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Agency in the Workplace: Arup

Sustainability Consultant Lauren Barnes tells us how employee-ownership has helped her identify the things she really cares about and opened up space for important, complex conversations.

Lauren Barnes 003 Arup

Lauren Barnes, Sustainability Consultant at Arup in Sheffield.

Series supported by Ownership Hub logo

This piece is part of our generative inquiry entitled Agency in the Workplace, exploring worker ownership and worker control of organisations in South Yorkshire through the stories of local people.

Arup is an international company working in engineering, architecture, planning and sustainability. When founder Ove Arup retired in 1970, he set the organisation on a path to being owned by its workers, and the firm is now held in trust for the past and present employees and the operational profits are shared with its staff globally, as well as being invested back into the firm.

Lauren Barnes, Sustainability Consultant at Arup in their Sheffield office, told us more about how having part-ownership of the company enabled her to find her place, identify the things she really cares about, and connect better with the needs of the city and its people.

The first question, which puts us in at the deep end, is: how has having ownership and control in your workplace changed your life?

It's a great question. So I joined up Arup as a graduate. Arup has been employee-owned since 1970, so before I was born. So all I can say is that I really enjoy my job at Arup, the firm and what it is trying to achieve.

As a student, starting off as a structural engineer and wanting to apply for a role, I was drawn to a company that was so values driven, and was not afraid to talk about what mattered to the company – I think for me that is because it’s long-held values are in its employee ownership.

Arup started off as a traditional model of shareholder [ownership]. Ove Arup, the guy who set it up – kind of synonymous with the Sydney Opera House – decided that this was the right model for the firm's future, and it was based on his ethos and values. It was about being people-focused and doing our work of social value. He thought that the firm should reflect that in its structure as well, which I think was pretty countercultural at that time, especially in engineering.

We’re something like 18,000 people worldwide now [at Arup]. My experience has been that you have the opportunity to talk about what matters to you and what your values are, and you work alongside people who are also quite open and honest about what they care about, what kind of projects they want to do, how they want to apply their nerdy niche to this big picture. And I think that empowerment – this idea that we’re all bought into it to shape a better world – is really why it’s kind of stood out to me, why being employee-owned really makes a difference. Having an agency to challenge the norms.

Smile Photo

We’re a sustainable development company at our core now and I think our focus on what we do has really been driven from its employees. Our shift has come from what the staff want to do and who they want to work with, as well as what the staff see as doing the right thing. So now, we won’t work on direct fossil fuel extraction, we want to work with clients and partners that share those same values as us, wanting to shape a better world, and I think that's what can set us apart from our competitors – we can align our work with our values, enabling sustainable futures.

How have you seen that contrast between this job and previous jobs you’ve had, and has that unlocked things for you, as a person and as a part of this bigger thing?

Through the work culture of questioning – What is it you want to do? What are your values? What matters to you? – I’ve been able to transition my role into sustainability. So I now work with a specialist team that looks at how do we implement sustainability at a building scale or city scale, what are the practicalities and how do we help and talk to our clients well about it.

So I feel that it’s been really impactful. At Arup I have grown in confidence, people have empowered me to go about my job and understand how to best use my skills and how my interests may play out in the work. I have had the opportunities to talk to different people around the country, around the world, and explore that, something that I love, working in Sheffield, a city I love but being connected globally to experts and other passionate people. That’s been really, really impactful for me and my development, my career, because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I wasn’t sure what those paths were.

Equally, I think that employee ownership’s given us the space and the opportunity to explore complex and challenging things like what does sustainability look like, but also what does equity and diversity and inclusion look like in our work? I’ve been involved in quite a lot of our internal work on that. I’m part of our LGBT+ network at Arup, and feel like there is an outgoing commitment to learn, create and share what best practice could be, sharing insights from lots of different people with lots of different experiences.

What commitments do you hold in your job which you need to honour?

Ove Arup gave the key speech when the company became employee owned and set out principles that it should seek embolden. There’s a number of things that struck me and I keep in my mind; honourable dealings, fair and honest conversations, which I think is really important in business. I think there is a lot of trust that is needed to work well and overcome the challenges we are facing – being just and fair will be key to that work.

It's something that really motivates me in how we talk about our work, what our commitments are, what we believe in. I think it’s about good relationship building. It’s about becoming a trusted adviser, those kinds of things.

I think it’s a really good foundation, actually, and something that maybe in the business world isn’t always upfront about, how we all act as people as we walk through the door. I think that’s really foundational. I think having the permission to be yourself. There is a part of the key speech that talks about being human and [that] happiness is the main thing we should focus on, and not to lose that by just doing work for the point of it.

The core of what we do is about shaping a better world, and therefore that question: How does this affect people, how does this affect place and how does this affect the planet? Especially in my role [as] sustainability consultant, and I’m sure my peers would speak about this too. We have that responsibility to understand that our work goes on past when we submit some drawings or [something] gets built.

I think that’s really significant in that it moves from a position of thinking about accountability and towards everybody’s individual responsibility, and what you can all do, I suppose, and how the sum of the parts is greater.

I would definitely agree with that. I’m always blown away when you meet someone new at Arup and [...] you’re like, I didn’t even know that was a job!

We recognise that we couldn’t deliver some really cool projects if it weren’t for the joining-up all these core values and that underlying thing that we all want to try and create better places for people whilst respecting the planet.

We need to value everyone, with dignity and respect, and then I think we are able to be socially useful, produce good quality of work and help improve the quality of life for people.

What’s the next stage for that? What would you like to see happen next with how you use that agency?

I would love us to move into a world where we could be truly regenerative, we could truly work within our systems, where we really try and maximise and utilise skills and opportunities to best serve the needs of people whilst not using up all our resources for future generations.

I think we need to change our ideal of what good growth looks like and makes sure it’s truly sustainable at each level. I think that’s maybe a really big hope, but I’m really inspired by all the Doughnut Economics work that’s going on, and think it is an excellent model for us to applying to our lives and our places and our work.

And in that, I’d love to see Arup sit in that kind of intermediary space where we can support and encourage our community-led groups, who are doing some really fantastic work, and the more traditional city development, investment-y, built environment work.

View from Arup office

The view from Arup’s Sheffield office at St Paul's Place, showing several Arup-designed projects.

Lauren Barnes

If this was one of a number of models for worker ownership or control that got adopted in South Yorkshire – let’s say that it just became the norm – how would communities change as a result of that, do you think?

I think we all go back to some simple questions: How do we best serve our employees? How do we best serve our communities that we’re based in? And I think if we all were to look at that, we’d end up having some quite big conversations about what the needs of our place [are]. How, as a business, are we responding to that?

I’d like to think that we would move into a place where we were meeting more of the social needs, the needs of our people, whilst also reflecting our place and what we need to do to respect the planet. I think we will end up moving into a more sustainable, regenerative place.

You’ve used ‘regenerative’ there in a couple of contexts. And that kind of suggests the opposite of ‘extractive’, doesn’t it? You’ve talked about your position that you’ve reached together about not being involved in fossil fuel extraction. But of course, there’s lots of different kinds of extraction. There’s extraction of profit from business to external shareholders, there’s extraction of knowledge and resources and everything else from communities. What you’re talking about when you talk about things that are regenerative is moving away from those practices, isn’t it? And it seems like a model of governance and a model of operation that is aligned with that is suitable…

…and there’s so much the people of South Yorkshire have to offer in terms of skills, community [...] It’s about meeting people where they’re at.

And I think that’s what employee ownership tries to do, or at least gives the mechanisms for those kinds of conversations. I would like to think that it's about changing the system to be distributive by design – so in fact it shares the opportunity and value with those that co-create it.

And wouldn’t that be fantastic for South Yorkshire? We should be able to be in place and enjoy it and have community and have purpose and have things like good health and wellbeing.

I just had one more question. What meaning, if any, has been made for you in this conversation?

I think reflecting on this conversation and thinking about it over this weekend, the things that have given me a lot of joy in my work, a lot of purpose in my work, have helped me progress in my job, not just seniority but in my own confidence, thriving, making friends and doing work that’s worth doing.

Sometimes I wonder whether someone should just tell me to sit down and do my actual job, because I tend to just get involved in all sorts of things. But [...] I think what Arup wants to do is get the passionate people through the door, and then you work out where your place is. And it isn’t about trying to make me the most efficient. That works with clients too – we help people work out the problem, not just the solution.

Sometimes that’s a bit scary. I’ve definitely felt like there’s been quite a few challenges to go and be vulnerable, talk about my own knowledge and experiences, but I think it leads to exciting outcomes.

I think some of that goes back to creating a culture for staff and clients alike: ‘Come in, be who you are. You're valued in your place. Come and do good work and you can be rewarded for it [...] Just be yourself and find the things you care about.’

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