Organisational performance - how managers lead wellbeing and engagement at West Sussex County Council

uploaded on 9 December 2021

HRD Sue Evans explains how empowering teams to drive culture change pays dividends for organisations and their people.

As organisations contemplate their next steps in the return to the office or hybrid working, one of the major challenges faced by managers is the disruption to their culture.

Unmoored from what went before the pandemic, the way people interact has been rewired. With this comes concerns about staff wellbeing, performance and motivation as organisations’ pandemic working arrangements become permanent ways of working.

Tactical solutions for specific problems such as wellbeing programmes, tools for digital engagement, and reviewing employee benefits are important.

However, it’s the relationship staff have with their manager that drives how they feel about the organisation and ultimately their level of wellbeing, engagement and productivity.

As the pandemic hit Sue Evans, who specialises in delivering people strategy and behavioural and cultural change in complex environments, started her job leading the HR function at West Sussex County Council. Her brief back then was to help the organisation fix precisely the issues that most businesses face now, while ensuring the organisation is future proofed to deliver business effectiveness and efficiency under permanent hybrid work arrangements. Organisations can learn from what she and the team did successfully.

Burning platforms drive review

In early spring 2020, the organisation Sue joined was in turmoil. Children’s services had failed a recent OFSTED inspection and several leaders including the chief executive and HR director resigned. With no people plan for its 4,500 people, the organisation’s culture was in need of improvement.

“I spent the first few days sitting with all levels of staff listening to their experiences, hopes and concerns. That and a review of the people policies and practices quickly revealed the heart of the problem. Staff did not feel valued or well treated. We couldn’t deliver the Council’s plan for the people of West Sussex without an effective people strategy driving it and a supportive work culture,” says Sue.

Two days into Sue’s new role, the country went into lockdown. A plan to deliver services across a hybrid workforce was put in place and office-based staff set up to work from home.

This meant any work to fix business issues and reset the culture and people strategy had to be done remotely, with a new senior leadership team, and in parallel with the Council’s Covid response.

A golden opportunity

Before the pandemic, the council was moving toward hybrid working as part of its property rationalisation plan. The pandemic simply accelerated these plans. From the outset Sue knew remote working capability had to be built into the new people strategy and culture.

“The pandemic presented us with a golden opportunity to rethink how best to support staff and deliver services in the context of a hybrid working environment both during lockdown and beyond the pandemic. We reconsidered the role of managers to equip them to respond to the current emergency and to build a legacy that enabled them to engage staff and look after their wellbeing in a permanently hybrid workforce.”

First principles

Sue worked with the incoming leadership team and her organisational development manager to produce a people framework that would improve performance. They focused on four priorities; leadership, values, performance and development, and resourcing - all considered through the lens of diversity and inclusion. The framework places an emphasis on leadership because it is a leader’s role model behaviours that drive excellence across the organisation.

“I agree with Richard Branson that, clients don’t come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients. The way we treat our people either supports or undermines their performance and ultimately determines how the customers we serve talk about us. This was our guiding principle as we developed the framework,” says Sue.

The launch of the new people framework was rapidly followed up with kickstart projects for staff to see and believe change was happening.

“We refreshed the performance process and paperwork, removed gradings and focused instead on having good people management conversations. We stripped out any negative language from our people polices and re-aligned them to reflect new hybrid working practices.”

Equip managers

All this had to be delivered with managers and teams working remotely. And because of the firmly held view that culture starts and ends with every manager, the organisational development team focussed on improving the quality of manager induction.

They developed ‘The Vibe’; a values framework to communicate expectations for how managers should listen, care and behave. They also redesigned working practices and resources to support managers to lead in a hybrid work environment.

With staff wellbeing the number one concern, managers received training to understand how they could most effectively support staff.

“Tactical interventions have a role to play in helping people thrive but bought in support won’t create a culture of wellbeing. That’s achieved through the way leaders and managers interact with their people on a daily basis, and how they make their people feel.”

Managers were trained to help them understand and remove the root causes of unnecessary workplace stress and anxiety. Although they are equipped to respond appropriately to signs of stress, their primary objective is to help them address its root cause. Mental Health First Aiders were also trained and now operate across the Council.

Managers were also encouraged to build effective relationships with team members, irrespective of their place of work, keeping the trust equation in mind - demonstrating credibility, reliability and intimacy - I know what makes you tick and understand how to help you. A mindset that requires leaders to focus on how they can help a team member achieve their best rather than how that individual makes them look.

“It really helps that our executive team live and breathe this approach. Our chief exec begins every board meeting by asking everyone: ‘how are you, is there anything I need to know?’ When managers see this behaviour role modelled top-down it sets the expectation for their own behaviour.”

Mindful that conversations around performance are a classic inflection point that either strengthen or erode relationships, the annual appraisal process which focused on grading staff for pay purposes was replaced with an ongoing cycle of performance conversations.

Staff have twelve conversations spread across the year, four of which are focused on development and two of which are team business plan focused. Conversations are designed to promote a culture of continuous improvement and build an individual’s strengths.

An opportunity realised

This improvement project began with the intent to fix high risk business issues and create a workforce equipped to deliver effective services irrespective of place of work. A year on the results are impressive.

Inspectors were so impressed by the level of improvement made to Children’s Services they have taken the unprecedented decision to reconsider plans to remove it from council control.

Six months on, staff reported they feel valued and trusted to do a good job. Staff say that the council takes their mental health and wellbeing seriously and they feel supported to take care of their wellbeing.

Managers say they feel more confident in having conversations around wellbeing and knowing where to signpost staff for help and support.

Service delivery has been maintained throughout the pandemic and some customers and clients have found it easier to engage with us through different media.

The situation Sue was engaged to address was extreme. While not every HR director has a new supportive senior leadership team and full discretionary power to make changes like WSCC, they can learn from this experience the importance of equipping managers and leaders for a hybrid workforce.

Five reflections

As organisations transition to some form of hybrid working on a permanent basis it helps to keep five aims front of mind:

  • Give support to staff before they disengage. Equip managers to guide their development through performance conversations using a strengths-based approach.
  • Maintain human contact. In public services its critical - not just to avoid isolation - but to enable staff, such as social and care workers that accumulate an emotional burden in the line of duty to share and offload with understanding colleagues.
  • Give staff permission to switch off. Enshrine in policy and model top-down. No matter how well the policy is communicated, staff won’t switch off unless they see leaders do so.
  • Manage by outcomes not presenteeism. People deliver their best work when they feel valued by their colleagues, manager and leaders – people who are appreciated will do more than expected (Francis Flynn, Harvard).
  • Ensure your people strategy, policy and practice align to deliver work in the new world.

Author | Sue Evans, Interim HRD, West Sussex County Council

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