MD Insights: Mathew Riley talks climate action, COVID-19 and the future ways of working

8 December 2020
Through interviews with New Civil Engineer and Building, Mathew Riley provides his unique perspective on the events of 2020 and where Ramboll and other organisations need to direct their focus now.

On why the time for Climate Action is now 

“I’m of the generation that hasn’t grown up so close to climate change, but I have a lot of people in my organisation with the passion to do something about it. All I need to do is create an environment for them to do that.”

Mathew Riley is an outspoken climate action advocate within the engineering, construction and consultancy industry. He acknowledges that the challenges for leaders are complex, requiring a shift from short-term, profit driven priorities, to investing in solutions which will deliver climate improvements and future proof the business for the longer term. 

“There is a big gap between words and actions, and bridging that requires those in leadership positions to empower their organisation to take immediate, tangible action, at all levels. This includes recognising and harnessing the knowledge and drive of younger generations, who may not yet be in leadership positions but appreciate the challenges and requirement for action.” 

As part of that action, Ramboll has and continue to invest in this space. The business has brought together expertise from across disciplines to help solve the complex challenges faced by clients and the solutions that go further, faster.

He is clear that Ramboll has an obligation to the next generation to create the environment for change. For him, the evolution of our business towards a focus on Climate Action is a natural development of our 75-year heritage, our legacy of Scandinavian solutions and our position as the sustainable society consultant. 

“We are accelerating our own commitments in helping to build a net zero, climate resilient future for all. It is being prioritised across all aspects of our business; from meaningfully reducing emissions from our own operations, to increasing investment into solutions that drive climate resilient outcomes for our clients, through to helping our employees lead sustainable lifestyles. We are in the final stages of formalising these commitments, in line with science-based targets, and have strived to ensure a robust approach underpinned by employee engagement.”

For the UK more broadly, Mathew says time is of the essence, “The UK originally set one of the most ambitious targets for net zero but to remain global leaders in climate action we need to move further and faster.” He goes on to add, “these targets are set with a 20+ year timeframe, [but] businesses are already being impacted today by climate change.”

On COVID-19 and the impact it’s had on the way Ramboll employees work 

“It was all about understanding from a health and wellbeing perspective what we needed to do to protect our people and continue to serve our clients”.

Ramboll senior leadership took the decision to mobilise employees to work from home the week before Government issued their request. Some 1300 employees were setup to work remotely within 24 hours. 

Like for most companies, the pandemic was a big test for IT systems, but Mathew says of that initial period, “You realise very quickly that the technology works, it’s the culture that needs to catch up”.

Mathew explains that he was impressed by the initial crisis response and how people adapted very quickly to a different way of working. However, he has always been acutely aware of the different circumstances of Ramboll employees, with some being better set up to work from home than others. 

Mathew describes a subtle yet quick transition from crisis management to business continuity planning and what is perhaps the new way of working. He talks about the emotional consequences for our people when you sustain, a crisis response, over a long period of time.

“We kept the offices open for health and wellbeing reasons”, Mathew explains. And while Ramboll already had very flexible working practices in place, and will change the way we use our offices going forwards, he still firmly maintains that this is not the beginning of the end of office working, “the office will definitely have a role for collaboration, so whether that’s around the creative work that we do, whether that’s around the project work and reviews and the assurance-type work that we do and client meetings… but don’t forget there’s the social connection to this.”

Like with many of the lessons learned this year, Mathew believes the way Ramboll works and the split of home and office working will be personal to each employee. He imagines that a typical split might be two days in the office and three working from home, but with scope for individuals to tailor this balance to their role or circumstances.
In the meantime, Mathew talks about a current project looking at the new ways of working and how this will influence the design and layouts of our offices, perhaps with more space dedicated to coming together with colleagues to collaborate and much less given over to working alone at a desk. 

On the financial impact of COVID-19

“One of the things that stood us well is the kind of business we are. We’re a foundation-owned business which these days is becoming increasingly rare.”

Foundation ownership means that the company is an employee owned business that’s held in trust. There is not the same pressure to return annual dividends as all profit is invested back into the business or used for philanthropic purposes. 

Mathew cites the foundation-ownership of Ramboll as being key to the resilience of the company this year, “we take medium and long-term views about how we run the business, not just short-term ones”. This has meant the Ramboll leadership had different options about how to protect our people, how to continue to serve our clients and ensure the medium-term success of the business.

While competitors took decisions to announce wide-scale redundancies, Ramboll did not. The UK business had grown organically by 40% in the period from 2017 to the end of 2019 and we had started 2020 in a strong position, which gave Mathew confidence that we would rebound from a short-term shock to the industry. 

With the support of the foundation, Mathew explains “Our approach from day one has been to protect every job as best as we can. We’re all in this together… I didn’t want to see potentially 200 livelihoods walk out the door”. It hasn’t come without some financial pain; Ramboll made use of the jobs retention scheme and also introduced temporary salary cuts earlier this year.

Taking these decisions that impact employee income is incredibly difficult. Mathew felt that it was important to share the journey with all employees so that they could better understand why leadership took the decisions they did, “We adopted an approach of remaining positive, but realistic with our people. We were very open and transparent with where we were as a business”.

Mathew happily reports that projects that were put on hold in the spring started to return, as did new opportunities that have seen Ramboll secure a healthy pipeline of work in the latter part of 2020 and into 2021.

And despite the challenging backdrop in 2020 and Ramboll taking some difficult decisions with regards to financially navigating the crisis, UK employees reported their highest ever levels of engagement and satisfaction in Ramboll’s annual employee survey in September. 

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