Meet the 2020 UK Best Places To Work Awards winners
We interview all 15 of our top-scoring companies on what it takes to be a great company in 2020
The Sunless Sea's developer has been working hard to stay connected to one another during the pandemic, and offers a range of benefits and support for its employees.
But the team, which includes creative director Emily Short, director of narrative Chris Gardiner, marketing manager Sara Veal, and senior producer Stuart Young, say that the key to a happy workforce is more fundamental than that.
They tell us that it's about "an open and respectful culture in which everyone has the opportunity to contribute to decisions, find creativity in their work and receive recognition for their achievements."
One of the areas that Failbetter scored highly in is one that almost every developer struggled with: diversity.
"We particularly aim to encourage diversity in games development through our hiring practices, our way of working and internships," the team explained.
This has included removing phrases from job ads that discourage women and minority applicants, expressing job requirements in skills rather than qualifications, explicitly mentioning the desire for diverse applicants, identifying skills over confidence, and plenty more besides.
"We also do outreach to put the job ad in front of communities with diverse backgrounds, and build our connections in diverse communities through conference sponsorship and other activities. To reach those potential employees, we need to build and maintain trust that we'll be a good place to work.
"Our working environment helps us offer that better experience. Everyone benefits from flexible and remote working, whether due to geographical location, for mental health reasons or due to responsibilities outside work. We benefit from this as a company as we can find the best candidates from a broader pool than before. We recently hired an incredible writer who is on another continent and in a different timezone.
"Partly as a response to Black Lives Matter, we are looking at how we can better support Black writers and narrative designers over the longer term. We have previously managed internships for applicants with a diversity of gender expressions but have had fewer applicants from diverse ethnicities. We need to be even more targeted if we want to help more effectively.
"This commitment to diversity is reflected in how we write our games. We've always represented a range of character genders, races, backgrounds and lived experiences in our games. We have commissioned consultations on presenting different kinds of characters -- for example trans/non-binary characters -- and in addressing topics such as colonialism. There are multiple representatives of given groups within our games, so no single character is the sole representative. We also try to do enough character development that every character has their own story; their marginalised identity, if they have one, is not the Main Fact about them.
"We want to make a long-term commitment to effecting change in the industry, in a way that leverages our particular strengths as a company. We encourage other companies to do the same -- what are your particular strengths and how can you use them to improve diversity in the industry?"
"We started the Studio with two of us, a white male and a brown female... that's an excellent place to start, having a diverse leadership team means that we come at things from a different perspective," says Sumo Leamington's Operations Director Harinder Sangha. The studio not only won a Best Places To Work Awards badge, but also claimed the Diversity Award.
"We're making mobile games and our player base is diverse, so having a team to reflect that was critical to us from day one. We've strived to employ a diverse range of people across all disciplines -- our design team is currently 75% female, and we recently hired a female graduate programmer for example. We're excited to see how she and all our colleagues grow as we grow as a studio. It's important to say no person wants a role just because they may be a woman, or from a minority or someone with a disability, but neither do they want to be discounted for that reason either. Equality is important for everyone."
Just 12 months ago, Sumo Leamington was in a very different place.
"We had just started to see the team forming, we were in temporary premises -- a small eight desk room with no air-con in the height of a heat wave," remembers studio director Chris Southall. "Whilst Leamington is a great place to set up a studio, competition is fierce, so we knew how we hire and the environment we work in was going to be our biggest challenge. Today, with fantastic support from Sumo Group, we have a really great office space and numbers approaching 50 amazing people, with plans for an even better space as we grow."
The company has been hiring rapidly, even increasing its team by 50% during the coronavirus lockdown.
"With the pandemic, as well as the negatives, we have seen many positives come out of this new working life," Sangha says. "For most, we believe we won't see a move back to five days a week in the office, but time in the office is still important for us. We see many of our colleagues working from different locations now. Isn't it a great thought that you can live and work in the place you want to, and the two don't need to be connected?"
Southall concludes: "The new way of interviewing and onboarding colleagues has been refreshing. Taking away some of the interview stress that we all know has been good -- have I got the right building? Am I too casual/too dressy? Should I drive over the night before?. Yet, we are also mindful that remote interviews can be more stressful and tiring in other ways. In general, we do feel we have seen a more relaxed candidate, meaning we see people as they are earlier in the process."
It's been a hectic year for Lab42, the studio known for its range of Snooker games (amongst others). The company was acquired by UK development giant Sumo Group in May, and that meant alongside the usual challenges created by lockdown, the Lab42 team had to go through a due diligence process remotely.
"It was tricky but the end result turned out to be fantastic; video conferencing and a real willingness and openness on both sides to get a deal done helped here," said Lab42 studio director Ed Blincoe. "The amount of support we've had from Sumo since the acquisition has been outstanding too, with their IT, finance, HR and marketing teams all making our integration into the wider business a lot smoother than we expected, especially given the circumstances."
Lab42 scored very highly in the awards, and Blincoe says that the key to keeping his team happy and motivated is to make sure that the company promotes a good work/life balance. But also, on top of that, the decisions that the company makes are made collectively as a group, with input from the entire team.
"We don't do crunch," he tells us. "Wherever possible, we involve the entire team in decisions and consider everyone's opinion, irrespective of seniority: for example, our action plan for when and how to handle lockdown and home working was a total Lab42 team collaboration, that's what made it a smooth and relatively pain free process, everyone was onboard because we'd made the decision together as a group. We have a really strong emphasis on mental health and well-being, we look out for each other, we encourage and support each other irrespective of where we're located."
In terms of moving forward, Lab42 predicts that the games industry will become more welcoming to different backgrounds, and more flexible in terms of how its employees are able to work.
"Inclusivity is key," says Blincoe. "Every person that wants to work in our industry should feel welcome, valued, and appreciated. Lab42 and Sumo are committed to being inclusive to everyone and working with our internal diversity groups and external organisations, we will continue to do everything we can to make our industry open to everyone, and supportive of them once they're here.
"As for coronavirus, the entire games industry has proven that it can work as effectively from home as it can from a studio. When things begin to settle down, we expect to adopt a much more adaptable approach to working and wherever people are, be it at home, in an office or working flexibly across both they'll be as integral to the success of the company as everyone else."
Red Kite Games
Red Kite Games relocated to a fancy new office in Leeds over the past 12 months, but after barely getting used to its new home, they were swiftly forced to relocate everyone to work from home (along with the rest of us). But there have been some positives to come out of the current crisis.
"We've been working with some very cool partners on some really interesting, varied and creative projects - including the console versions of Two Point Hospital for Sega and Two Point Studios," said studio director Simon Iwaniszak.
"Recruitment has been different -- we've not been able to do face-to-face interviews, conduct studio tours or invite final stage applicants to a 'meet the team get-together' but that hasn't stopped us hiring. By adapting this process to work virtually we've still been able to grow our team, onboard new people, and effectively integrate them into Red Kite's culture."
Red Kite's key to a satisfied workforce is similar to many of the companies in these awards: it's about being open with the team and transparent. But there are other key things, too, such as promoting career development and improvement, which is something that can be a challenge for a small games company.
"At Red Kite we believe that the key to motivating our team is openness and transparency -- this isn't a top-down mechanism either, it's studio wide - we feel that anyone at Red Kite would be able to talk about this," Iwaniszak tells us.
"Team dynamic and studio culture is at the heart of everything we do. Red Kite being a great place to work is a collective responsibility, and everyone is made to feel that they are an integral part to what makes Red Kite, Red Kite, and that how they contribute really does matter.
"Career development is certainly a key ingredient - we provide each team member five learning and development days each year, including one that can be used entirely for personal development and isn't necessarily linked to professional learning.
"Having fantastic projects helps as well. We work on quality games, with quality partners."
Looking forward, he concludes: "We absolutely love working in games. This industry is often at the forefront of evolving technologies and cultural shifts - we also realise that change isn't always easy and that it brings its own set of challenges.
"What's important is to have a solid foundation upon which to develop, improve and adapt. We feel that we're well placed to embrace new challenges -- whatever they may be -- thanks to our long-established studio culture and our team approach in respect to open communication."
Unit 2 Games
"It's important to really care about everyone and to try and ensure they feel included, valued and listened to," begins Unit 2 Games' HR and office manager Emma Thompson.
"This allows the company to be built around the needs of the employees. We feel that by creating this sense of belonging and being part of something bigger helps to give our team greater stability and strength. We also feel that it's important to ensure that individuals are kept busy and challenged - this allows the opportunity for people to continue to develop and achieve their own personal career growth."
Unit 2 Games has enjoyed a big year. Having attracted $5 million in investment from Makers Fund last year, the company has been working alongside Google on Stadia game Crayta, which was launched over the summer. The firm has also been actively speaking at events and growing its reputation, having also won a badge at least year's Best Places To Work Awards.
You would have thought launching a game on a new platform during a pandemic would have posed significant technical and logistical challenges for the Unit 2 team, but the real issues the firm had to solve was maintaining the close relationship of the team.
Thompson says: "You might think that something IT related would top the list of challenges when every member of our team started working from home in March. However, it turned out that was relatively easy to deal with. In fact, the biggest challenge has been to keep the company 'togetherness' as strong as it was pre-lockdown.
"The little things that make the difference: morning catch-ups, chats over a coffee, playing table tennis together and all those other forms of in-person, human contact. We don't have all the answers, and have a way to go, but we know that improving communication is one of the key factors -- and we continue to work on this all the time."