Case studies

Blood Cancer UK implemented a truly flexible culture in order to better retain talent

9 Dec 2021 By Jyoti Rambhai

The charity moved to a culture focused on outputs and objectives rather than where and how staff work

As people return to some form of post-pandemic normality, many organisations have moved towards a more hybrid working model, investing in technology and staff to create an environment that promotes flexibility. 

While the general trend among workers seems to swing in favour of more flexibility, many smaller businesses and third sector organisations lack the HR resource and funds to be able to adapt swiftly. However, Jessica Badley, head of HR and OD at charity Blood Cancer UK, says it is still possible to create an agile working environment without a big budget. “We know most of our staff prefer much more flexibility,” she explains. “So we’ve told them that we trust them to make their decisions on where and how they work based on our mission and our values.”

When she joined the charity back in November 2019, Badley says there was already a “vision to move towards a real flexible way of working”, but that the pandemic simply accelerated that. “We already had the building blocks in place – we knew that for us, agile working meant being focused on people meeting objectives and outputs, and not where they worked or what hours they did – which really helped us when we all had to work from home,” she says.

Prior to the pandemic, the charity had worked to a very traditional pattern, Badley explains. Everybody went into the office from 9am until 5pm all week, with some people “occasionally” working from home on Fridays. “So we had to shift the culture and people’s mindset,” she says. 

In order to address this, Badley held meetings with different teams and asked their thoughts about flexible working, as well as what they needed to make it work. Their responses, she says, included, “we can’t do it because we need to sit together to get the job done”, or, “I’d get really distracted and just watch TV”. 

For others, it was as simple as IT equipment, and some managers also raised concerns about managing performance “if they couldn’t see their team”. This led to the charity changing its performance management system entirely – moving from traditional annual appraisals to setting and reviewing objectives every one to four months – and developing internal training programmes.

These training programmes include one for line managers, which explores any unconscious beliefs they may have, explains Badley. “For example, when addressing concerns around not knowing if someone was actually working, we would say, ‘you don’t know what someone’s doing even when you do see them at a computer – they could be on Facebook all day’ – so that’s not a true assumption.”

In fact, the organisation ended up having the opposite problem – staff were working too many hours, “so we had to tell them not to”, says Badley. Instead, she and her team linked the charity’s flexible working policy with wellbeing and, to avoid reaching the “burnout stage”, encouraged people to adjust their hours accordingly if they did extra time the week before in order to meet a deadline.

Since introducing its flexible working policy, Blood Cancer UK has noticed a significant improvement in its retention rate; in November 2018, the 12-month rolling average rate was 70 per cent, whereas the most recent figure from September 2021 is 94 per cent. Additionally, a quarterly pulse survey also revealed a huge increase in employees recommending the charity as a place to work, jumping from 41 per cent in December 2018 to 93 per cent in September 2021.

Badley puts this positive feedback down to not just the charity’s approach to flexible working, but also its new wellbeing provisions, which were developed alongside its agile working policy and have seen sickness absence drop to an average of just 1.3 days per employee. “We wanted to be a world-class wellbeing organisation,” she said. “And that means people thriving at work, not just managing.”

Other strands of the charity’s work on wellbeing focus on employees’ mental, physical and financial health, including a specific initiative on menstruation and the menopause. “We know some people really struggle with their periods – for example, if it makes you really tired or unwell, we’re saying that’s okay, just start your day later or even do fewer hours that week,” explains Badley. 

The move has, she says, come as a welcome surprise to many staff. “But there’s no point struggling through if you don’t feel well – the cause doesn’t matter, it’s still impacting you,” she adds. “We would rather people were well because then they’ll work better. Bringing this in has been quite a culture change.”

But importantly, implementing these significant changes to the organisation’s culture is not just a one-time thing, Badley points out. The agile principles are a “practical framework” which is reviewed every six months, and all staff are included in those discussions. 

“It’s about continuous improvement,” she explains, adding that the organisation has also recently undertaken a benefits review, and is looking at ways to improve its internal communication in a bid to keep attracting and retaining talent. 

“As a charity, our pay rates are not as high as the private and public sector,” Badley says. “So if we want to diversify our workforce, be more inclusive and keep our retention levels high, this is our best chance to try and be competitive.”

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