For HR Heads' latest CPO Spotlight, Rosie Jenkins spoke with Tamsin O'Luanaigh at nDreams, a world-leading VR game developer and publisher based in Farnborough, UK.
Tamsin O’Luanaigh is Chief People Officer & Co-founder at nDreams. She spoke with Rosie about the nDreams academy and what well-being measures they have introduced as a business.
I’m delighted to be joined by Tamsin O’Luanaigh from NDreams if you could start by introducing yourself and your business.
I’m Tamsin O’Luanaigh, the Chief people Officer and Co, founder of nDreams Limited, we are a VR developer based in Farnborough, Hampshire. We’re one of the world’s leading VR developers.
Fabulous, thank you.
And you’ve been with the organisation for over 18 years, so I imagine that is since inception.
Yes, I’m one of the co-founders, started the business with my husband. I was pregnant when we started the business.
I don’t recommend that was a bit stressful, but yes, so we started the business in 2006. So we’ve been going for quite a long time, but in 2013, we pivoted towards VR when we saw the potential that medium had.
Fantastic and what is the size of nDreams today?
We now have about 230 staff, so we’ve roughly doubled in the last 12 months.
We’ve grown from one development studio to four development studios, we’ve got 2 development studios which are office based; one in Brighton, and one in Farnborough and we’ve got two fully remote development studios as well.
So, typically we run a remote first model for the two remote ones, and then we’ve got a hybrid model for the two office-based studios and we find actually that’s great because it gives us the opportunity to widen our talent pools when it comes to recruitment, but also it enables us to capitalize on different people’s needs fitting in with the business of what people want and we try to balance things out that way as well.
Fabulous, and with those remote talent pools, I imagine you have employees all around the globe now.
We do have some people based in Europe, but we don’t have a huge amount of international staff based overseas. We also have some contractors based in Europe and a huge contingent of non-UK personnel in our UK operation as well.
So about 25% of our staff are not from the UK originally, but we are for the most part UK-based.
So from a people management perspective, how have you found managing employees remotely?
I think there are some areas where it’s been easier than others.
We have added Development Studios which are remote first so were created as Remote First Studios from inception. So they are highly effective and their operational processes have been developed as remote first processes.
So that’s enabled them to really capitalize on all of the best bits of working remotely but also with some of the more traditional processes that we would want historically within our environment when we’ve got a hybrid situation with some of our office-based teams or perhaps some of our group departments that still work very well with the hybrid scenarios.
But what we did during the first lockdown, was we actually refurbished our main Farnborough office, so we effectively redesigned the layout so that it would be built with hybrid working in mind, so we’ve got collaboration hubs.
We’ve got lots of hot desks without pedestals under them; they have lockers so people can have a bit more open space.
We’ve also got chill-out areas in the studio, a well-being room so that they can go in there and have a little bit of quiet space, so we’ve really thought about what our people coming into the office want.
What we don’t want is people coming into the office sitting at their desk for 8 hours and then going home because actually, it’s a bit of a waste of everybody’s time.
So we have collaboration hubs as well for the development teams, they’re all surrounded by whiteboards. They’ve got screens in where we can have the hybrid conference calls so we’ve really tried to think about what we want to use that together time for.
I think there are some things that work well being remote and when you are together and you can also work 100% remotely all the time.
But there are some people who really enjoy that people first contact and we did notice that through lockdown and thereafter.
That difference between extroverts and introverts and their responses to how they felt about those kinds of human interactions.
And so we’ve tried to make sure that we can accommodate for all the different types of people we have in the business.
And that leads me on to my next question regarding your ED&I strategy has this been high on your agenda as the business grows?
Yes, I care very, very much about having a diverse workforce, but also a really inclusive workplace.
And because there’s no point having one without the other, we know that you’ll get people in and they’ll just walk straight back out again.
We have tried to make the environment as inclusive as possible, and we try and make sure that, where needed, we put accommodations in place.
The games industry generally is not as diverse as other industries. For example, we know that there are not as many women in the industry as there are men, but we also know there’s a really high ratio of neurodiversity within the games industry.
So that’s why, for example, in our well-being room, we’ve got lots of things that would help if you say you had ADHD or you’re autistic, you might get a bit of sensory overload, or you might need a fidget gadget or we’ve got wobble chairs in the office as well. So we’re trying to cater for those types of things.
If you’ve got OCD and you are worried about cleanliness, we’ve got wipes everywhere – so there are lots of little accommodations like that.
So we’ve got quite a few employee resource groups in our business, including LGBTQ+, mental health, women and marginalised genders, as well as an overarching diversity group.
We try and make sure that everyone has the opportunity to not only talk to their peers but that they get the opportunity to feedback to each other – and also upwards If there are things that they would like to see within the business.
That’s great, I’m loving everything I’m hearing about your well-being provisions. So what would you say are the next set of priorities on your HR strategy for the next 6 – 12 months?
Oh, that’s a constantly evolving thing, isn’t it?
We do have a people strategy and there are key areas that we want to focus on.
We want to retain the best people; retention in a highly competitive market is really important.
And more broadly, we just want to be one of the best employers around. So how do we achieve that?
You’ve got a whole host of awards listed on your website
Yes, we do, and we’re proud of that.
But you know, we want all of our staff to love working here and we want them to love working on the projects that they work on and we want them all recommending their friends to be here.
But equally, we want our teams to be able to feel empowered to be responsible for their own culture as well. It’s not all about what we can do, it’s about what the teams can do to drive change and be empowered to drive that change.
So we’ve just literally last week finished our ESG framework and we’re hoping to embed that within lots of other strategies within the business as we’ve been scaling really quickly on some of our strategic direction from a policy point of view, and aspects of HR.
We’ve got lots of great things, but bringing them all together under an umbrella of cohesion is my next aim.
You know, we’ve got brilliant health and wellbeing strategies, which my HR manager feels super passionate about. EDI is one of my babies, so we’ve got a lot of work done there.
But I think actually organisational development is going to be really important.
We scaled so quickly and we’ve got to really focus on that, probably moving in the next 12 months to make sure that the foundations remain solid and that we can retain the culture and retain the good stuff that we’ve already got.
And retention is another area, which is it’s a hot topic for a lot of companies at the moment and in fact, we’ve seen the rise of reward and benefit roles working closely with the HR Teams to focus on the attraction side and then out throughout your career development in order to retain the new talent that is coming through the door.
At nDreams, we do invest in learning and development and we’re very proud.
Actually, last year we invested in leadership training for about 30 of our line managers. Bearing in mind that we weren’t 230 people then, we were a fair bit smaller, this represents a good chunk of all our line managers throughout the company.
They got leadership training, which included training to become mental health and first aid champions, and we’re trying to equip our managers to make sure they’ve got the best opportunity they can support their teams. That will continue this year.
I’m very proud of the kind of leadership program that we’ve got, but also this year’s executive leadership training is going on as well. The Senior leaders including myself are also having training to make sure that we’ve got consistency of language across the business.
That’s actually really key, because communication can take many forms and the last thing that we want – and we have had it in the past – where the message is that coming from the top doesn’t always get received and heard at the lower levels within the business.
So we want that consistency across the board.
And I think if we can make sure that we’re all talking the same language and communicating clearly, I think that that will make a big difference too.
Absolutely. And what do you see as the major challenges in your sector?
The games industry is a growing sector. In terms of the revenue it generates, it’s absolutely huge; it generates more than the film industry.
I think these days, in terms of experienced technical staff available at some of the more senior and experienced levels, there are shortages in some areas and in some areas of the industry, there is a reluctance to engage with a more junior talent pipeline. So that kind of perpetuates some of those skills gaps.
So we’re very proud again of the nDreams Academy, brought into place a couple of years ago, which is helping develop our own internal pipeline to develop some of those skills internally so that we don’t have quite so many of those gaps.
But I think there are certain technical gaps within the industry and as the industry continues to grow, those gaps are only going to get bigger. So that’s going to be a challenging area.
And I think that as AI continues to become more prevalent – I’m not a huge tech expert, I’ll be honest – but as that becomes more prevalent, there are going to be challenges for some and some businesses, some industries, to work out.
You can’t ban all these things, you can’t just block them, and if you do, you will be behind the times. But what you have to do is think about how do you embrace the technologies, but use them in a safe and complimentary way?
Because the last thing you want is for one of your young members of staff to just plug a load of things in AI and churn some stuff out, and then for you to be sued by a copyright holder. But equally, how can you start to develop workflows that embrace the new technology? And I think that that’s going to be a big challenge for us, as we move forward.
And the data protection around that in terms of what employees might be putting into a chat GPT too…
Yes, I think absolutely our responsibility as HR and with the help of Legal.
You know, and in recruitment even as well, you know you can’t just lift job descriptions from chatGPT, because whose job descriptions are they? And even if you tailor them, you still have to be sensible. It needs to be your work.
But with the help of HR, we have to educate our staff on what are you using. Why are you using it? Do these things with understanding and reasoning rather than just doing them without thought.
Absolutely. And just jumping back to the Academy then, is that like an apprenticeship offering or is it completely different to that?
Our Talent Academy launched about two years ago with two or three streams built into that. The first part is to really help remove barriers to entry into the games industry.
So we focus a lot on outreach, so our staff all have the opportunity to pass it on and participate in outreach if they would like to.
We work with other organisations, including Into Games, whose mission statement is purely to improve access to the industry. We work with local schools, universities, colleges, and big events.
I’m actually involved in that organisation, but we work with them, but also local schools, universities, colleges, as well as big conferences and events.
We often offer portfolio reviews for those pursuing industry careers, or give feedback on CVs.
Members of our team also frequently deliver talks about how to get into the games industry, or how to make it in a specific discipline.
I’m off to do a talk at primary school this week, for example. We want to be able to share what a brilliant industry the games industry is, and that you don’t just have to be a programmer to get into it.
You could be in IT, or you could be in HR, or you could be an accountant or a project manager. So many different careers.
So we do a lot of outreach, but also we really want to focus on broadening our pipeline of where people are coming from within the industry. We know that there’s a bit of socioeconomic bias going on with lots of game industry business owners having private school backgrounds, for example.
This means socioeconomic movement is quite limited within our industry. We take on graduates through the Academy, but we’ve also taken on some internships, we’ve taken on apprenticeships, and when the Kickstart scheme was running for young people on Universal Credit, we also took on people via that.
I’m hoping later in the year or early next year, maybe we’ll be able to take on some college leavers. There are some other things I’m looking at, whether possibly working with some boot camp providers for career changes and things like that.
So really, it’s about broadening a whole network and the whole pool of where we’re finding our resources and our future employees so that we can increase diversity, removing entry barriers.
I am also very keen on the Academy to look at alternative places to look for potential future staff.
So, are there other industries that we could look at? People who may not necessarily have games experience, but they could have other relevant experience.
So maybe we could be looking at architecture for example, which might help with level design, or film, which might help with VFX, and see what we need to do to help translate their skills to become relevant to our industry.
And so in the long term, our Academy will start to look at the kind of training needed to help that translation, working to get people games industry-ready and bring them into nDreams.
With the Academy do you bring in a cohort?
So what we’ve done so far is we’ve hired the interns, graduates, apprenticeships, kickstarters – we’ve hired them as and when we decided we need them within the business.
So, they are filling roles within the business that we feel we need, but also we are making sure that they’ve got mentorship within the business at the same time and moving forward.
Our incoming early careers manager will lead more of a cohort driven intake because, again, I think having a cohort and building up those peer communities is really important.
So there is there’s room for us to grow and to develop and enhance the offering that we’ve got.
But I think that where we started is good; in terms of numbers, at one point last year, well over 10% of our team members had come through the Academy.
That is fantastic. My last question is regarding your employer brand, do you feel that in the games industry, you’re well known but outside of the sector not so much?
I think that’s probably fair.
We started to do a little bit more work in the local area now, so we work together with Rushmoor Borough Council, and we work with some of the local communities and local schools. So actually, out in the local area, some of the young people would know who we are.
Tamsin, I am conscious I have taken up a lot of your time, so will draw to a close here. Thank you so much for joining me and hope to catch up soon.