Workforce engagement: lessons from the third sector

Any organisation that increases output 20-fold with only a three-fold increase in staff must come from the private sector, right? Especially if it has also reduced staff turnover by half, reduced staff sick leave by one-third, and quadrupled income over four years?

Actually, no, it’s a charity. Julia’s House, the Dorset children’s hospice, is ranked first in the UK public and charity sectors in The Sunday Times Top 100 Places to Work and has won a number of awards, against private sector competition, for its Workforce Engagement programme. Martin Edwards, chief executive at Julia’s House, explains how this success was achieved.

Martin Edwards, chief executive, Julia’s House.

First, let’s go back a step. Most of you have worked for employers where communication is incomplete and rumour fills the void; where bosses are overbearing and don’t listen to constructive criticism; or where staff turnover is high because people can’t see how they can grow within the organisation.

Yet the leaders of such organisations, despite constantly fire-fighting, refereeing internal disputes and recruiting to fill the gaps left by talented leavers, say that they are too busy to bother with workforce engagement.

At Julia’s House, we make time for it. And here’s the best part: it costs very little money.

What do you need to succeed with workforce engagement? Well, you could do a lot worse than starting with genuine commitment and involvement from the CEO, and having a brilliant HR director who has superb emotional intelligence. But with those foundations in place, what do we actually do?


We never want any employee to reasonably say: “They never tell me what goes on round here.” So we write a regular staff bulletin, with up-to-date news from all departments. It also contains a nominations column, where anyone can send in a compliment about a colleague who has impressed them and we will reproduce it, without naming the sender, in the bulletin. It’s a great boost for whoever is named and praised.

But bulletins have limitations: they are one-way communication. So, we also hold anonymous staff surveys to ask how we can improve as an employer. Questions such as “what one thing can we do to improve your life at work?” will elicit plenty of vital feedback.

But what if you get just a one-word answer: “communication”? How can you know exactly what the respondent wants you to improve? This is why you need a dialogue. We also hold regular “Free-speaks”. These are focus groups in which staff can speak freely about how to improve the workplace or our service to our clients.

We then take all the survey and focus-group feedback to the management team, decide what we’re going to do as a result, and use the bulletin to report back on progress.


Great engagement isn’t just about the substance of what you do, it’s about appearances too. We signal that everyone matters with open-plan seating for all staff, including the CEO and managers.

We also turned the staff organisational chart around by 90-degrees so that, instead of a “know-your-place” top-down hierarchy, it reads left to right instead. Documents are written in plain English. Managers water all the plants. These are subtle ways of saying: we are all in this together.


Most employers assume that giving someone a job title including the word “manager” will mean they will emerge, like a butterfly from a chrysalis, as a fully formed, brilliant people manager. Some will, many won’t, and the inconsistency is horrifying. Instead, we train our managers in great people skills.

Some of this training is about ensuring that managers have time for people, and we teach that the greatest timewaster in any organisation isn’t emails or meetings, but choosing the wrong things to do and then doing them really well.

We also train people in emotional intelligence, the body of research that identified five core qualities of successful leaders: self-awareness; self-regulation (not letting your own moods affect how you treat other people); motivation (seeking measurable progress); empathy and social skills (being accessible, establishing rapport and building networks).

Managing performance

Workforce engagement isn’t just about being nice. You need to manage underperformers too, particularly the “sappers” – the people who undermine their teams and who nobody likes working with. The sooner these people are put on a performance-management programme, with tight targets for improvement, the sooner they will reach the crossroads where they improve or they leave. Usually sappers need to leave. Only then will you realise how much they were hindering the rest of their team.

But, while underperformers take up a lot of your time and attention, don’t neglect “stars” too. People who are already brilliant at their job often don’t receive much training, so they feel a lack of personal growth and often leave. They will respond best if you either give them more responsibility or if you ask them to develop a special interest that benefits the organisation: everyone likes to be thought of as an expert resource.


Staff wellbeing means a lot more than just offering free fruit and discounted gym memberships and hoping for the best. Your human resources are humans as well as resources, each with their own complex, unpredictable lives. We provide a free employee assistance programme: an independent, expert, confidential counselling and information helpline, for support with anything from debt or divorce to tax queries or tenancy disputes.

The results

Any of these techniques taken in isolation could be insignificant or tokenistic. But, put them together and you get a chain reaction that produces huge increases in performance.

Most employers struggle to prove the link between workforce engagement and the bottom line. Our aim is to make the link inevitable. Because, as we discovered, if you can give to your staff until you feel like you can’t give anymore, then carry on giving, they will repay you many times over. And the biggest beneficiaries will be your customers.

Martin Edwards is chief executive of Julia’s House, the Dorset children’s hospice, a charity caring for terminally and seriously ill children that depends on donations for 90% of its income.

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