Twister mats and care homes for the elderly might not seem the most obvious bedfellows. Neither, for that matter, might care homes and hook-a-duck competitions, or giant Scrabble boards. Yet these all feature as integral parts of care home operator Brighterkind’s emphasis on fun, and its mantra to ‘love every day’ is now central to L&D at its 70 homes. The theory is that if staff are well looked after and enjoy work, the ripple effect to residents will be profound.
But it wasn’t always like this. Brighterkind only came into existence in 2014, following a number of acquisitions, meaning there was significant variation between the homes’ cultures. While some were nicer places to be than others, the notion of having fun was always going to be a tricky sell in this sector, says Antony Smith, head of learning, culture and development. He points to the mark left over the years by aggressive regulators, hierarchical management structures and a historic blame and complaints culture – often fuelled by relatives’ guilt at moving their loved ones to a home. “Care homes and fun don’t necessarily go together in people’s minds. People have this idea that it’s someone sitting in the corner on their own,” says Smith.
“I don’t come from a care background – I’ve worked mainly in hospitality and leisure – but when I joined Brighterkind, our CEO, who I’d worked with before, said ‘this can work anywhere’.”
And so Smith set about a programme which, right from the off, sought to engage staff in creating Brighterkind’s culture and values. “I’ve worked for a business before where the values were simply cooked up by consultants,” says Smith. “Most people then just shrug and say ‘well, whatever’.”
Instead, Smith and his team went round every home to consult with staff. The values were then launched in February 2015. This was also when the business recruited its first ‘pacesetters’ – care workers, receptionists, housekeepers and other frontline staff who would become volunteer cultural ambassadors on top of their day jobs, delivering short, activity-based learning to colleagues.
This is where Twister, Scrabble and hook-a-duck come in. “The initial pacesetter intake was 100, then we went up to 200 in year two,” says Smith. “We said ‘this is your culture’, and the pacesetters have designed all the sessions themselves. They came back with so many ideas. We’ve done ‘positive language bingo’. Or we’ll go outside with a football and they create a random web. You say: ‘You’re on holiday, you’re off ill’ and they have to run to cover the space. It’s about how we should never say ‘it’s not my job’.
“Because of the layout of the homes, most don’t have a training room, so sometimes a resident’s opened the door and said ‘this looks fun’, and you say ‘come in; join in’. All our residents have great life experience, so you can say ‘what do you think of this?’”
Consulting employees at every stage has been key. It became clear early on, for example, that employees didn’t value e-learning at all, so plans for blended learning were scrapped, with significant investment made in providing 100 per cent face-to-face L&D. “Staff said with e-learning they often get distracted but, more importantly, if it’s about moving or handling an elderly individual or dementia care, it’s not really stuff you can get from a screen,” says Smith.
“So we went to our CEO and said ‘this is going to cost a lot of money but the benefits will be lower-risk, higher-compliance and better-quality care’.”
Part of this cost was the subsequent appointment of ‘home trainers’, individuals – many already pacesetters – keen to play even more of a role in training, and who earn an additional financial supplement.
Other cultural change activity has included annual pacesetter celebrations at locations such as Legoland, a new hot air balloon-shaped cultural model co-created with staff, and leadership training in the Cotswolds, involving outdoor activities such as ‘walkie talkies’, where staff discuss a topic while walking with a partner.
There was inevitably some initial pushback, Smith reports. “At my first conference I was approached by a home manager who said ‘you should be spending the money on the residents’. I was able to say: ‘Look, we have 5,000 residents, so my budget works out around £60 a head. If we spent £60 on a resident the impact will be a week, if we’re lucky… If they’re cared for by people who are happy, the benefits will be huge.’”
The results five years down the line certainly seem to show this. Smith points to initiatives such as Wishing Wells, which helps residents do something they’ve always wanted to, like revisit Bletchley Park for one resident who used to work there, or Burnley Football Club for another.
“When you walk into reception [the positive culture] just hits you,” adds Sam Tasker, culture and development adviser. Tasker started as a care worker, then became one of the first pacesetters, then moved into an HR role full time. He describes the life-changing nature of his experiences becoming a pacesetter: “I’d finished university and wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I was really shy when I started as a pacesetter, so it’s had such an impact – not just on my work life but home life too.”
Smith agrees the impact on attraction and retention has been strong, which is crucial in a sector that doesn’t suit, or entice, everyone: “We do get people coming for interviews saying they’ve heard what a good place to work it is.”
In terms of metrics, Brighterkind’s annual team survey shows a 12 per cent increase between 2016 and 2018 on the statement ‘in the last year, I have had opportunities to learn and develop’, its eNPS score rose from -3.6 to 19.8, and its NPS score has gone from 12.9 per cent to 50.1 per cent.
Such impressive results also saw the organisation crowned winner of HR/L&D team of the year at the CIPD People Management Awards 2019. “We won four other awards last year but this was the one I really wanted to get,” says Smith. “It was just so brilliant for all those who have engaged with the initiative.”