Time on our side

Geof Cox  is an independent consultant working in organisation
and management development. He has recently been working on the
National Training Framework for Supporting People and on projects
in the public and private sectors, including leading this work for
Dundee Council.

Many councils now offer golden hellos and enhanced terms to
encourage staff to work for them. Dundee Council has chosen a
different approach. Rather than joining the bidding war it has
opted for flexible working.

Independent research into Dundee’s recruitment and retention
problems identified the potential of flexible working practices.
Initially, just a couple of volunteer teams were sought, but almost
every service manager came forward. Nine teams were chosen: four to
investigate where flexible working could take place, four to pilot
flexible working hours, and one to look at organisational issues,
such as ways to better time and staff. The teams covered a range of
services including those for children, criminal justice, community
care and teams working in home and residential care where it was
believed flexible working would be difficult.

The teams were given total freedom to tailor their flexibility to
their own and service user needs. The only proviso was that the
service to the client had to be at least as good as it was before.
This freedom helped staff to feel empowered and trusted, and also
stemmed any fears that new working practices would be imposed from
above. Allowing teams to make their own decisions made it possible
to include those where flexible working seemed improbable as well
as those where its benefits were obvious. The pilot teams operated
with little or no managerial control, which was essential to the

An independent evaluation at the end of 2003 showed improved
performance after six months of flexible working.

More reports were completed on time and they were a higher standard
with fewer corrections needed, more cases were closed and there
were no backlogs. In one criminal justice team, the late delivery
of social inquiry reports to the courts reduced from 32 per cent in
2002 to 6 per cent for the pilot period. Even teams where there was
limited flexibility showed improvements far in excess of their
managers’ expectations.

Staff reported less stress and said they were doing more and better
quality work, even in environments where there were high workloads
and understaffing. Absenteeism in pilot teams was reduced and
management of staffing problems improved – such as team members
contributing from home when suffering minor illness or dealing with
emergency child care or other responsibilities. Flexible working
did not replace the lack of resources but it did seem to help
people to cope with the pressure.

Staff said they had more trust and greater choice and control. They
felt less guilty if they were not in the office “on time” and did
not feel like they had to ask permission if they wanted some
protected time. Just having the choice was significant even if it
was not used. One social work assistant did not take part in the
pilot but liked the fact that she had the choice to opt in or

There was also evidence of workers and teams making more decisions,
which eased the workload of more senior managers.

Fears that individuals would abuse the system proved unfounded, as
did concerns over a loss of team cohesion and support. But managers
did have problems leading and managing performance – particularly
with the change from measuring input, such as time at the office,
to measuring outcomes. The lack of a consistent “office attendance”
by the whole team led to fewer communications, but this was partly
overcome by better quality communication when it did meet.

The evaluation of the pilot also identified the crucial role of IT
and communications technology, such as mobile phones and remote
access systems. Poor IT skills and problems with remote access
caused problems, but not all work at home needs this sort of system
access. But, if the scheme is to be extended any further, better
infrastructure and support systems are needed.

As to the future, while the recruitment issues have not been
resolved, the working environment has improved, which can surely
only help the situation. As Angus Skinner, Scotland’s chief social
work inspector, says in a report: “A culture of professional
development and leadership will encourage more people to consider a
career in social services.”1

Staff are keen on flexible working, but need to be given choice and
allowed to contribute to the way it is designed. The evaluation
suggests that the improved working environment and work-life
balance will help retention by increasing job satisfaction and
reducing stress.

Trust in staff:

Alan Baird, Dundee’s director of social work, gives his
verdict.   “In Dundee we faced the same problems in recruitment as
the rest of Scotland and the UK, especially for qualified social
workers, and we were being squeezed by the new Scottish Commission
for the Regulation of Care and the Scottish Social Services Council
offices in Dundee, both of which recruited qualified workers on
enhanced conditions.   “But I was convinced that buying our way out
of the crisis would add significantly to costs, while offering only
a short-term solution. When we commissioned the initial research we
did not have flexible working in mind, and we were certainly not
expecting the extent of the benefits that have accrued. When you
demonstrate trust in staff they repay it several-fold.” 

Abstract: This article looks at the steps that
one council has taken to address the growing recruitment and
retention problems in social services. By giving staff and teams
the choice and control to decide the best working practices for
them and their service users, Dundee Council is benefiting from
increased staff performance, less stress and lower absence rates.
The recruitment and retention crisis remains, but the council is a
more attractive place to work.

References: (1)  Progress with Complexity: the
2003 national overview report, the Scottish executive

Further Information: 

Contact the author:   Geof Cox can be contacted
by telephone: 0117 9681451; or e-mail GeofCox@newdirections.uk.com

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