Archive for May, 2009

Workforce: The Role of Agency Staff in Struggling Councils

May 29, 2009

Exclusive Community Care research shows that struggling councils also often have the highest use of agency staff. Andrew Mickel investigates the relationship between performance and staffing arrangements

Which comes first: poor performance in a struggling council or a high use of agency staff? If poor performance comes first, the argument goes, then the conditions which create those low standards – poor management, large and difficult caseloads – will make permanent staff leave, causing higher vacancy rates and a greater need for agency workers to be parachuted in to plug the holes left behind. But an alternative view says that a council which is reliant on agency staff who won’t stay for long will be unable to provide a quality service.

Andrew Thorne, chair of trade organisation the Association of Social Work Employment Businesses (Asweb), says that agency workers have a lot to offer struggling departments. “Historically, whenever there’s a horrible death, people always look for the scapegoat,” he says. “It’s easy to say that it’s the agency staff – they may be a symptom of it, but if a department doesn’t have people who want to work there permanently then there’s a reason for it.

“The reality is that if you have high staff turnover it’s not good for anyone, but those are vacancies that need to be filled. Agency staff come in with good ideas, they are very target driven and you get a lot of energy from them.”

Team morale

However, one former team manager for adults services is wary of using expensive agency workers for fear of what it can do to team morale. “The most negative side is the destabilising effect it has on the team,” she says. “What if you spend a lot of time inducting someone into the service, explaining how the team works, and then that person finds somewhere else to go?”

She says that continuity is essential for some service users and agency workers often won’t provide that. “With learning disabilities you are talking about someone with complex history and needs,” she says.

Whichever comes first, the use of agency staff often goes hand-in-hand with lower performance levels. Exclusive Community Care research shows that on 31 January, 26% of Doncaster Council’s children’s social worker posts were held by agency or temporary workers, as were 30% of those at Haringey Council. Children’s services at both have been severely – and very publicly – criticised in recent months.

But then there is Lambeth Council. Like many London boroughs, Lambeth has high vacancy rates (34%) and use of agency and temporary staff (33%) – but has a good rating. (article continues below case study)

Staff turnover

Jo Cleary, head of adults and community services at Lambeth, argues that rate of staff turnover is more important than what kind of staff she employs: “We use agency staff, but many have been with us a long time. They have chosen to remain with us. They are doing an excellent job in some of the hospital discharge teams, which is similar to child protection – high volume and high pace work.”

Greater use of agency staff can be a pointer of high churn in a team. That churn itself can become a vicious circle: without enough experienced long-term staff, it is difficult for complex cases to be tackled or offer adequate supervision to take place within a team. Bill McKitterick, former social services director and now a children’s services social work adviser, says: “If you have got a team with lots of agency staff you might not have an experienced colleague to be a mentor.”

Such a situation can become so bad that a department may eventually be unable to take on and adequately support new staff. Helga Pile, national officer for social care at Unison, says that there is anecdotal evidence that newly qualified social workers are having difficulty finding placements, which she says could be because of a reliance on agency workers which can block the natural take-up of fresh staff.

That is an extreme example of how the normal recruitment and retention processes can break down. When things are really bad, the reputation of a council can stop staff – both permanent and agency – from taking up jobs there. And at that stage, it will only be changes to management, culture and workloads that will cultivate long-term change, says Cleary.

“You have to have leadership at every level of your department,” she says. “Culture takes years to turn around. One of the things I say in my department is that I’m there to support them, but that the work is a high-risk environment. I don’t want them to hide things. I want them to talk to their line manager.”

Good advice?

That is good advice for those in charge of turning around a struggling department, but is of little help to an agency worker going into one now. For people in that position, it is going to be nigh-on impossible for them to challenge engrained bad practice.

Pile says that it is not surprising that agency staff will walk out on difficult cases when there is a risk of being scapegoated with no redress: “The individuals are responsible for their decisions in line with their professional code in a way that the employer isn’t. It’s not right to blame agency workers [who haven’t had] any induction, and if it’s a stretched department no one can show them how to do that.”

This is something that should be resolved soon: Lord Laming last month recommended that the employers’ code of practice be reviewed and then made statutory, which the government has accepted. Pile also flags Laming’s recommendation to the Social Work Taskforce that there should be maximum case load limits and mixed loads as a way for local authorities to tempt agency staff back into permanent employment.

That could help to tackle not just the high use of agency staff, but the high vacancy rates to boot. “The Local Government Association has looked at bringing back retired social workers,” says Pile. “Why not start with the agency workers?”


Richard Reid is the founder of Pinnacle Proactive, Specialising in the Employee Assistance ProgramStress ManagementStaff Retention & Absenteeism. Take a Proactive Approach to Growing Your Organisation & its People. For more info visit


Call For Smart Travel Plans

May 27, 2009

THE National Business Travel network (NBTN), part of the Government’s ACT on CO2 campaign, has called on businesses to implement smart travel plans for staff to cut costs and significantly reduce carbon emissions.

Reducing unnecessary and costly travel can help companies cope in the tough economic climate but according to latest figures, says the NBTN, only six per cent of UK companies facilitate sustainable travel for employees.

The good news for businesses, it adds, is that staff are keen to embrace more flexible ways of working which are, in turn, more productive and eco-friendly.

Encouraging car sharing saves employers money on mileage claims and expenses such as parking space maintenance. Bicycle hire schemes and converting a company car fleet to more fuel efficient, greener vehicles benefits the environment, reducing carbon footprint.

Flexible and home working also saves companies considerable costs.

At BT, it has reduced absenteeism to 3.1 per cent (the national average is 8.5 per cent) and BT has calculated that a reduction in commuting by homeworkers has resulted in more than 7.5 million kg of CO2 emissions being avoided from those journeys.

Other companies that have successfully implemented smart travel plans include BSkyB and E-ON.

Latest research by NBTN, of employees who travel to work in Great Britain, reveals that over half of those surveyed (63 per cent) would take up a work travel plan if their company offered one.

A work travel plan uses more sustainable modes of transport, like car sharing, cycle schemes and flexible or home working, if employers facilitated such schemes.

More than one in four (28 per cent) of those surveyed stated that flexible working would also increase their loyalty to an employer and over a fifth (24 per cent) felt it would significantly improve their productivity.

The potential benefits of travel plans for businesses, as demonstrated by companies like BT, says NBTN, are clear – increased employee reliability, productivity and improved corporate credentials.

Key factors which currently determine employees’ chosen method of transport are convenience (64 per cent) and cost (29 per cent).

Just over a third surveyed currently use a car to drive themselves to work. Many employees who travel to work, however, would consider alternative means of travel with almost one in five (18 per cent) surveyed willing to take part in a car share scheme.

Heather McInroy, programme director for NBTN, said: “I am urging all businesses to embrace a modern approach to work travel practices.

“Business resilience, recruitment, retention and business agility to meet customer demands is at the heart of this issue. It is great to see that such a high percentage of employees would consider buying into a work travel scheme and I hope that employers now act on this.

“The message is clear flexible workstyles and travel plans are good for the environment, good for business and good for employee wellbeing.”

Jon Marsh, head of agility at BT Global Services, said: “Through working in partnership with NBTN, we are communicating the effectiveness of work place travel plans and smarter working policies to other organisations so they can share in the practices that have been so beneficial to BT.

“At BT, we have implemented flexible and home working at scale across the organisation, allowing people to work in the way that best suits them, their job, their personal circumstances and our customers.

“As a result, we’ve been able not only to make large financial savings and productivity improvements but also create a more sustainable organisation through reducing travel and CO2 emissions.”

The National Business Travel Network (NBTN) is urging businesses to champion smart work travel plans, including flexible working, to reduce CO2 emissions and bolster employee wellbeing and productivity.

For further information and advice about work travel plans, visit


Richard Reid is the founder of Pinnacle Proactive, Specialising in the Employee Assistance ProgramStress ManagementStaff Retention & Absenteeism. Take a Proactive Approach to Growing Your Organisation & its People. For more info visit

Google uses maths to improve employee retention

May 21, 2009

Google is taking steps to improve its employee retention by implementing a mathematical formula that calculates when staff are likely to leave the company.

The algorithm works by taking data from staff pay history, promotion history and employee reviews and appraisals of its 20,000 staff worldwide.

The programme is still in the test phases, so the company is not ready to share information about the technical workings of the system, but a spokesman told HR magazine: “As anyone who has observed Google over the years knows, we are serious about keeping our employees happy.

“The work we do in predictive attrition helps us find situations that may increase the likelihood of some ‘Googlers’ leaving the company so that managers and HR staff can work on avoiding those very situations.

“These efforts don’t identify specific people at risk of leaving but instead focus on the less obvious factors that may contribute to the decision to leave the company.”

Google does not intend to use the algorithm to prevent employees who wish to leave the company from doing so, but hopes to find out which employees are feeling demotivated so training and recognition can be used more strategically.


Richard Reid is the founder of Pinnacle Proactive, Specialising in the Employee Assistance ProgramStress ManagementStaff Retention & Absenteeism. Take a Proactive Approach to Growing Your Organisation & its People. For more info visit

Carphone Warehouse ends commission system to improve ‘car salesman’ image

May 19, 2009
Carphone Warehouse branch

Carphone Warehouse to cease paying commissions to in-branch sales staff. Photograph: Garry Weaser/Guardian

Carphone Warehouse hopes to dispel the image of mobile phone sellers as sharp-suited sharks out to make a sale at any price by ending the practice of paying commissions in all of its UK stores so that staff can give impartial advice to customers.

The company, Europe’s largest independent mobile phone retailer, has been running a commission-free trial involving its 1,300 staff in London since last year and the results have persuaded Andrew Harrison, Carphone Warehouse’s UK chief executive, to roll the practice out across every one of its 820 shops in the country.

“We want to stand out within this market, to be the people who you just know are going to be on your side,” said Harrison. “Customers think this industry has been more akin to estate agency or car salesmen. That is not what our business is built on.

“This industry has also seen a huge growth in network-only stores but they do not give you the full array of what is available. Within this industry there are people who will sell you what makes the most profit for their company, not what is the best thing. Especially in the current climate these are big commitments that people are making and people need to know, and we think they have a right to know, that the people who are advising them are on their side. I want to make sure that we are seen as the paragon of virtue in this market.”

There had been fears within the business that when it launched its non-commission trial in London it would see an exodus of experienced staff to rival firms – some of which have in the past offered large cash bonuses to successful salespeople.

But Harrison said staff retention in London had gone up since it introduced the scheme, helped by a rise in basic salaries from £11,000 to £17,000. The company also motivates staff through what it terms a “net promoter” score. After buying a mobile package, customers are sent a text asking how they would rate Carphone Warehouse to friends on a scale of one to 10. Not having to chase sales has also meant staff have had more time to spend with customers, meaning they can discuss the customer’s needs in more detail and potentially sell them more products.

The move is part of a wider trend within the electronics retailing sector to drop commissions as customers are faced with an ever-more confusing array of devices and technologies. Comet, for instance, has introduced store targets instead.


Richard Reid is the founder of Pinnacle Proactive, Specialising in the Employee Assistance ProgramStress ManagementStaff Retention & Absenteeism. Take a Proactive Approach to Growing Your Organisation & its People. For more info visit

As the Boss, You Can Reduce Work Stress in the Office

May 18, 2009

work stress

Work stress can adversely affect your organization. It can increase absenteeism, decrease work commitment from your staff, increase staff turn-over, impair your group’s performance and productivity, increase unsafe working practices and accident rates, increase complaints from clients and customers, increase liability to legal claims and actions by stressed workers, and ultimately damage your organization’s image both internally and externally.

You definitely wouldn’t want these things to happen, so the best thing to do immediately is redesign the work through a new and effective strategy to reduce work stress. Though not exactly simple to do, there are scientific means to carry out the redesign process by delineating and focusing on demands, knowledge base and abilities, support, and control methods.

Change the demands of work. Change the way the job is done. Maybe, you have to change the work environment itself. Redesign the way the workload is distributed.

Stress is a result of the inability to cope with the demands of work. You are always bound to meet incapable employees. Hit the nail on the head. Increase their capacity to meet the demands of work by developing their knowledge and skills.

You can also redesign the way employees control the work they do. Maybe, you’ll need to introduce flexi-time, job-sharing, and more consultation about working practices. The trick is to let your workers know that no job is too difficult for them because they are not alone in doing it, though they are ultimately accountable for their respective tasks.

By allowing more interaction among employees, as well as encouraging teamwork in the workplace, you are thereby increasing the perceived amount and quality of support that the staff gets.

Over and above these, you would do better if you evaluate the steps you have taken to reduce work stress in the office. Nothing is tried and true. Everything is experiential. Stick to what works for you and disregard the ones that don’t – immediately.


Richard Reid is the founder of Pinnacle Proactive, Specialising in the Employee Assistance ProgramStress ManagementStaff Retention & Absenteeism. Take a Proactive Approach to Growing Your Organisation & its People. For more info visit

Terry Williams Humour at Work

May 17, 2009

Richard Reid is the founder of Pinnacle Proactive, Specialising in the Employee Assistance ProgramStress ManagementStaff Retention & Absenteeism. Take a Proactive Approach to Growing Your Organisation & its People. For more info visit

TNT among UK’s best employers

May 12, 2009

Staff at Theale-based express delivery giant TNT are all smiles after the firm was named one of best places to work in the UK.

The company, which has a depot in Station Road, features in an exclusive directory of the finest employers in the land.

The book, entitled Britain’s Top Employers 2009, was published this week following months of research and assessments by global experts the Corporate Research Foundation.

The delivery business impressed the judging panel with its top-class human resources management, and was particularly strong in the areas of career development and employee relations.

TNT was also praised for its staff retention, with more than 450 employees having been with the firm for more than 25 years. Last year 90 people reached this milestone.

The book ranks TNT alongside some of the leading brands in Britain’s business world including household names such as John Lewis Partnership, McDonald’s and IBM.

Depot general manager Jamie Mitchell said: “Our inclusion in this book is independent recognition of our forward-thinking, innovative approach in all that we do.

“It’s not just me saying we’re a great company – I just look around every day and see the amount of people who have worked here for many, many years. That speaks volumes.”

The coveted ranking caps off a busy 12 months for TNT, which included the launch of the world’s largest fleet of zero emission delivery vehicles as part of its drive to reduce its carbon footprint.

Staff have also helped raise nearly £2.5 million for the children’s charity Wooden Spoon and the United Nations World Food Programme.

Sue Barnes, director of HR at TNT, said: “I am absolutely delighted we have received such independent recognition. It’s our people who make the business what it is today.

“They are and always will be our most valuable asset and it is through their skills, talent and enthusiasm we are able to achieve all that we do.

“We aim to provide a great place to work, with development and career opportunities enabling people to maximise their potential.”


Richard Reid is the founder of Pinnacle Proactive, Specialising in the Employee Assistance ProgramStress ManagementStaff Retention & Absenteeism. Take a Proactive Approach to Growing Your Organisation & its People. For more info visit

Staff Retention and Volcanos

May 12, 2009

Richard Reid is the founder of Pinnacle Proactive, Specialising in the Employee Assistance ProgramStress ManagementStaff Retention & Absenteeism. Take a Proactive Approach to Growing Your Organisation & its People. For more info visit

Cambridgeshire finds key to retaining social workers

May 8, 2009

A new approach to reward that looks beyond pay and benefits has halved the vacancy rate of child social workers at Cambridgeshire County Council.

Stephen Moir, the council’s director of people and policy, said vacancy rates among the profession have dropped from 30 per cent to 12 per cent since the introduction of a new total reward package two years ago. The vacancy rate has fallen to zero in some areas while a number of agency workers have also joined the permanent 500-strong department.

Moir said high vacancy levels and use of agency staff were a reflection of a national skills shortage and recruitment and retention problems in the sector. These have been compounded by the public furore surrounding the case of Baby P, now named as Peter, at Haringey Council. According to the Local Government Association one in 10 children’s social worker posts are vacant, with two in three councils experiencing recruitment difficulties.

Cambridgeshire County Council, which was given this year’s Public Sector People Managers Association award for total reward, in recognition of its work with social workers, adopted a new approach to the problems, Moir said.

“We were surrounded by a very competitive employment market. Other councils were offering golden hellos, higher pay and bonuses, but we have not simply thrown money at the problem. Within the context of total reward and value for money we have not adopted the same tactics,” he said.

He said the new package was based on feedback from social workers at the council who were asked what mattered most to them. While some said pay levels were not sufficient, the main issues were around learning and development opportunities, the quality of leadership, the value placed on their service within the organisation and their working environment.

“Pay is only part of the equation and can often disguise some of the fundamental issues of working in a profession. There are other reasons for people wanting to stay or leave an employer. A lot of it is about culture and leadership, not about what you see on your payslip every month,” he said.

As a result the council has increased its investment in training and changed the way people progress through pay bands to aid career development. Their working environment has been overhauled with new IT equipment and redecorated buildings and flexible working practices have been promoted. Staff have also been given additional administrative support to cope with high levels of bureaucracy and free them up for front-line duties.

Moir said the most important adjustment for social workers had been the change in culture to place a higher degree of value and recognition on their work.

“The profession has taken some tough knocks over the last few months. Good quality social workers and the necessary support to do their jobs make a huge difference to protecting some of the most vulnerable people in society,” said Moir, adding that they had adopted the slogan ‘every child social worker matters’.

Earlier in the week the government launched a £58 million fund to overhaul social services in wake of what happened to Baby Peter. Money will be earmarked for the professional development of the current workforce, for encouraging high-flying graduates to train as social workers and for helping former social workers up-skill and return to the profession.


Richard Reid is the founder of Pinnacle Proactive, Specialising in the Employee Assistance ProgramStress ManagementStaff Retention & Absenteeism. Take a Proactive Approach to Growing Your Organisation & its People. For more info visit

Question of the week: Should employers be forced by law to become more family-friendly?

May 7, 2009

Yes says Sarah jackson, chief executive of Working Families

If we have learned anything from the 20 years since the last major recession, it is that treating people well works. There are two key issues at stake. Will we emerge with a stronger and more productive economy, or return to the dark ages? Do we believe in work-life balance, or is caring about family life a luxury for the good times?

Let’s look first at the productivity arguments for family-friendly working. Good employers – large and small – recognise and act on the evidence: family-friendly policies bring benefits both to the business and to employees.

The recent extension of flexible working to parents of all children up to 16 years old was met with predictable doom and gloom from many in the business lobby. But regulatory impact assessments show that, even at a time of recession, business is set to benefit.

Flexible working retains and motivates employees, leading to savings in recruitment costs and reductions in absenteeism and sickness rates. Research shows flexible working leads to improvements in performance, both at the individual and the team level.

Quite simply, the costs of introducing the extension of flexible working are outweighed by millions of pounds of savings. If there ever was a time it is now, when every employer should be looking to maximise productivity.

Family-friendly policies can help get the best out of every employee. They can be used as a motivator when pay rises are scarce. And they help to ensure that employers attract and retain talent from the widest possible pool of people. Many good employers are looking at flexible options and sabbaticals as alternatives to redundancies. They are reaping the benefits.

But this is not how all employers respond to the recession. In calls to our helpline, we have seen an alarming rise in discrimination cases – particularly against pregnant women and those on maternity leave – and cases where employers are blatantly disregarding the legal framework put in place to protect families in work.

Discrimination is not only morally wrong it is appallingly short-sighted. There is a real danger that allowing employers to “get away” with treating employees badly will weaken our economy long-term. When the upturn comes, workers will vote with their feet. The costs of recruiting and training replacements will hit struggling businesses hard.

The downturn is also putting an intolerable strain on families. Our callers are concerned about mortgage repayments and debts, and the high costs of childcare. They are stressed by long and inflexible hours in work, with knock-on effects on their health and their children’s wellbeing.

Discrimination against mothers hits many families hard: in a third of households today women earn the same, or more than, men.

Family-friendly workplaces make economic sense. All the evidence shows engaged and active parenting leads to better outcomes for children – including in educational attainment.

Enabling parents to spend time supporting their children will affect the skills gained by the next generation. Employers – and government – should pause to reflect on whether our workplaces are fit for today’s families and the future society we want to build.

No says John Wright, national chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses

Everyone can see the benefits of flexible working – to the child, the parent and even the employer, who retains a valued, happier, and more productive member of staff.

Announced in early April, the new law entitles parents of children younger than 16 to request flexible working hours. Before, only parents of children up to the age of six were eligible.

But there are two main problems with the government’s latest employment reform.

First, this change comes at an unfortunate time, when small firms, particularly, are doing all they can to stay in business and should not be burdened by even more legislation. Second, a one-size-fits-all law does not take into account how small businesses already work. They are family-friendly by their very nature. Many are family-run, where the culture revolves around the needs of a family.

Research commissioned by the Federation of Small Businesses, and conducted by the University of Westminster at the end of 2008, showed that small firms are known and valued for their flexibility, with a particularly high proportion of part-time employees.

This indicates small firms take a more flexible approach to different working arrangements than, perhaps, other businesses might do. For obvious reasons, the relationship between an employer and employee in the smallest businesses can be less formal, and the statistics show that employees report a higher satisfaction level and lower incidences of work-related sickness.

In the end, a small business is a good place to work if you want to develop a good relationship with your boss, and be able to talk to him, or her, about re-arranging your hours. Traditionally, these sorts of arrangements have been easily made between employers and employees who have often worked closely together for years.

The figures also show that small firms are known for their flexibility in employing people who may find it harder to get work in bigger companies – including older people, those who have disabilities, and parents of small children who may all want to work part-time. According to the statistics, a third of the workforce of the smallest firms, with fewer than 10 employees, works part-time, while this is true of only 14% in the largest firms.

Legislation always puts an added burden on small businesses: new laws are often time-consuming and onerous to comply with. Small firms find it difficult to keep up to date with all the new hoops they have to jump through – and the time it takes is time taken away from the business. More than anything, employers find it unnecessary to be forced to fill out forms to formally show that they are doing something they have already been doing for years.

During a recession, businesses need to get on with doing what they do best and keep the economy moving.

Politicians must also move beyond the language barrier: while “flexible working” is the new buzz phrase, employers are confused by the term, which can include shift work, part-time working and working from home.

Small businesses are already family-friendly – flexible – employers, and don’t want to be landed with more form-filling and red tape in order to prove it.

What do you think?

Is the new family-friendly law which gives parents with children under 16 the right to request flexible working good or bad, particularly at a time of recession?


Richard Reid is the founder of Pinnacle Proactive, Specialising in the Employee Assistance ProgramStress ManagementStaff Retention & Absenteeism. Take a Proactive Approach to Growing Your Organisation & its People. For more info visit