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Human approach to improving performance

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Councils are using innovative people management policies to improve performance.

Actively manage staff sickness

Staff who call in sick at South Bedfordshire DC are not given a vague “get well soon” message from their managers. Instead, they ring a 24-hour hotline, where they can get medical advice from nurses and set an estimated date for returning to work.

The nurse then contacts their line manager by email or text, giving a brief summary of what has been discussed. Back-to-work interviews help to deal with any issues that have not been resolved.

The system has helped the council slash absence rates. Before the hotline was introduced in December 2006, the average employee was off sick for more than 12 days a year, at an annual cost of£750,000. Absence rates have recently dropped to 8.6 days, saving an estimated£175,000.

South Bedfordshire appointed Active Health Partners to run the absence service. The company provides the nurse-run helpline and supplies compliance reports, offering easy-to-understand benchmarking and an overview of employee sickness issues in the organisation.

Martin Williams , head of organisational development at South Bedfordshire, says: “We had a number of complaints from staff at first, but those have tailed off now people are used to the system.”

In fact, staff have benefited from access to medical advice. The nurses have spotted people at risk of heart disease and supported the wife of a man suffering from angina while she waited for an ambulance.

“We can now use detailed data to proactively manage absence and this has had a major impact in driving sickness levels down,” says Mr Williams.

Create a ‘healthy workplace’

Brent LBC has taken a ‘healthy workplace’ approach giving staff a psychological boost by giving recognition for their efforts and promoting physical good health with various health initiatives.

The annual staff achievement awards, attended by about 400 people, including friends and family of staff, are an opportunity to reward staff particularly ‘unsung heroes’. In 2006 the team of the year was the pupil referral unit, a group of women whose job is often undervalued and who work with troubled children who are more likely to be both perpetrators and victims of crime.

Physical health is promoted in a number of ways. HR manager Sue Slingsby explains there are health promotion sessions where the occupational health team organises cholesterol testing. A lifestyle booklet is given out that offers discounted gym membership and vouchers for Halfords to encourage cycling to work. Meanwhile the town hall canteen has been revamped to offer healthy menus.

“We are investing money in health and wellbeing, offering training, support and encouragement in return for everyone’s hard work,” says Ms Slingsby. A sickness management policy is another way to provide support, she adds. This will give managers easy-to-use procedures to assist people whose absence records raise concerns.

Overall, the result of a positive ‘healthy workplace’ approach has been to drive Brent’s sickness levels down from an average of 13 days a year to just eight days for 2006-07.

Encourage home working

Using technology to give staff and partners remote access to council IT systems has helped Cheshire CC to promote flexible working and become more environmentally friendly.

The authority’s computer system was unable to cope with a growing number of people working outside the office and users wanted to do more than merely send emails. “It was clear that we needed to vastly improve on what we had in place,” says Colin Rowland , Cheshire’s ICT policy and security manager.

Three years ago Cheshire chose a solution from the business technology consultancy Morse. The Juniper Secure Access appliances system provides remote access through a web browser so that any user with the right authorisation can gain access to the information and applications they need from their home computer, meaning that they do not have to wait to borrow a council laptop.

The council consulted workers to make sure the ‘Click into Cheshire’ system was easy to use. As a result, remote access and webmail imitate the look and feel of the office-based systems, and employees can use their regular user names and passwords.
The system also allows external partners and suppliers to get information about joint projects.

At the moment there are around 100 regular users, but many more check emails on Sunday evenings. Mr Rowland has now started a series of workshops throughout the county to explain the system to more staff.

“It has given us a lot more flexibility. If the gas man is coming, people don’t have to take half a day off anymore,” he says.

Make work more fun

South Tyneside MBC has been transformed from a failing authority to one that is improving, and believes that putting ‘fun’ at the heart of performance management has played a part in this.

Back in 2000, damning best value and Ofsted inspection reports made it clear that the council had to improve. Assistant chief executive Keith Harcus admits: “The council was failing to meet the needs of the modernisation agenda.”

A new chief executive, Irene Lucas, had to devise a plan to bring about improvement quickly and get staff on board. This was all the more urgent because South Tyneside serves one of the most deprived parts of the UK.

The improvement plan devised involved improving leadership within the council, communicating its aims and rewarding successes.

The council decided to run a leadership development programme for more than 200 managers and a series of corporate events for staff at all levels.

These include annual staff awards as well as gatherings for the top team, managers and frontline workers. These feature quizzes, drama performances and even a staff rock group the Council Tax Band played last month at the launch of the latest strategic plan.

Mr Harcus says: “It’s about celebrating success and looking at challenges for the new year, setting out our strategic message.”

South Tyneside is now rated as a four-star council by the Audit Commission, while public satisfaction with the council’s performance has risen to 64%.

Mr Harcus says: “The big thing for the council was to give people a rallying point, so the vision and strategic plan wasn’t just theory.”

Offer better perks

Bracknell Forest BC has helped reduce staff turnover by creating a benefits package, called Choices, that includes everything from shopping vouchers and car leasing to buying extra annual leave and private healthcare.

In 2000-01, annual staff turnover was over 14%, and a third of vacancies were unfilled after the first recruitment round. Now the turnover rate has dropped to 10%, which is 2.5% below the regional average.

Tony Madden , chief HR officer, says exit interviews show people are reluctant to give up the flexibility of working for the council.

“The scheme has been popular and successful,” he says. The council’s 2007 staff survey showed 60% of respondents were aware they could take advantage of the benefits package.

Today staff enjoy a wide range of benefits, including the ability to buy or sell 10 days’ annual leave, outlined in a booklet sent out with the December pay slip. A total of 10% of the 4,000 council employees take up Choices and the number is growing every year.

“We started small. It’s taken us six years to get a package we are happy with,” says Mr Madden.

He adds that the administration of the scheme was time-consuming to set up, with the council having to tender for subsidised private health care and car leasing. “But once it’s up and working it is low-cost,” he says.

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