Arcadis – Empowering People to Shape a Better World

We learn how Arcadis is creating a better environment for its people, its clients, and future generations.

In the 19th century Netherlands, a small group of engineers looked at their country and realised it would soon outgrow itself. Responding to this, they developed solutions to reclaim land and promote agriculture and forestation.

“They massively changed the environment and the quality of life of the people living there, creating a stable future,” explains Mark Cowlard, the CEO of Arcadis in the UK & Ireland. “Those engineers were our founding fathers, so our roots go back a long way in terms of sustainability and resilience, creating great places for people to live, work, move and play. The most important thing for us is improving the everyday quality of life for our clients and their customers.”

From there Arcadis has had a huge journey, growing and acquiring new businesses across the world. Today it employs in the region of 27,000 people and operates in 70 countries, boasting a turnover of €3.3 billion. The UK business employs 4,000 people, as well as nearly 1,000 more people working in the Philippines and India. The modern Arcadis is a global design, engineering and consultancy business, helping create value for clients throughout the lifecycle of their assets, property or infrastructure. It works with numerous clients across the UK ranging from the Environment Agency, Highways England, and Thames Tideway to blue-chip businesses like Virgin Media and Lloyds, social and private housing developers.

“We help our clients identify and improve their built assets, whether it’s a residential building or transport interchange, raise funds and go through an acquisition process, then provide the design and delivery of those assets,” Cowlard explains.

A Great Working Environment

Fundamentally, however, the business hasn’t strayed far from its origins of trying to create a better environment for the future, and as with most noble efforts, it starts at home. Of course, plenty of workplaces talk about how much their staff enjoy being there, but very few can claim employees identify themselves by the company’s name. Arcadis’ staff proudly call themselves “Arcadians” however.

“We’re proud to be a great place to work. We’ve won awards from Glass Door and the Sunday Times Best 25 Companies. I was personally delighted to be shortlisted for CEO of the Year,” Cowlard says.

When I speak to Cowlard it’s the middle of a weekday, and he’s sitting home having just come back from walking his dog. It’s a nice way to arrange your day, but it’s also how Cowlard sets an example to the rest of his team. This isn’t a company where the boss works late and expects you to do the same.

“Working remotely helps me improve my work/life balance but it also sets an example for all our people,” Cowlard explains. “We’re saying, ‘Focus on your wellbeing and spend time with your family while still delivering the outcomes that we want.’ Getting that balance right is something we want to give people the freedom to do.”

Everyone shares in the benefit of this approach.

“It means we have a highly engaged community of people who really enjoy working for us,” Cowlard says. “We’ve got a focus on wellbeing. We provide everyone with health checks through BUPA and we were voted in the top three of Britain’s healthiest workplaces by a recent Vitality index.”

There are also unexpected economic benefits.

“If we encourage our people to think about work/life balance and people work remotely where it’s appropriate, and we manage it well, we don’t require as much office space, so there’s a financial benefit to be gained in that as well,” Cowlard points out.

An Inclusive Environment

Of course, as nice as it is to work in your pyjamas at your own kitchen table, there is more to being a good employer than letting people work from home. It’s also about how people feel within the workplace. For Cowlard an important part of that is how the company addresses equality, diversity and inclusion.

“We’re looking at our reflection in the mirror and thinking about how we’re operating and what we value and this aspect of being proud to be yourself in your workplace, whoever you are, is massively, massively important,” he says. “We’ve set up an Equality, Diversity and Inclusion community with six strands; LGBT, race, religion, gender, disability, and age. Each of my leadership team owns one of those strands and they work to bring together those communities, not just those affected by these strands but building communities of allies for these strands as well.”

LGBT inclusion is an area Cowlard is particularly proud of, where Arcadis is leading the way for other businesses.

“We worked with a member of our team who was transitioning and with her we developed a corporate transitioning policy. That’s been so successful that we’re taking it to our client organisations and helping them through our own experiences,” he says. “We have a huge amount of pride around that, and also in the national NatWest LGBT awards, we are always shortlisted in various categories. Our Chief Operating Officer was awarded the best ally award.”

Cowlard is adamant that this approach is the right thing to do, beyond any profit motive.

“It’s not about money,” he says. “It’s about empowering people to help shape the direction of our business.”

However, he also explains that there is a strong business case for inclusion.

“We’ve seen a substantial shift in attrition figures. We’re losing fewer people, and when we have the opportunity to recruit new people a lot of people join not just because of the work we do and the fantastic projects we’re involved in, but actually because they want to work with a business that carries our kind of culture,” Cowlard explains.

A Sustainable Environment

The way Arcadis supports its people is just one example of the company’s mission to create environments that promote a better quality of life, however. The world is changing, just like the world of those 19th-century Dutch engineers, and Arcadis is working hard to adapt.

“We’ve talked about it from a people perspective, but sustainability and digitalisation are also important. We have set some priorities. The client experience has to be our clear priority, but there is also an urgent need to build sustainability and carbon resilience into everything we do,” Cowlard says. “We help our client organisations to create sustainable solutions when taking our products to the market, and we are passionate about reducing our own carbon footprint. We won’t do that just by offsetting; we’ll actively be looking at all options to try to reduce our impact on the environment. We had a board meeting yesterday talking about this and the passion of all our people is immense.”

In the digital space, Arcadis has just launched a new stand-alone business, Arcadis Gen which will focus on the rapid development of data-driven products and solutions for clients. “This is all part of our digital transformation and will set the business apart from the competition by creating an environment for next-generation thinking,” says Cowlard.

Indeed, Cowlard is the first to acknowledge the parallels between what Arcadis does today and the work of its founders, but he’s keen to avoid the trap of nostalgia.

“It’s nice to have a link all the way back to our origins, and it’s great to look back at our heritage as a pioneering business,” he says. “But what that group of men at the time were thinking about was the future they would create for generations to come, and our approach to a changing environment hasn’t changed. We want to be at the forefront of finding innovative solutions, and this is critical to everything we do.”

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