At the construction site for the new Royal Bank of Scotland headquarters, just outside Edinburgh, workers entering their facilities area pull plastic overshoes onto their boots. To the casual onlooker, it might seem an insignificant point, but to the craftsmen and labourers on the site, it sends a subliminal message: if the facilities provided for them matter, then they themselves must also matter.
For the project management company, Mace, respect for people is one of the tenets of excellence in an industry where the workforce has too often been shoddily treated in the past. Richard Thorpe, the project director, himself an ex-joiner, says: 'Some of the conditions I worked in were terrible. But people feel valued in a good environment, and they will do a better job.'
Mace (www.mace.co.uk) is a relative newcomer to the construction industry, having been formed in 1990. But the company is behind some of the biggest projects in the country, ranging from the building of London Heathrow's Terminal Five to the new Greater London Authority headquarters.
In achieving this success, it has taken a proactive stance not just in raising standards but in seeking to change the culture of the industry itself. 'This industry is going through a transformation,' says Bob White, chairman and chief executive. 'Clients in the 21st century will require more intimacy from their construction partners. But all the talk of putting customers first will be just talk unless the employees are signed up to it.'
At ground level, the company creates high-quality facilities and conditions at its construction sites. These range from the locker rooms where tradesmen keep their tools to the office suites, where architects, surveyors, engineers and the other professionals work together.
Its approach is characterised by such values as collaboration, transparency and integrity, with the aim of creating benefits for all sides. At the Edinburgh location, Mace invited a tool-hire company to set up a warehouse on-site, creating savings for both the client and contractors, and securing pounds 3 million of new equipment. It invested in a state-of-the-art reprographics facility to produce the millions of drawings required for such a project, and in so doing was able to hand savings of up to pounds 1 million back to its client.
Mace has also embarked on the road to measuring customer satisfaction.
Rather than sending out surveys, it carries out one-to-one interviews each year with each of its larger clients to obtain qualitative information on how well their project has been handled.
And it has an exemplary intranet, called Infomace, which enables a vast amount of knowledge to be shared on everything from industry developments to progress on individual projects. This is backed up by quality circles and focus groups in which professionals from the same discipline get together to find better ways of doing things.
Mace teams are used to managing large numbers of people who are not company employees, and it is inevitable that in these circumstances, leadership becomes an important competency outside the company's own top team. 'When the company started, we had a command-and-control model,' says White, 'but as we grew bigger, it became apparent that this was an obstruction to progress, because it reduces collaboration and co-operation. So we have moved towards a less controlling and more learning environment.'
And although the quality of the projects it has won - particularly with long-standing clients such as BAA - is the best endorsement of the results Mace has achieved, the company also has the vision to look to its impact outside the construction industry, to the communities in which it operates.
In Edinburgh, it became involved in initiatives to develop new skills among the workforce, and trained members of the local community in computer skills. Mace even opened up the site to the public - after ensuring their shoes were clean, of course.