Creative and cost-effective engagement strategies

You don't have to spend a lot to engage staff. Public sector people leaders are being cost-effective and creative

Read the mainstream media, with its relentless coverage of job cuts and slashed budgets, and you might jump to the conclusion that working in public sector HR at the moment would be a total nightmare – that you’d have to be mad (or desperate) to take on a brief to motivate and engage public servants.

However, the sector is home to some of the most creative, innovative and boundary-pushing people leaders of all, precisely because they are thriving amid such challenges. These trailblazers tend to share certain traits. One of them is excitement about the changes happening, believing they will ultimately improve public services. Another is a lust for solving age-old problems in new, more effective ways. Another is resilience.

Admittedly cynical observers might label them as “mad lone wolves”. This is certainly true of chief constable of Durham Constabulary Mike Barton, who was described this way when he continued to prioritise investment in staff, despite widescale cutbacks in most other areas.

But criticism like this – common in the public sector among the ‘old school’ servants resentful of disruption to the traditional business model – doesn’t knock his confidence. If anything it spurs him on: “The reason we are the only UK force to have got three out of three ‘outstandings’ for efficiency is not about efficiency. It’s about people; 85% of my money goes on people because efficiency is them performing at their peak.”

Barry Pirie, president of the PPMA, and director of people and business services at Wiltshire Council, agrees that it’s “imperative” to invest in employee engagement. But that doesn’t mean expensive training courses or extravagant team building events (“we wouldn’t do away days at Center Parcs anymore”).

One of the most effective and cost-efficient things you can do to engage and motivate your staff is be humble and listen. Do this and they will feel part of the change, contributing positively, rather than powerlessly being swept along by it.

“Obviously we want our staff to be fully engaged to solve the financial pressures we’ve got,” says Pirie. “And the best people to tell us how we can improve are those doing the job. We’ve forgotten that over the last five to 10 years, during which there has been this belief that the ‘top tier’ have got all the answers. Well they don’t. We are very much an open book now. We say ‘these are the issues, how can you help us’? That openness leads to a willingness to engage.”

Openness is also fostered through moves like open plan working with hot desks, cutting the CEO role to create a flatter structure, regular staff forums, internal awards and reverse mentoring.

The result of this leadership approach has been a re-energised workforce, which has directly affected service delivery: even though the budget has been cut by £140 million at Wiltshire Council, customer satisfaction has improved. Not only that, staff satisfaction has risen.

There has been similar dramatic culture change at Nottingham Council, according to its resourcing and reward consultant Lynn Griffin-Pearce, who joined the HR department as a trainee in 1989. She describes the council as “totally unrecognisable” in largely positive ways, from “less bureaucracy” to “much more freedom to be creative”.

Griffin-Pearce has spearheaded the organisation’s employee benefits scheme, Work Perks, since its launch a decade ago. It recently relaunched to appeal more to the 16 to 24 age group, to get new blood (and new ideas) coursing through the council’s veins.

“We have still got quite an old workforce, which is the nature of the beast,” she says. “We have to be much more innovative and young people are key to that. When we introduced Work Perks it was a very different marketplace. Today the emphasis is on keeping talent in austerity when, for example, people might have had three or four years with no pay rise.”

Work Perks focuses on making pay packets go further by using salary sacrifice to reduce the cost of childcare, bikes and mobile phones, as well as offering retail discounts and money off transport, parking and leisure activities. It’s proving popular: employee sign-ups increased by 74% from 2,440 to 4,247 in 2014, representing a substantial proportion of the 7,000 staff.

According to Louise Tibbert, director of workforce and OD at University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust, NHS workplace issues are “reasonably similar” to those in her previous role at Hertfordshire County Council. The big differences are the “culture and context”.

For NHS workers the main morale booster is not employee benefits programmes or visible leadership (though they help), it’s empowering them so that they can deliver high-quality patient care. “The NHS has recognised that engagement is absolutely key,” says Tibbert. “There’s lots of research linking high staff morale to excellent quality care. Our staff are already committed to patients so it’s about valuing them as individuals and ensuring we’ve got the right staffing levels so they can do their jobs well.”

The other game changer is involving employees in designing a service where their role can thrive, and thinking what they can do personally to support this. ‘Nurses into Action’, for instance, invites nurses to identify barriers to excellence and encourages them to develop their own solutions, with HR support. “That’s been really powerful,” says Tibbert.

Sue Evans, head of HR and OD at Warwickshire County Council, is also a huge believer in the power of personal responsibility and is quite unconventional in the way she instills the importance of it in her team. She has painted quotes on the office walls (much to the property department’s alarm), ‘Everybody brings joy to this office, some as they enter, others as they leave’ being one.

“One or two people were really anxious about this quote,” she says. “But people need to think about the impact of how they are; how their attitude and behaviour affects others at work. We have a lot of hardworking managers here but it’s taken them a while to ‘get’ personal engagement.”

Evans isn’t scared of controversy – she appears to thrive on it – taking pride in brave moves such as abolishing the traditional focus on leadership qualifications in favour of less hierarchical, more practical ‘personal leadership programmes’. “This is not about theory. It’s about taking 100% responsibility for what you do and how you do it. It’s helping people recognise their contribution and enabling them to shine as themselves. That’s far more important than a diploma in management,” she says.

Her creative, eyebrow-raising approach is paying off – HR team engagement stands at 81% and the figure across the whole council is 67%. She sees her role as an energiser and empowerer, existing to up engagement and productivity.

“There’s never been a better time to be in HR in the public sector. We’ve got to unleash energy and power from those around us,” she says. “It’s our time to shine and show what we’re made of – to innovate, create and come at things differently. If you’re not excited about that you shouldn’t be in HR.”