Walking the talk – standing up for wellness at Urban Connection 

Work-life balance. Easy to say, harder to achieve. Urban Connection is a flexible, remote and professional New Zealand-based engineering consultancy with wellness at its core. Technical director Tony Harrison tells us why the company prioritises wellness and how its outcome-driven approach is paying off.
 
You‘re based in Hawkes Bay, Tony. Hows the region’s mood one year on from Cyclone Gabrielle?  

Many people in the community are still struggling. I have friends rebuilding houses without insurance payouts because they have nowhere else to go. Despite the initial efforts following the event, a lot of the financial support hasn’t materialised and, for some, the effects of the floods will be enduring. 

Overall, Hawke’s Bay is in two camps – those still very affected and the rest who live in a bubble as if nothing has happened. The floods have made some of us think about preparation and where we live. More lifestyle properties seem to be for sale, and those living in hilly or slightly remote areas may be considering moving because, although they may usually be a 15-minute drive from town, it’s a very different situation when roads or bridges are destroyed.  

Was your team affected by the disaster? 

Not really. We had no internet for 24 hours, and Urban Connection moved one family expecting the arrival of a new baby into powered accommodation closer to the hospital.  

We were involved with volunteering and offered pro bono technical help to some clients, but no one took this up. I worked with a friend, whose wife is involved with civil defence, delivering food to contractors. We wanted to do something as it felt wrong to continue as if nothing had happened when so many were struggling.  

Urban Connection is well regarded for prioritising wellbeing. Have you personally always had this wellness focus?

I am prone to depression and credit John Kirwan’s mental health campaign in the late 1990s for making me have that uncomfortable discussion with my doctor. Antidepressant medication has been life changing for me and I know I need to keep taking it to maintain a healthy chemical balance. 

But my wellbeing focus largely stems from late 2010 when I hit the wall.  Following therapy, I reflected that, throughout my career, I’d always worked at 120%. I’d felt I had to work longer hours, and harder, because I wasn’t a highly qualified engineer. But the willing horse also gets flogged, and I kept taking work on. Once I recognised I had some control over this, I started working more on myself. I put my phone away during family time and limited when I’d respond to emails.  

Before I hit the wall, I thought everyone could see that I was becoming stressed, but no one noticed. I’m now much better at reading these signs within myself and with staff. This is very important. You can have all the processes in place but, as an industry, we often put technically very good people into leadership positions. Yet those who manage people need emotional intelligence – you need people who know people.  

The big turning point for me was talking about it. In 2017, I shared my story with my workplace and on LinkedIn. Some felt it would be career limiting but the response I received was so encouraging – people thanked and confided in me about their own struggles with mental health. It was uplifting and, following a few public speaking courses, I shared my story more, which felt good. 

You and Technical Director Aaron Campion founded Urban Connection determined to lead better lifestyles. How have you made this a reality?

Yes, when Aaron and I started Urban Connection, we wanted better lifestyles than we’d experienced in the corporate world. We didn’t mind if we earned less. But it turns out you can win-win.  

We hadn’t planned to have staff but we’re about good people. So, if we find them, we’ll employ them regardless of where they live because we believe they create opportunities. We don’t have targets regarding company size, but we aim to have good retention.  

Our outcome-focused approach applies to the whole team. We don’t have many policies about wellness, but it starts from a 40-hour week maximum. We also don’t have time sheets. Staff charge time to jobs. And we don’t have utilisation targets. You can’t plan or build a business if you’re only looking at one month at a time. We take a quarterly approach. 

We manage our workload and client expectations. We work with clients who are good for our people and speak up if they’re behaving badly.  

We also never look more than two months ahead regarding revenue. This can be stressful because we’re responsible for a 15-member team, but taking on work for the sake of it doesn’t make sense. We’re more concerned with profitability than massive revenue and low margins. 

And we’re fully flexible. The team don’t have set hours at their desk. If it’s a sunny day and you want to play golf or go surfing, or you have children at home because it’s a teacher-only day, you do what you need to and needn’t tell us. 

Communication is very important as our model involves a lot of trust. We make sure we’re all on the same page. If there’s a problem, flag it early and we’ll help with a project’s delivery or talk with the client and try to change priorities. 

I believe you can have trust in your people regardless of company size. You must have faith in people, have the right people in the right roles, and take a long-term holistic approach to issues. Simon Sinek and the Infinite Mindset really struck a chord with us when we set our company values. 

How do you foster wellbeing in a remote team? 

There’s the basic stuff – our weekly team get-together, monthly quizzes, and more. We also have an annual retreat where the entire team go and have fun together. This year’s retreat was in Rotorua – mountain biking, kayaking, hot pools, luge.  

The retreats are always held during the week and are great for building relationships and introducing new members to the team. Aaron and I go and meet new staff on their first day, but it’s amazing how quickly they integrate with the team through these retreats. I’ve always believed in investing in and getting people to work with you face-to-face. Once you have this relationship, you understand how each other works and you’re happy for them to work remotely. We also get all the team and their partners together at Christmas. 

These annual events, which are alternated between the North and South Islands to share equally team members’ time away from home, make up for our remoteness.  Despite the significant cost involved, we’ll keep doing them regardless of our size as they have multiple benefits. Many side chats take place in the down time enabling people to get to know each other. It gives us a good feeling of the interactions between the team.  

We are very focused on having a cohesive team – they must enjoy working together. To me, the overarching goal is respecting people and caring about their wellness. If you treat people poorly, their wellness will be affected. 

Can you tell us about a time you actively managed wellness for your staff?

In July, a client approached us with a direct engagement job, but wanted to use another consultant for part of it. We priced it up but advised that we could only keep to the budget if we used our own consultant. The client responded saying they’d need to put it out for invited tender, which we ultimately won. 

By then, it was October, and this was an urgent job for the client. They immediately asked us to speed up the project’s delivery. I said no – the delay was their fault, we’d met the tender document programme, and I was unwilling to put this pressure on my staff. Agreeing to this request would have been rewarding bad behaviour. I advised the client we enjoyed working with them, but we’d walk away if they didn’t accept our programme. And this was a significant project for us.  

The following day, the client apologised for their behaviour. We went on to complete the project on time and to budget. One of the main drivers of workplace stress is when a promise is made that’s hard work from day one. Pushing back on this behaviour – managing expectations – is important. This is how I first got into trouble. 

Unfortunately, the Government doesn’t help with managing expectations. It doesn’t understand how constrained the industry is. I have concerns about the Cyclone Gabrielle recovery work. Unrealistic deadlines will be set because there’s a sense of urgency.  

The contracting industry especially is experiencing a lot of pressure, which, when combined with public frustration and unhappiness at the delays, has created an unhealthy environment. Companies wanting the work will sign up for the projects, and their employees will suffer. It’s the same when companies put forward cheap pricing for a project and win the job – those responsible for carrying it out get punished because they can’t deliver it. At Urban Connection, we’re very focused on trying to make sure we don’t place unrealistic pressure on our people. 

Are potential employees attracted to you because of your wellness stance?

Yes. People approach us because of what we offer. Our model is about doing things that work well for our team. We feel we’ve demonstrated that you can still have a successful commercial business when you’re relaxed on some of these issues.  

During covid times, we kept everyone on full hours and pay. Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency was very good at advancing us some office work, otherwise it may have been very tough from a project perspective. It costs a lot to recruit people and you don’t want to lose anyone because of a bad month or quarter.  

We’re coming up six years and Aaron and I are now more involved with managing people than the technical work given our team’s growth. We’re currently investing in new technology and AI, which is exciting. We’ll regret it if we don’t try it, and there’s potentially a great reward. You must understand the risks involved and be able to carry on if it doesn’t work. This new investment also lines up with some of our employees’ interests in technology. We want to help employees achieve their career goals – everyone should have an area within their job about which they’re passionate.    

You need to look after your people – invest in them. We allow our staff to try new things if there’s potential benefit to them, clients, and the business. We wouldn’t have started Urban Connection without this mindset. 

Tips for creating a healthy work environment
  • Treat your people with respect and care about their wellness 
  • Invest in good people – focus on good retention rather than company size 
  • Prioritise communication 
  • Trust your people – get to know them and how they work 
  • Manage workload – don’t place unrealistic pressure on people 
  • Choose good clients and manage their expectations – speak up if a client is behaving badly 
  • Focus on outcomes and profitability 
  • Avoid utilisation targets and time sheets – charge time to jobs 
  • Get the team together regularly – weekly meetings, monthly quizzes, annual retreats, Christmas gatherings 
  • Have a 40-hour-week maximum 
  • Have flexible and remote working if possible 
  • Foster staff work-related passions and career goals where possible 
  • Take an holistic approach to issues

Hear Tony speak about depression, seeking help and staying healthy

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