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Emma Woollacott

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Case Study: How Norfolk Council maintains staff morale despite tough times

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During the last few years, Norfolk County Council has experienced a squeeze on resources common to many public sector organisations.

It’s been forced to make savings of £135 million over three years and is now halfway there, but hundreds of staff have been axed as a result.
 
The cuts have arrived in conjunction with a renewed focus on organisational culture and engagement, however. Therefore, says Anne Gibson, head of HR and organisational development, morale has remained high despite everything.
 
"Employee engagement is even more critical when you’re going through a period of change and transformation. We’ve tried to keep it as a focus," she points out.
 
But the council was already concentrating on how to boost employee engagement before restructuring activities were introduced and it carried out surveys to this effect in 2007 and 2009.
 
"It was done again in 2011 and, with some of it, we’ve got some continuous improvement. But some things are more negative than they were – for example, the sense of job security has gone down quite significantly. It reflects the wider economic thing," Gibson explains.
 
Knowing what’s expected
 
But although the Council was a fairly stable organisation in 2007 when it was going through a period of growth in service provision terms, a lot of change has taken place since then. Following last year’s downsizing activity, nearly 500 people have left and 300 have been redeployed into other posts.
 
Nevertheless, says Gibson, by most measures, employee engagement still remains high. Some 72% of workers say that they understand the organisation’s new role, while 78% are clear about the part they play within it. A further 73% also feel encouraged to find more efficient ways of doing things.
 
"Hand on heart, employee engagement is, in some areas, more fragile but, bearing in mind the amount of change and the pace at which we’ve gone through that change, I think it’s pretty good," Gibson says. "What our staff are telling us is that they don’t like the change and they don’t like the impact on services. But they understand the need and think that, in the circumstances, we’re doing all we can."
 
As a result, there hasn’t been any increase in employee complaints or grievances and the Council still has a good relationship with the trades unions, she adds.
 
But team leaders do spend time and effort in organising regular conversations with staff about how to manage change at both a ‘local’ level and across the organisation. Such activity has “re-energised that feeling of involvement”, Gibson believes.
 
But the most important thing has been to make certain that managers know exactly what is expected of them and ensure that they have the support they require to make change happen.
 
"You can send out all the corporate communications in the world, but it’s how the line managers convey things that really matters," Gibson concludes. "You have to do everything through line managers, so it’s important to take them with you as they bolt into what you’re doing. It’s not just telling them what to do, but explaining why – and keep looking at the feedback."
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