· Features

How flexible working transformed a care provider's retention strategy

Croft House, one of MMCG's care homes, celebrates its 121st anniversary

While care homes struggle with an ongoing labour shortage, HR magazine reporter Millicent Machell found out how one care provider used flexible working to turn the tables on recruitment and retention.

The organisation

The Maria Mallaband Care Group (MMCG) is an independent care home provider with homes across the UK, offering a wide range of care including residential, nursing, dementia nursing, respite, palliative and for a range of disabilities.

It prides itself on its emphasis on compassion, respect and supporting independence.

The problem

Care homes have long struggled with recruitment. In fact, more than nine in 10 NHS leaders have warned of a social care workforce crisis in their area, according to regulator the Care Quality Commission.

Between 2021 and 2022, the social care vacancy rate rose sharply from 7% to 11% and the number of vacancies rose from 110,000 to 165,000.

Susan Jones, chief people officer at MMCG, says her company felt the full force of the crisis: “We’re in a very, very competitive marketplace, with so many vacancies in care at the minute.

“And obviously, vacancies and having to use agency workers may impact the experiences individuals who live with us get, so we had to find a way to stand out from other employers.”

Read more: Keeping your talents by setting them free, part one

Potential candidates who have caring skills also often have personal caring responsibilities at home. This means inflexible shift work stops them from applying to formal caring roles, according to Laura Finlay, group head of talent acquisition.

She says: “We know that we’ve got an ageing population in the UK and a significant skill shortage. We weren’t necessarily struggling, but I think we were missing out on really great talent because we weren’t diversifying ourselves enough.

“We needed to attract people who are not necessarily from our sector, but have the right behaviours and the right mindset to work in care.

“Ultimately, we work in care because we care. And that applies to people from all different walks of life – as cheesy as that might sound.”

The method

The team began advertising roles with a strapline ‘tell us the hours you want to work’. When a candidate has their first interaction with a recruiter, they can request the length and timing of hours which suit them.

They must commit to a minimum of five hours a week, but they discuss when suits them best.

Finlay says: “The next step is we’ll explain to the care home manager which hours the candidate can do. Nine out of 10 times, the manager can accommodate, but if not, they’ll go back and negotiate or put them on our waiting list.

“If there’s another home nearby, we often ask if they could accommodate those hours. So we really make the most of the people that apply, no matter their availability.”

The scheme was piloted in September 2022 with 24 care homes used to trial it.

Finlay says: “This was really different for the care homes that have traditionally used staff working full-time hours. So we did some sessions with the managers to tackle some initial scepticism about how it was going to work, and how rotas were going to be planned.”

After six months, 56% of job offers made in the initial 24 homes were part-time and flexible. Jones and Finlay therefore decided to expand the scheme to include another 20 homes.

Finlay says: “After adding more homes, 45% of our offers were part-time and 60% bank or casual staff, again improving on the status from the first launch.

“We quickly realised that there was no reason to limit this, and now all our homes are doing it.”

Jones says initial resistance quickly faded among managers as they saw success.

She adds: “The homes quickly found they could embrace the system once they saw the success recruiting people and that people on this scheme are more likely to want to pick up extra hours than those working full time.

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“Their concerns were also related to how the logistics of scheduling would work, so we made sure to offer some additional training on rota management.”

She adds that it was important to include existing colleagues in the scheme.

“We didn’t want to just give the option to new starters because that didn’t feel inclusive to us. And we’ve had some uptake with existing colleagues who have seen this as being really helpful.”

The result

Since rolling out flexible hours, MMCG has seen improved recruitment and retention, meaning it isn’t compelled to use agency staff as often.

Jones said: “We’ve noticed the continuity of care is better for our residents and we’ve also had some great feedback from a few of our managers and colleagues.

“One of our managers told us he’s found that by attracting different nurses and carers who couldn’t have committed he’s got a greater breadth of experience and diversity.

“He said the nurses are now working together to plan the rotas and support and help each other in terms of which hours work, without using agency staff.”

Read more: UK managers quitting over stress and lack of training rather than pay

The team are currently continuing to review the scheme and audit staff to tackle any potential problems.

Finlay says: “Occasionally we’ll have pockets of homes that are maybe not as great administering the scheme, so we’re constantly reviewing and speaking with our home managers.

“For example, care workers don’t tend to get the holidays off and we feel that it’s not really flexible working if you’re forced to work through your whole Christmas.

“So another thing that’s come off the back of this scheme is we try and listen to when people would like time off in the holidays and we’re able to plug gaps in the rota more easily because we do have sufficient numbers of staff.”

Jones similarly acknowledges that the scheme is still adapting and evolving with the needs of colleagues.

She adds: “The world is our oyster, now we’ve realised how attractive and important flexible working is. We’re super excited by the future possibilities with this scheme, and very proud of the strides forward we’ve made during such a difficult time for care workers.”

Fact file

Number of employees: 5,500

Number in HR: 60

Locations UK: 85 homes