· 6 min read · Features

HR reward special 3/7: interview with Jayne Billam, HR director at the University of Lincoln

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In the year 1088, two decades after William the Conqueror invaded England, work began on building the breathtaking Lincoln Cathedral. Only eight years later, in 1096, the first evidence of university-level teaching taking place at Oxford was recorded. As Oxford then fell into the diocese of Lincoln, bishops of Lincoln presided over its growth, but never set up a university in their own backyard.

Since Victorian times, higher education institutions have flourished in Lincoln, including Bishop Grosseteste university college. But the city had to wait nine centuries before it got a full university. And when the Queen opened Lincoln's main campus in 2002, it was the first new city centre campus to be built in the UK for decades. It now buzzes with 11,000 students and 2,000 employees.

Its HR director Jayne Billam (pictured) explains the story to HR's photographer as she poses in Lincoln's modern riverside campus, and beside the converted railway warehouse, which now houses the student library. The almost forbidding cathedral in the background is a permanent reminder of the university's link with the city's history.

HR caught up with Billam and the university's reward and benefits manager, Ian Hodson, only weeks after the organisation scooped the HR Excellence Award for Most Effective Benefits Strategy. But the duo seems modest about its achievements. "Thinking you're the best is not always healthy," smiles Billam, who has headed HR for both the faculty and non-academic employees since 2006 (Hodson was appointed to his role in 2008). "We had a go and we know it is possible to make business changes through HR. Through a vision and a collective will, HR can make changes that are ambitious and significant."

During 2011, the organisation made strides in creating a reward strategy for all members of staff, encompassing an understanding of the total reward package, support towards developing a healthy work/life interaction and innovative approaches to health and wellbeing.

The aim of the reward package, according to Billam, was to acknowledge the diversity of the workforce and be able to offer something for everybody. The activities were all delivered on a small budget with a minimal investment strategy to deliver results. There is a clear recognition that within the public sector the opportunities are limited to offer initiatives such as flexible benefits schemes.

"We have had to work to influence change," Billam asserts. "The crux of our HR strategy is it has to provide a business benefit. This is a bottom-line issue and it is about giving people control over themselves, rather than having things 'done to them' by us as an employer."

To tackle this, the HR team launched a magazine called HR Line for line managers, to ensure they became aware not only of HR guidance but also the benefits and activities the department is working on. Billam adds: "There is a perception of HR that we are a police force managers can hide behind. We have done a lot of work to show employees we are, in fact, an enabling force."

The strategic aim of the university's reward strategy was to combat what has been a difficult year in higher education, where the focus of the news has been on pay freezes and changes to public sector pension schemes.

Billam and Hodson were conscious this perception could impact negatively on morale and that employees could feel benefits were being taken from them. Hodson explains communicating the total reward package was imperative - covered by introducing total reward statements.

He says: "These documents were key to our aims, but generic enough to be used as an additional recruitment tool for attracting new staff both on our online site and also physically at the point of interview." The reward statement, along with many other initiatives, was designed so employees felt valued throughout the year.

"We haven't labelled this as a reward agenda, though," says Billam. "We listened to the organisation and unions: we wanted to give choice to employees, because we knew everything wasn't going to work for everyone. We don't need to argue with unions about pay and pension rates, because they know that is decided at a national level. But when it comes to benefits, listening to staff means we can keep adding to and changing our provision."

Another strategic aim is to recognise exceptional performance and behaviour and champion such behaviour to other members of staff. This involved all staff receiving an Amazon voucher at the end of a turbulent 2011.

But the duo has been keen to investigate innovative ways of rewarding as part of the strategy, in addition to a core plan. Hodson explains: "It is quite easy to invest a lot of budget in developing a programme or simply using external resources to deliver an agenda. The university has built the health and wellbeing agenda on the resources already in place, encouraging employees to share their expertise with others and offering something for everybody."

He smiles: "And we don't take ourselves too seriously."

Billam and Hodson believe the university has moved away from, as Hodson puts it, a "formal approach to benefits, which encompassed the typical public sector reactive approach of generous sickness entitlements, holidays and pay and little creativity". The organisation has tried instead to look at the resources around it and encourage staff to look at all aspects of their lifestyle, from what they eat to mode of transport, and help them see the university as an employer of choice.

Hodson says: "Staff working in the sports centre here are happy to help with fitness and wellbeing for staff. When we hosted the Egyptian Olympic team and when the Olympic torch relay came to Lincoln, we had an Olympics action day, all delivered by members of staff."

'Healthy Campus Week' in March - this year's was the fifth - encouraged employees to participate in 'have a go' sporting activities such as badminton, fitness, aerobics, and Swiss ball. Other activities included cooking, osteoporosis checks and a desk drop of free fruit.

The event also focused on community engagement and building relationships with local businesses such as cycle shops (for the cycle-to-work scheme) and health practitioners.

Team-building competitions also encouraged divisions to work and play collectively. The university had 14 teams walking the virtual world wearing pedometers and the initiative was supported by the university canteen offering fruit tables throughout the challenge and the sports centre offering free classes, ranging from circuit training to Zumba, to help individuals increase their steps individually and as a team.

Acknowledging an increase in absence due to stress and the economic climate, the organisation introduced an employee assistance programme (EAP). This included free face-to-face counselling, and a wellbeing portal site encompassing visual guidance to staff on aspects of health and wellbeing and how to take positive steps or find support. This site also led to the suite of benefits available at the university.

To support communication channels, the university launched a staff suggestion scheme, for staff to offer activities and ideas in respect of improving health and wellbeing. A number of the ideas from the suggestion scheme have been initiated, including: pedometers; cycle lockers; free meals to encourage cycling; shower facilities for cyclists; and more healthy eating options in the canteen.

The cost of sickness absence was £1.125 million in 2009. It dropped to £821,000 in 2010 and £745,000 in 2011. The organisation has had 100 applications to its cycle-to-work scheme, a reduction in staff turnover by 4.2% and more than 620 employees - just under half - participating in Healthy Campus Week initiatives.

The 2012 staff survey showed 98% thought the university was a good employer. It has also received a number of enquiries from other universities wishing to replicate its variety approach.

Hodson adds: "Overall, the university has built up a reputation as a leading employer with an excellent reward package. It is particularly hard to do this in the public sector, due to financial limitations and the varied demographics of the workforce. Our peer groups have acknowledged the fact that we are leading the way in the sector with our creative, innovative and proactive approach and it has been a significant achievement to have this acknowledged at a national level."

But how does this connect back to the business?

"This organisation is about transforming lives," says Billam. "It is not just a production line of students. When staff welcome students at the start of the year, when they help people fill clearing places and get new students into degree courses, or when they watch graduation ceremonies in Lincoln Cathedral, it is hard not to be moved.

"We have worked to show the value HR brings to this business. There is a perception HR is a cost, but we have saved the organisation money in absence. We have invested in online absence management and we are ahead of some professional services companies in this field, but we are connected to the business and the bottom line."

With the growth of a new university and staff being moved into the organisation through TUPE from other institutions such as De Montfort University, Billam and her team remain busy with terms and conditions and harmonisation.

And the university has shot up the league tables, from 109th in the UK on the Times Good University Guide in 2007, to 52nd in 2012. It is this year ranked 47th by The Guardian. And student satisfaction scores are positive, ranking Lincoln in the top 10 in the UK.

In 2011, the university completed its joint venture with local employer Siemens to finish its engineering campus and has further plans to enhance and expand its school of sciences.

But Billam admits there is more to be done as far as HR strategy is concerned, as the university continues to grow and develop. She smiles: "I often tell colleagues, 'HR can't be expected to have a magic wand, to fix everything when we are expected to'." She won't be the only HRD to feel that way.