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Janine Milne

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Talent spot: Annabel Jones, Head of HR at Framestore


Fans of Skyfall and the Harry Potter movies will be familiar with the work of Framestore, even if they’ve never heard of the company itself. The visual effects house is responsible for crafting some of the most mind-blowing effects in film, TV and music videos. As head of HR, it’s Annabel Jones’s job to attract and look after the creative brains behind these stunning effects.

Visual effects is a global industry which means the war for talent is international, but Jones notes that their talent attraction and retention issues may be somewhat different from more traditional industries.

“In our annual focus groups the message that comes through loud and clear is the thing that attracts and keeps people here are the individual projects – they are drawn to the nature of the work. So, if we’re doing a Steven Spielberg film then everyone wants to work on it,” says Jones.

But as people tend to follow the juicy project, some creatives may leave the company at the end of a big project. What Framestore aims to do is provide such a great working environment that people are happy to come back when the get the chance.

Jones didn’t start out in HR. After finishing her psychology degree, she’d joined a financial recruitment agency “for my sins”. It was a basically a sales role involving a hefty amounts of cold calling, which wasn’t what she wanted to with her career long term, but was a great introduction to the workplace. “It was brilliant for learning how to develop a tough skin and stand on your own feet and building confidence,” she says.

After five years, she felt it was time to move on, so she took an in-house recruitment, hoping this might be a stepping stone out of recruitment. The gamble paid off. She’d joined a small travel start-up set up by two other companies in the travel industry. Jones was employee number three and her task was to quickly recruit more people to the business and put in place all the necessary employment policies and contracts.

Her remit quickly expanded, however, as the company also had a call centre up in Manchester. So, she ended up doing HR for the 100 people in the call centre, as well head office. Although the two parent companies had their own HR people, who were on hand to help, she was basically on her own, learning on the job and through her own studying.

In typical fashion, one minute she was onboarding people as fast as possible, the next her job was to downsize staff numbers. Just eighteen months after she joined, in 2001, the slimmed down company relocated to Manchester. Jones wanted to stay down south, so she joined Sanctuary Group, a music company with 450 people, as an HR manager.

Although the music industry wasn’t something that she’d necessarily had a yearning to join beforehand, it proved an exciting, fun industry to work in – even if there were a lot of egos to deal with. And there was always a bit of star-spotting to brighten up the day. “My first day I walked past Paul McCartney and did a bit of a double take,” she laughs.

It was a bigger team, with lots going on, including the acquisition of a new business. This was an HR generalist role, supporting the head of HR. Far from missing being her own boss, Jones says: “To have a boss was great, it was someone I could learn from.”

When her boss went on maternity leave, Jones took over the helm. Altogether, she spent six years with the company and saw it go through “boom and bust” before it was acquired. So, in 2007, Jones joined Framestore. It was another highly creative company, but populated by very different people.

“In music it’s egos and who you know, but here it’s very skills oriented. It requires technical and specialist work and the personalities are much more low key,” she observes.

She’s been running the five-strong HR team at Framestore for six years. Alongside the routine HR duties, each year, the department takes on a big project. Last year, learning and development was the focus, following on from payroll and benefits before that. This year, a key focus is adapting to the new auto-enrollment pension changes and educating its 600 employees on what it means to them. “These things can cause tension if they’re not done properly,” she says.

Another key initiative this year is the opening of a new Montreal office. At the moment there are just three members of staff in Montreal, but by summer numbers will swell to 100. Although recruitment will be handled locally, Jones will make sure this is backed by the right processes and policies to support that growth.

With its international focus, Jones keeps on top of immigration rules and how it affects the company, as well as keeping abreast of skills requirements in the industry. The company identified a skills gap and is working with industry and education to improve the future pipeline of people with the right skills set. “I really enjoy that part because it takes you out of your HR bubble,” says Jones.

Who do you admire most and why?
My mum. She set up her own business when she was 50. She’d predominantly just been a mum until that point, but she’s gone on to be extremely successful. She instilled in me the importance in having pride in what you do and strong values.

What’s your most hated buzzword?
“Reach out” in the context of reaching out to a colleague, rather than just asking them. It’s an Americanism and a silly expression.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
"It’s okay to say no."

How do you relax?
A glass of wine and a good book in the bath.  

Top HR tips from Annabel

1. Find a good partner

We were working with Helm Godfrey’s Corporate team for our pension advice, so we enlisted their team’s help in planning what the flexible benefits scheme should look like. The company acted as broker for our risk benefits and helped us explore other options such as retail discounts and cycle schemes. They also advised us on tax matters and helped us to brainstorm marketing ideas and were on-site with us during the enrolment to help with presentations and floor walking. The relationship was very much a partnership and the Helm Godfrey team felt like an extension of our in-house HR team.

2. Plan
You can never do enough of it. We worked backwards from the “go live” date to work out how
much time we needed to market the scheme and then do all the associated administration. This work was going on alongside all our other day-to-day tasks but with milestone dates along the way we were able to keep on track.

3. Don’t assume
When you understand something, don’t assume that others will. Working in the HR and benefits world we all know how salary sacrifice works and the tax implications, so we were surprised that this was misunderstood (or just missed) by many people. In subsequent years we spelt this out even more clearly and made people tick a box to confirm that they had read and understood this. We also selected some benefits that we assumed people would be interested in, such as skin cancer screening, which were not at all popular. So next time round we did a survey to find out what people would like.

4. Automate where possible
Over the years we have improved the administration significantly. We have used our self-service system to deliver an online portal where people can access all the details of the benefits and complete an application form. The information can then be extracted to populate payroll and employees can view their benefit history at anytime. This has saved on printing costs and the environment too.

5. Enticement
In the first two years the turnout at presentations was very poor, so we asked some of the benefit providers if they would give us free gifts that we could offer as a prize draw to those attending a presentation. When the gifts in question were an iPad, an iPod and a Kindle it was amazing to see the queues of people coming to attend presentations. And the uptake of benefits was higher as a result.

6. Review
Evident from all the points above is the importance of reviewing what has worked and what
hasn’t and adapting plans each year to take this into account.