In an era of rife market competition, it’s increasingly difficult for companies to set themselves apart. In fact, nowadays, it’s probably impossible to fake it till you make it: to truly succeed in this economy, originality and excellence have to be part of your very essence. Ove Arup already knew this back in the 20th century – and his company still remembers it now. Tangent travels deep into the inner workings of Arup’s philosophical core to explore one of the most remarkable rail employers around
Shortly before the start of World War Two, in 1934, a penguin took its first dive down London Zoo’s brand-new attraction: an elliptical pool encircling a pair of interlocking spiral ramps attached to hidden columns that appeared to hover over the water, entirely unsupported. The Penguin Pool complex was designed according to the philosophical theory of behaviourism, a popular concept back then which dictated that animal behaviour can be explained in terms of external environmental factors. The aquatic sculpture sought to mimic the birds’ natural habitat by providing a stimulating environment where they could waddle and court while still impressing the zoo’s visitors with theatrical displays along the ramp.
For children and their families seeking refuge from the Great Depression in the 19th-century zoo, the display was at once visually thrilling and fascinatingly immersive, with the deep glass-fronted diving tank offering a first-hand peek into the penguins’ daily rituals. But for engineers, designers and architects alike, the Penguin Pool was, above all, a remarkable feat of engineering.
The narrow curving ramps, while apparently simplistic, were structurally innovative and technically exceptional, pushing the boundaries of what could be achieved beyond traditional build methods that existed at the time. To realise this vision, designer Berthold Lubetkin invited an Anglo-Danish engineer by the name of Ove Arup to help out by exploiting the potential of reinforced concrete, at the time his emerging area of expertise. Born in Newcastle, Arup had specialised in reinforced concrete at the Technical University of Denmark and later joined Hamburg firm Christiani & Nielsen as their London-based chief engineer.
Ove put forward the idea that rather than casting the structure as a column or beam, the team should use reinforced concrete slabs cast as one single unit, with all of the joints as strong as the central elements. According to Arup, with this approach they could achieve any desired shape.
In many ways, this technique perfectly mirrors the philosophy that Ove later sought to infuse into his own company: that by working together as one single team, with the whole always being greater than the sum of its parts, one can accomplish absolutely anything.
Musings on a Thursday
Ove – who, after his death in 1988, has been branded by many the greatest engineer of the 20th century – set up his own consulting engineering business in 1946. By then, he was already known as the go-to expert in reinforced concrete and had closely collaborated with leading architects, always seeking to combine different areas of discipline to create unconventional and consistently impressive solutions. In its first two decades, the firm earned a reputation for its creative approach to the built environment, bringing together diverse expertise to deliver projects much greater than what could ever be achieved by working in isolation.
By 1970, the firm – then called Ove Arup & Partners – comprised several independent practices around the world, but many feared its true essence could be lost as many key leaders started to retire. Seeing an opportunity to reinforce his support for collective thinking, Ove moved fast: on 9 July that year, he took to the stage in Winchester to issue a call to arms to all of his partners.
In what is known as the company’s Key Speech – or, as Ove then put it, the “musings of an old gentleman in a garden” – Arup laid out the philosophical principles that should underpin every part of the organisation. While some of his diction is certainly reminiscent of a man born in 1895, the ethos that fuels his speech still stands true today: “We must strive for quality in what we do, and never be satisfied with the second-rate.”
“There are two ways of looking at the work you do to earn a living. One is the way propounded by the late Henry Ford: work is a necessary evil, but modern technology will reduce it to a minimum. Your life is your leisure lived in your ‘free’ time. The other is: to make your work interesting and rewarding. You enjoy both your work and your leisure. We opt uncompromisingly for the second way,” he told his colleagues back in 1970.
“There are also two ways of looking at the pursuit of happiness: One is to go straight for the things you fancy without restraints, that is, without considering anybody else besides yourself. The other is to recognise that no man is an island, that our lives are inextricably mixed up with those of our fellow human beings, and that there can be no real happiness in isolation. Which leads to an attitude which would accord to others the rights claimed for oneself, which would accept certain moral or humanitarian restraints. We, again, opt for the second way.”
It is not the wish to expand, but the quest for quality which has brought us to this position
In his speech, which is now compulsory reading (and understandably so) for all Arup employees, he outlined, amongst other principles, what he called ‘Total Architecture’: the idea that, to achieve high-quality and fit-for-purpose structures that are both aesthetically pleasing and harmonious with their surroundings, one must collaborate with like-minded individuals. The term implies that all design decisions have been considered in unison and integrated into a whole by a well-organised team. “This means expanding our field of activity into adjoining fields: architecture, planning, ground engineering, environmental engineering, computer programming, etc. and the planning and organisation of the work on site,” explained Ove. “It is not the wish to expand, but the quest for quality which has brought us to this position, for we have realised that only intimate integration of the various parts or the various disciplines will produce the desired result.”
While Ove himself admitted that this is an ideal which can never, or only very rarely, be fully realised in practice, it is certainly one that underpins the physical presence of Arup around the globe. Walk into any Arup office and you will see that very principle in action: every single employee shares the same space. There are no walls dividing disciplines, there are no offices segregating boss from graduate, there are no barriers to conversation. All of its partners – ‘partners’ indeed being the operative word here: all Arup employees are beneficiaries who each receive a share of the firm’s yearly profit – sit together, share with one another, coexist in the same space, living and breathing and moving as one.
By people, for people
For a company that started off focusing on physical structures, Arup is everything but. Its many iconic buildings and architectural projects peppered around the world – from the Opera House in Sydney and La Sagrada Família in Barcelona to the Water Cube in Beijing and the Second Avenue Subway in New York – are merely a consequence of the emphasis it places on its people. It’s as the Key Speech described: Arup strives to be an organisation “where every member is treated not only as a link in the chain of command, not only as a wheel in a bureaucratic machine, but as a human being whose happiness is the concern of all, who is treated not only as a means but as an end.”
According to Lucy Gardner, an Arup rail engineer who has worked on everything from Crossrail 2 and HS2 to the Australia Gold Coast Rapid Transit and the Wiggins Island Rail Project, the company doesn’t sell products: it sells its people. “We don’t sell things. What we sell to our clients is the knowledge and experience and skills of our people,” she told me. “It’s really important to us that we get the best out of everybody and that we provide everybody with an opportunity to access the really good skills and experience of everyone in the company.”
In fact, of the 10 people I spoke to for this piece, eight claimed – unprompted, I should add – that Arup feels like one big family. If Ove once hoped to blur the often-harsh lines between work and leisure, then it’s safe to say he has succeeded.
Sure, part of his is due to the open-plan design of Arup’s 92 global offices. But beyond that, the company makes a conscientious effort to invest in itself. Because it has no shareholders, profit is easily ploughed back into both R&D and what is called Arup University – a fully accredited training facility for staff who wish to study modules at masters, doctoral, chartership, and professional levels.
Across the pond
There is also – and this is always a plus, no matter your age – an incredible wealth of opportunity to work abroad. As well as through work trips, staff can move around global Arup offices through a variety of different ways, such as via long-term assignments – where people work abroad for a couple of years – or even through role swaps, where international counterparts change places for a while. Opportunities are always advertised in the company’s weekly newsletters.
You’d be hard-pressed to find someone there who doesn’t consider taking the leap eventually; actually, if my interviews are indicative of wider company trends, soon enough the entirety of Arup’s UK workforce will be busy suntanning on the Gold Coast. This is, of course, more prevalent amongst younger employees who aren’t yet tied down to places: Callum Burns, an apprentice, dreams of moving west to Toronto, while Marta Hidalgo, who joined as a graduate, is considering Singapore.
You might think that you already know everything there is to know about track in the UK, and then you get dumped in a different region of the world and all of a sudden everything is different
But even those in the upper echelons are no different. John Fagan, who has been at Arup for 14 years and currently looks after its UK rail planning, worked in Melbourne for three years. “I worked on the Melbourne refranchising for the first nine months that I was there,” John said. “Then I went into a different role in our infrastructure business, which was all about building a team of rail engineers and planners focused on the built environment. The experience gave me much more exposure to the design and construction side of projects, rather than operations planning or advisory. I definitely hold lots of that experience with me now.”
John, who is now based in London, and Lucy, who currently operates from their Midlands Campus after a stint in Manchester, even worked together Down Under. “The opportunity to travel with work is just amazing,” Lucy pointed out. “Working in different cultures and with people from different backgrounds is great.
“You might think that you already know everything there is to know about track in the UK, and then you get dumped in a different region of the world and all of a sudden everything is different – the technical standards, the practices of design and construction, and even all the clients and personalities. It’s an amazing opportunity for individuals to grow, to build their own network, and then to bring that knowledge back into the region that they started in – or even to the next region they move to.”
Picking each other’s brains
I’m convinced, however, that even if all of Arup’s UK employees did in fact decide to pull the trigger and settle in tropical Brisbane, it wouldn’t even matter. Of all the companies I’ve come across in the rail industry and beyond, they probably have the most mobile workforce I’ve ever seen; they openly pride themselves on their ability to tap into global skills remotely, making use of each other’s unique capabilities – even if one person is in Dusseldorf and the other in Zimbabwe.
Arup’s intranet system links up thousands of its employees from across 60 different countries to allow everyone to talk to each other directly – asking questions, sharing knowledge, and accessing new opportunities. Like a Facebook sans the selfies, Arup’s online infrastructure is populated by hundreds of different professional groups where people seamlessly message each other. I scrolled through it on two separate occasions, and on both, what I saw was remarkable: people from all over the world commenting under the same post, selflessly offering ideas on how to take a project forward, willingly sharing their personal expertise on the subject. One post, made at the start of 2018 by UK operations director Andy Belcham, had even been revived in early April this year because someone from Australia came across another piece of information which he deemed useful to the original conversation.
Andy was one of the many people I spoke to who had a story to share about the success of their online networking community. Speaking to me just a few hours after someone had revived his 2018 post, he observed: “I could have just emailed one person directly, interacted on a one-to-one, and no one would have observed that conversation. With this, everybody is in the room at the same time, chatting.”
UKIMEA rail leader Andrew Went had a similar anecdote. Shortly before Christmas last year, someone from Australia asked for guidance online on upgrading rail lines to high-speed operation. That being Andrew’s area of expertise, he messaged his international colleague back that same day, sharing with him a page’s worth of technical notes. Using Went’s information, his Australian counterpart was able to provide the client with a quick and detailed response that landed him significant extra work. “These one-minute online conversations lead to so much knowledge transfer, it’s unbelievable,” Andrew told me. “There’s nothing to stop you from having these conversations. Time can be a challenge, but you can work around it. For example, I’ve been talking to our global rail head in Australia just today, providing some guidance. You have to manage your diary and your time, but you can have these conversations, and you can get some really effective work done.”
Partly because of Arup’s financial approach – where all regions share the same profit target, so a thriving country is a thriving company – and partly because of the personalities it attracts, no one ever turns down the opportunity to help out. From those who have been there for decades right down to freshly-hired apprentices, everyone I spoke to insisted that they had yet to come across a situation where someone wasn’t willing to talk.
You ask a question and you get all this access to knowledge. People just want to tell you stuff
“For example, I was asked to do a presentation at a conference about the future of rail,” Went told me. “So I sent an email out to contacts I had across the globe, maybe about a dozen – and about five dozen people came back with answers for me. It’s brilliant: you ask a question and you get all this access to knowledge. People just want to tell you stuff. It’s really quite rewarding and enlightening.”
Little has changed since that day in 1970 when Ove challenged his partners to work collaboratively, drawing from a pool of varied skills; it is perhaps this intense knowledge share that helps make their work so consistently high-quality. (If it’s good enough to deserve its own exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum, it’s good enough for me.)
One of my favourite examples of this came from Andy, who recently celebrated 26 years at the firm. A while ago, his team was working with the ORR to figure out how different station platforms up and down the UK could be extended in anticipation of longer trains. To achieve this quickly, Andy used Arup’s online system to ask rail colleagues a short, three-question survey about the stations in the area where each of them lived or travelled through. Within two weeks, his team had around 75% of national stations covered, each with a personalised opinion of how to solve the platform conundrum – including details on existing obstructions and how easy or difficult the job would be. “We’d effectively deployed 3,000 staff onto site, but without going onto site,” he noted.
His own favourite example, though, took place in Birmingham New Street, back when Network Rail was building the station’s new façade. During construction, there was a fear that the stainless-steel front could dazzle drivers and affect signal sighting. “When the client came to Arup, we decided to merge our façades team, our developers, our 3D modelling team, and our signallers, who all came together to assess what a solution might look like by simulating the glare at the driver’s eye level from hundreds of yards away,” Belcham recalled. “I don’t know many organisations that could bring three or four really quite disparate, unconnected skills together so quickly to solve a problem between them. It’s a massive pool of people all wanting to talk to each other, all wanting to collaborate – just find an excuse and we’ll start solving a problem.”
We’d effectively deployed 3,000 staff onto site, but without going onto site
The success of Lucy Gardner’s all-time favourite project was also largely owed to this cross-pollination of people. She had been working on the HS2 West Midlands depot where a control centre was going to be built, but she knew little about the latter. Lucy then decided to take her architect friend along to a client meeting, who obliged without hesitation and helped turn the client’s wish list into a set of functional design requirements. “I led that piece of work, but I eventually pulled in all of these great experts that we have – from architecture to IT systems, security, structures, mechanical and electrical engineering, human factors, ergonomics… A whole group of people that I’d interacted with in the past, separately, on different things,” she explained.
As well as tapping into each other’s knowledge, because of Arup’s extensive presence in the rail industry, staff can enjoy lots of on-the-job learning. As Phil Harrison – an associate director who is part of the Arup West Rail Leadership team and now also leads on UKIMEA rail skills – explained, the company is at its best when it can work on a blend of different projects. Back in 1998, when Phil joined the company, Arup used to be responsible for a lot of renewals; nowadays, anyone in the industry will tell you that the most attractive schemes are the flashy enhancements. They allow partners to explore innovative ideas, bring something different to the table, and really employ a multidisciplinary approach that can bring a project to life.
But that doesn’t mean the company wants to put renewals to one side. “If there’s a good bulk of [renewal] work it’s actually really great, because you can get a system going whereby you get processes nice and slick,” Phil said. “You can use more junior staff too, who can learn really well on the job. Most of our track engineers have all learned their skills on renewals projects over the years.
“We want to have a blend of projects. If you just have all the glamorous stuff, it can be a bit of a ‘feast and famine’ situation, so you need the smaller jobs, different types of work, and different clients to give you a more even workload. And it keeps interest levels up: the smaller schemes are good for our younger staff to learn about project management and to build a new client connection. A blend is important; you never know when some route to market might be closed off to you, you might not get on a framework, a client might change their minds, or a project might get cancelled. Having a blend is about protecting yourself.”
Taking flexible working to new heights
Exposure to new capabilities and skills by working across a diverse mix of jobs also protects the future of employees themselves. For Phil, for example, his favourite thing about working at Arup is that, if he wakes up one day convinced that he no longer likes the railways – hard to imagine for an industry expert such as himself, but let’s go with it – he could still stay with the company. “If I wanted to do something different, I could. That’s what I come back to every time: I’m very happy with what I’m doing and want to carry on doing it, but I know that if I ever fancied a change, I could do it. Arup would actively help me stay with Arup,” he told me. “We’ve got that breadth to us which means that there are many other things I could do in Arup. I could specialise in managing projects, or I could turn my hand to safety or sustainability, or move to a different team, or a whole different area. There are all sorts of roles and places where you could end up within Arup, which aren’t necessarily where you start from. That’s what I like about it: I’m not put in a box and left there forever.”
The best example of this that I came across during my days visiting the company’s Manchester offices was Sharon Lee. Sharon, who is now an associate director leading on programme and project management, once described herself as a hardcore engineer. Before joining Arup, she had been working at Network Rail for 10 years, providing technical engineering support for routes and putting together industry standards. Eventually, however, the team’s chief engineer noticed a management streak in her and firmly encouraged Sharon to explore that side of herself by moving around the business. Very quickly, the once-geotechnics-aficionada climbed the ranks to become senior route asset manager. “That really left the last of my engineering behind, pushing me squarely into management,” she explained. “It’s also what led me to want to leave, because I started to become more interested in things like business change – how you can change a culture, how you can move an organisation. It was a complete 180 from being an engineer to wanting to leave.”
That’s what I like about it: I’m not put in a box and left there forever
Sharon, who had already worked at Arup for around nine years before joining Network Rail, decided she wanted to broaden herself in a consultancy that would allow her to use engineering skills in a more advisory capacity – a unique role she felt was missing from most places. Arup, of course, was up for the challenge.
“For me, it felt like I was in a sweetshop: there were all these different capabilities, and it was about how you stitched them together to be able to answer the questions that from my perspective, on the client side, they were having problems answering,” she noted. “That’s what I mean by sweetshop: here, you can pick and mix and create a team that can answer a client’s question. There are so many capable people here, it’s absolutely insane. It’s not that they don’t have capable people in the public sector – they do. But a lot of the time, because of their structure, they’re not able to create teams to answer questions. The people all seem to be in the wrong places.”
What most struck Sharon when she re-joined her former Arup family was the intense freedom. This was frightening at first: after becoming used to a more structured approach, Sharon remembers being blown away by her new Arup boss refusing to give her any specific objectives or tasks for weeks. “He kept saying to me: ‘You’ve come in at a senior level, what do you want to do? That’s what we’re interested in.’ That was the biggest culture shock for me. It took a while for me to get my head around it, but now I much prefer it.”
Rail leader Andrew Went also crossed over from Network Rail. A mere two years ago, he was still helping the infrastructure organisation develop plans for the HS2 Crewe Hub. For Andrew, much like Sharon said, the biggest benefit of this switch is being able to understand the client’s perspective more intimately, having been on their shoes for several years himself. “Having been the client, I can see where the challenges are, even in terms of trying to understand the processes and hurdles clients have to go through to land a contract. It’s not a straightforward thing. Being able to understand this from the consultant side is quite useful; understanding their challenges and trying to help them through them is an interesting place to be.”
The most rewarding aspect of this? Being able to share that knowledge – gained after decades working on the client side – with younger graduates and apprentices at Arup. That mentoring aspect of his job is something Andrew is keen to push forward this year as part of Arup’s vision around training younger people, helping them understand how the wider rail system works. This aspiration is particularly close to Andrew’s heart: having worked for British Rail during its privatisation in the 1990s, he witnessed a sharp slump in recruitment – a stark move away from the prolific graduate influx during the decade prior. This has changed over the last 10 years, of course, with the industry once again concentrating its efforts on attracting young people – but a large knowledge gap still lingers on. “That’s what we need to get back by helping to train, educate, mentor, and encourage the people coming into their ranks,” argued Went, “especially as people start to retire. A number of people understand how railways work, but it’s not as many as people think. To me, it’s now about how we educate our younger engineers, to show them how railway systems work and how they can help make it all work better.”
So far, this ambition is certainly bearing fruit. Callum and Marta, the apprentice and graduate I spoke to, both agreed that they get the utmost amount of support and training from their bosses. Many times this comes down to the office’s open-plan areas, where they can speak to those in senior ranks, ask them questions directly, and share five-minute ‘bursts’ of what they’re working on. But it’s also about the working culture that permeates all those spacious offices.
“Straight away, they give you your [career] path and show you where you can go. A lot of other companies seem to just tell you what you’re doing for two years and then get rid of you – you’ve served your apprenticeship, finished your qualification, now move on. But straight away, Arup gives you the training path to see where you’ll be in five, 10 years’ time,” explained Callum. “Our leadership team is also good at listening to what the ‘bottom of the pyramid’ have to say. They do things like the Working at Arup survey, an anonymous survey they highly recommend you take part in. They can use it to spot certain trends and rectify any recurring issues.”
For them to have confidence that I could do it, with some help of course, inspired quite a lot of confidence in me – if they think I can do it, then I can
Marta agreed. “I definitely feel listened to. On the day-to-day job, I’ve been in meetings where everyone has a word in; all perspectives are listened to.”
The level of responsibility younger people are given from the get-go is also a major pull. “There are a lot of people in my team who could do a design that takes me a week to do in just half an hour,” Callum claimed. “But they allow you to have that time to think of solutions yourself. It’s all about development, really.”
There’s no such thing as reserving lower-level jobs for new starters, either. Both Callum and Marta are members of the Transpire Alliance, a joint venture between Arup and others working on the £3bn TransPennine Route Upgrade. The same is true of other people I spoke to: in his early days, Andy Belcham worked on Bridgewater Hall and Manchester Victoria, and one of Lucy’s first projects at the company as a recent graduate was the Waterloo station redevelopment. “They didn’t really know who to give [that project] to. I expressed an interest in being involved and they decided that they were going to let me do the GRIP 4 alignment design. It was really scary at first, but I had the support of team leaders and technical leads who were there with me, helping me through the process,” Lucy recalled. “For them to have confidence that I could do it, with some help of course, inspired quite a lot of confidence in me – if they think I can do it, then I can.” She still keeps the original project drawing with her, a cherished memento of an experience both incredibly complex and exceedingly fulfilling.
Make it count
With great power like that, of course, comes great responsibility. As Andrew Went put it, working in rail is serious business: if something goes wrong, it can actually cause extensive injury to human life. That’s why he views working in the sector as a devotion rather than just a job.
But even further, that responsibility gives people the opportunity to forever leave their mark on a place. For Andrew, his time working at HS2 Ltd helping develop the routes and stations alongside city regions is what truly opened his eyes to that concept of legacy. “The Key Speech is all about what we leave behind – our legacy – and how we work as a company, how we work with our communities,” he pointed out.
Indeed, for a major consultancy like Arup, the legacy is everywhere. Walk along any city in the world and you’ll most likely be able to point to at least one thing – a building, a piece of track, a bridge, a data centre, a wind farm – that bears Arup’s mark. But varied as they are, all of these schemes have one thing in common: they were carried out sustainably, responsibly, and by choice. If Arup wants to turn a project down because it doesn’t suit the company’s USP, it absolutely will do so. Far from being commercially aggressive, the company instead chooses to prioritise organic growth. “Work should be interesting and rewarding for the individual, the team, and the company. If you can’t get all of those three things aligned, then why do the work?” Andy Belcham aptly asked.
The Key Speech is all about what we leave behind – our legacy
That is where Alison Ball and Heleni Pantelidou come in. Despite their different backgrounds – Alison leads on projects of all sorts, while Heleni is a civil engineer through and through – they both keep the importance of sustainability at the heart of everything they do, whether that be in the form of decarbonisation, social value, or urban environmentalism. For example, Alison recently worked with the RSSB to develop a common social value measurement framework that can be used by all organisations and projects in the rail industry. “This has been really well adopted by Network Rail at a strategic level, who told us that they wanted to take this approach into decision-making and procurement,” she explained. “That’s making waves, because Network Rail has a massive supply chain and it’s going to filter down. People are seeing that social value is a really important way to help change the way we understand the world and make decisions about where we invest resources.”
Heleni agreed, pointing out that a crucial part of this is incentivising outcomes-based projects so that sustainable measures can be embedded in every step of the way. But in her view, the rail sector isn’t yet doing enough in this regard. “The problem with sustainability is that it’s being kept apart from everything else, and that’s completely the wrong way to go about it,” she told me. “In this day and age, we cannot be continuing to build, procure, manage, and execute infrastructure projects without understanding and addressing the whole spectrum of its value. When we talk about construction, the capital part of a project is completely de-linked, almost, from the operational part – and this means the whole-life thinking cannot be executed properly. It’s not just about cross-pollination, it’s about proper collaboration across all sectors; it’s an overarching idea that has to link up everything.”
According to Alison, who comes from an environment background herself, investors are now wising up to the environmental agenda, but social value is still lagging behind. “Blend those together and you have a total-value approach,” she noted.
Her engineer colleague added to that: “Sustainability is a dangerous word these days; it means different things to different people. It’s perceived – because of whatever interpretation each stakeholder gives to the name – as a ‘soft’ subject. The point that needs to come across is that it’s more urgent than the commercial strategy. Unless we look after our planet and our society, forget the commercial benefits to anybody… but that’s a hard message to pass on.
“Arup has talked about sustainability forever,” Heleni continued. “It’s something we’ve been exploring as a company for a very long time now. If I care personally about the future of the planet, the environment, what my children are inheriting from our generation, then there is a role for me to play in a professional capacity too.”
If there’s one industry that boasts the inherent ability to spearhead sustainability solutions, it’s rail. Eco-friendly forms of transport are evolving by the day – think hydrogen trains and battery-powered rolling stock – and investment in the network will ensure people ditch their gas-guzzlers and opt for the steel highway instead. We all have a part to play in that, of course; the future of rail will only thrive if we make a conscientious decision to help it along. Arup, for one, will be leading the way.