprise to us. Amazingly, during that period, morale in the office was as high as it ever has been.
PG: I guess by that stage, you probably only had people in the trenches who wanted to be there fighting.
BF: Yes, they believed in what we were doing and we said that we would put everyone back full time as soon as we could. By 2010 everyone went back to 100%, with a pay rise over what they had been on previously. That ended up being a really good year for us. We ended up paying quite a lot of bonuses (25-30% of salary) so I think we rewarded the commitment that they gave us.
PG: That must have been great to see. The tactic did work in the long term and people were rewarded for their faith and for sticking with you.
BF: Everyone earned back the money that they gave up in one way or another and it was an effective way of getting through that period.
We are up to 150-200 people now. Almost all of our work is based upon using our people and their expertise in some way or another so keeping people together going in the right direction is fundamental to our business.
Post-recession, our key thing was just to speak to people as frequently as possible. Just being totally transparent so there wasn’t a feeling of management versus everyone else.
PG: Even if there is no dramatic news to offer, just sharing info and being transparent is vitally important for people. If there is ongoing dialogue and trust, people understand you are giving them the information that they need (and deserve to know).
PG: Are those people based locally to Wembley (ehouse HQ) or all over the country?
BF: We have a blend. We have a field network, that work from home, and they go out and visit properties and conduct work onsite. Then we have a team in the office. We have a full time, 9-5 type team and we have a team of part time workers who come in between 6am and 10pm, seven days a week.
PG: So, you have that real distinct split of office based and remote workers and you've got part time / full time. That must be quite an interesting one in maintaining those people relationships and engagement levels.
BF: Very much - communication has always been our biggest focus because it is a diverse business.
We want to make sure everyone knows what is going on with their role and how that fits in the bigger picture. Without communication, people’s tendencies are to fear the worst. If you don't put context behind things, people can get unnecessarily worried. Often, people will naturally tend to a more negative outcome than is probably real and, if they are feeling under pressure, they might believe they need to move on.
PG: Do you have any specific challenges with people being transient in their career choices?
BF: Keeping people engaged, over a period of time, certainly in the office, is a challenge. We have had turnover in the team, people do sometimes move on after 2 years. Our way of handling that is back to clear communication. Making sure people know where they are going and that there is a path forward for them that is clear.
We don’t do annual performance reviews, I hate the idea of telling somebody what they are good at and what they aren’t good at. They know themselves generally and I hate the annual nature of it - it's far too slow for most people - especially at that age, when you are in the growth phase of your career.
We have fortnightly chats with people to see how things are, are they happy? Are they not? Sometimes that is five mins long, sometimes that is an hour long. Probably every 3-6 months we have more of a sit down to see where things are going. How are your responsibilities? Do you want to have this? We try and move things around so that we give everybody a bit of experience with different aspects of the business.
That is a good way of keeping everything fresh, keep them learning. We have a long track record of pushing people upwards. So when someone shows initiative, drive, enthusiasm and engagement, there is normally a gap in our mid management layer, where we want (and need) people to step up and take responsibility. People very quickly understand that is the nature of work at ehouse.
You are going to learn new things and that creates constant learning, being outside of one's comfort zone, so they don't get stale. Most young people are ambitious - or certainly the ones we try and find - most want to go off and do some cool stuff with their life. It's about trying to make sure that the job fits into them.
PG: After showing such unity during the recession, how did you maintain that spirit?
BF: Following the recession, it was evident that pulling together was vitally important.
One of the mechanisms we used was our social committee. We run 6 monthly terms of president of the committee - it's all self-elected. If someone wants to run, they can put their hand up and take the reins for the next 6 months.
They have 6 months’ worth of expenditure and they can spend it however they wish (within reason!) but we encourage them to use it in different ways (lots of social activities - not just drinking). The social committee has really helped bind the people in the office together. We've run that since 2010.
When we realised the social committee was working we wanted to see what we could do for the remote teams. It's hard as people do live all around the country and trying to connect everyone in one space is a nightmare.
So for the last 4 years, we have been running ‘roadshows’. Myself and a couple of senior managers tour around the country and host sessions in various locations, where everyone in that area can get together. There is an update from our side about clients, the business, the market, what we are doing and we get input on any issues, queries or good news from them.
I think that massively helped the remote team feel more involved in the business, there was a risk that they felt isolated. Those meetings have evolved into being more social now. There are more chats around their lives. Before that point, even if they only lived 10 miles apart, they might never see each other, and then they wouldn’t know that they lived 10 miles apart.
PG: What can seem like a small gesture, like you getting in the car, means a lot to people. In many scenarios, they wouldn’t see the MD taking time to come to them and see the value in knitting them with their other peers, coming to their turf to support them.
PG: Is there a quick or simple win that you would suggest to someone moving into a leadership role?
BF: Go and spend the energy in meeting people - and talking to them. Those weeks where we go out from HQ are probably the ones that generate the most benefit to our clients (through better engagement with everyone who comes).
PG: Thinking back to you moving into a leadership role, was there any piece of advice that you got at the time that really stood out? Or that stands out now?
BF: One of the founders of the company, prior to setting up ehouse had been running a large pan European team who were dealing with batteries. A challenging environment to keep people motivated I would imagine. He had said that when he first started managing a team he had seen an issue where somebody had done something wrong. He got everybody together and said 'OK, we’ve got to stop doing this and do it this way, don't do it that way'.
His learning from that experience was that inadvertently he had pissed off 39 out of 40 people who were doing it right already and he had only changed the way one other person worked. His advice to me very early on was 'if you are going try and change anything, try and do it on an individual level, don't try and do it en-masse. Even if you have a big team of people, you have got to take the time and do it personally.’ Initially that felt wrong and inefficient but it's the one thing I always pass on to anyone else who is stepping up to manage groups of people - just take your time to do everything personally.
PG: We have touched a lot on Employee Engagement, Workplace Culture, and the world of Leadership. Is there anything that frustrates you in that world of 'Leadership'?
BF: Probably the myth or preconception that not everybody can be a leader, that there is leadership qualities that only certain people have. Basic leadership skills are relatively easily learned if someone has the right training, education, experience and is allowed to make mistakes, allowed to try and do things their own way. I think that is the biggest thing that annoys me. That's certainly what annoys me about big business. They only look for certain traits in certain people and they won't be prepared to support or invest in those outside of that mould.
If I look internally at ehouse, our Operations Director started as a graphic design graduate with no management experience at all and yet he is definitely better than me at man management. The amount of time he spends with all his team is immense. He has just learned that by experience.
PG: Are there any resources that you recommend? Anything that you recommend to people?
BF: There is a book that I read over the summer actually called ‘Drive’ by Dan Pink - great book about motivation theory in the modern world. Why people really do work, and what aspects you must tick if you want to get a 9 or 10/10 from them.
PG: Are there are any others areas of engagement or culture you are looking to explore at ehouse?
BF: People increasingly want to work in more flexible ways. Managing people is moving from a time-based metric to an output based metric. Whether they work 2 or 8 hours a day, what are they achieving? When we were at 80% time, people’s motivations were higher than ever and productivity per hour was great. It would be interesting to explore that more in future.
PG: I love that concept of focusing on outcomes and value. If someone can turn around high-quality work in 4 hours rather than 8 hours, what is the big deal in not doing it that way?!
BF: A business will ultimately decide - what do I want the outcome to be and what is the value of that outcome? It doesn’t matter necessarily how much time it takes...
PG: I’d love to hear how you approach that, it’ll be an exciting initiative.
Thanks Ben, I really appreciate your time and it was great talking to you.
You can learn more about ehouse by visiting their website (http://www.ehouse.co.uk/).
I hope you've enjoyed what was an fun and lively discussion with Ben.
More interviews with other interesting and dynamic organisations will be released in the coming weeks.
Do you have any recommendations for who else would have some great insight to share? If so, please do let me know!