September 2011

Empowering employees through culture change

Work-life initiatives helped stem high staff turnover at the YWCA Auckland, an entrant in the EEO Trust Work & Life Awards 2011.

YWCA Auckland has a 125-year history of empowering women and advocating for gender equality. It runs a central Auckland hostel and its community projects include a leadership programme for young women.

YWCA Auckland's 20 employees tend to be driven by a sense of vocation and will accept lower salaries, longer hours and fewer resources than many working in the private or public sectors. But staff can suffer burnout, and this was part of the reason that YWCA Auckland suffered 80 per cent staff turnover from 2007 to 2009. Drastic action needed to be taken.

Says CEO Hilary Sumpter:  "Our work-life initiatives were developed in response to this situation. The people working in this sector are more often than not highly skilled, passionate people who work to strengthen communities. They're committed and creative, and we need to consciously provide sustainable working arrangements for them."

Management had to walk the talk, she says, recognising that staff needed to be supported so they were able to build client trust and rapport.

Hilary says the culture change was achieved through the gradual implementation of a philosophy based on the organisation's values, starting with a board-initiated remuneration policy that led to pay increases and regular role-sizing.

Now, staff can make use of a number of work-life initiatives including a nine-day fortnight for full-timers; working from home, with laptops and remote access available; flexible working hours; a time-in-lieu policy, with time taken in the following four weeks to prevent exhaustion; and a staff well-being budget.

In 2011, to recognise that New Zealanders missed out on the Anzac Day public holiday, the YWCA Auckland gave staff a day off on April 26.

Hilary says that making the new ethos work was challenging as it requires people to manage themselves. "Some found this a challenge and the eternal competition for funding was an ever-present backdrop."

Staff were encouraged to ask others for help and create a true team environment. A key plank, says Hilary, was helping staff understand that each person is valuable, and that work left unfinished impacts on everyone. Skilled fundraising staff are in place to free up those focused on programme delivery, recognising that these roles need different core competencies.

Marketing and Fundraising Manager Tilda Bostwick has already benefited - she changed her work week from five eight-hour days to four 10-hour days. "I've been working from home one day per week for some time now, and have an office laptop with remote access," she says. "I now spend the first two hours or the day at home, so that I can get quiet planning done before I hit the office.

"I requested these changes because we have a busy open-plan office and the changes help reflect and support my personality, rhythms and working style. I believe they've meant a happier and more productive employee."

 Marlene Sorby, who runs the YWCA's post-breast cancer exercise programme Encore, says: "There's now more recognition of workloads, more discussion and support from management, and solutions which have allowed me to work more efficiently. I like the flexibility of being able to work from home if a quiet space is needed.

"I enjoy a work environment where self-care is expected. If there is a family crisis or issue I know I can address this without compromising my job."  

The YWCA's board and leaders support the culture change by working on a "people first" philosophy and encouraging open discussion. Twice a year board and staff have a meet-and-greet, as well as all attending YWCA events.

Hilary says that as a result of the initiative, staff turnover is down to 20 per cent, absenteeism is low, "and those staff who have left have all left for reasons other than the working environment."  On the business front, engagement has increased markedly, showing itself in things such as improved programme participation rates and increased funding.