Most local authorities these days have well-defined employee communication channels and Sandwell Council is no exception. The usual approaches such as employee newsletters, bulletins and even face-to-face channels like team brief all have their place. Sometimes, however, a rather more radical approach is called for.
So it was that in early 2006, we realised that something different was needed at Sandwell. The council had gone through a challenging annual Audit Commission inspection and in parallel our employee survey had also indicated a dip in perceptions around communication and involvement in change. It was becoming clear that levels of morale and pride in the organisation were falling. In truth, there was much for employees to feel positive about, but instead people were tending to focus on negative issues. The clear danger was that declining employee morale would impact on service levels and hence the overall image of the council. Against this background we needed a hearts and minds strategy that would ‘turn the ship’ quickly and put back the pride into Sandwell, from the grass roots upwards.
It would have been easy to rely on our existing communication channels, but at that point slow-burn communication channels were definitely out. We needed to reach all employees quickly, using face-to-face methods. The approach had to be fresh and vibrant, celebrating successes and putting our progress back into context. Our task was to beat the doom merchants and inject some hope.
We decided to think big, think radically, and make things happen quickly. The approach was simple. A series of 11 employee events specially branded Forward Together were organised and held literally ‘back to back’ over a one-week period during which almost 4000 of our people attended.
This required commitment at all levels and a willingness to give the programme 100% support. Sandwell’s Chief Executive Allison Fraser led the way and cleared her diary for the week, personally fronting each and every event.
A simple two-stage formula was adopted…
Each of the sessions commenced with a presentation from our Chief Executive. The content was up beat and focused on successes from every corner of the council, recognising Sandwell people for their hard work and commitment. The simple message was, believe in yourselves, you’re doing a great job – be proud and walk tall.
Following the presentation, employees were given the opportunity to visit an exhibition which was fronted by their colleagues. This was an opportunity to talk first hand to staff that had actually driven through the successes highlighted in the earlier presentation. It was a time to talk informally, swap ideas and celebrate successes. The Chief Executive, her immediate team and key managers also mingled with the crowd, chatting to employees. It was two-way communication at its best.
In terms of delegates we were careful to ensure there was no hierarchy at the events; each was deliberately a mixture of people from very different services and jobs. This was very much a part of our goal to promote a common sense of belonging to one organisation.
Post event evaluation was excellent here are just a few comments, which illustrate the success of Forward Together in terms of winning hearts and minds…
“It’s nice to see that every Council employee, no matter what department, improves the lives of Sandwell People – we do a tremendous job!
“The presentation has motivated me and has given me a sense of pride in working for Sandwell. Let’s have more similar events!
“Thoroughly enjoyed the event, the presentations highlighted our achievements, really lifted my spirits about working and living in Sandwell. Excellent!”
This all started back in 2006 and the events proved so successful that they have been repeated every year since. Forward Together is now a part of our culture and valued as a platform for both strong leadership and the involvement of our people. It is significant that our executive team continue to be 100% committed to the events.
The rise in morale over the last three years has been noticeable and is backed up by steadily improving employee survey results and equally important a rise in Audit Commission assessment scores. Sandwell is now the fastest improving Metropolitan Council in the UK.
Naturally, all of this cannot be attributed to one event, but certainly Forward Together has proved to be a strong catalyst creating an appetite for change. Employees now feel a strong affinity to the organisation and with that an even stronger motivation to get involved in its future.
Looking back, we have come a long way and learned a lot. It’s still the old mantras such as strong leadership and pride coupled with a positive vision that have emerged as the real building blocks for change. In truth, we just needed to believe in ourselves. The rest soon followed.
By Mark Jones, Internal Communication Officer, Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council