Behind the workforce strategy that drove Uniting’s transformation

A comprehensive change process has been critical to the transformation of not-for-profit organisation Uniting

A comprehensive process comprising neuroscience-based behavioural change management, an agile working methodology and leadership development and coaching have been critical to the transformation of not-for-profit organisation Uniting.

A variety of forces led Uniting to implement a new workforce strategy and undertake the organisational transformation, according to its director of people and systems, Jill Reich, who explained that the demographic shift to an ageing population has created an increasing need for services and a decreasing ability of government to fund them.

“The government response has been to empower consumers, reduce barriers to competition and tie funding more closely to measurable outcomes,” she said.

“So the external pressures simply motivate us to intensify our focus on the people we serve.”

Uniting is the community services and advocacy arm of the Uniting Church in NSW and ACT, and employs more than 8200 staff and some 3000 volunteers to service more than 48,000 people in the areas of aged care and disability, community services, and chaplaincy.

More innovative responses such as community based-approaches, integrated service delivery and person-centred care, as well as disruptive technologies in health and medicine, are essential to the way Uniting will operate in the future, she explained.

“And this is why we have invested significantly in our workforce strategy, to ensure that our people are ready for that challenge,” said Reich, who spoke recently at Bendelta’s global leadership conference on redesigning organisations and leaders.

“Being part of this new organisation and working in a different structure meant leaving old allegiances behind and adjusting to new colleagues and new relationships”

The range of services Uniting offers has grown organically over many years, and in the process organisational size and complexity also increased.

Reich said that the organisation had more than 50 regional boards at one time, so consolidating within the organisation was “an absolute necessity, but also a leap of faith for everyone involved.

“We now have one single Board and one executive, who lead a very different looking organisation,” she said.

“Bringing the parts together provided the opportunity to reduce duplication, but also to think differently about how we could use our structure to reaffirm and reinforce what is important to us.”

To assist in this process, Uniting introduced what it calls ‘differentiator’ functions, which include a practice and quality directorate (to ensure consistently high standards and oversee a single governance framework); customer experience and marketing (to maintain ongoing commitment to being customer-focused, including the introduction of a Net Promoter Score measure); and an organisational mission (to help with connection to purpose).

Balancing service delivery, differentiators and enablers (core functions such as finance, IT, HR, legal, risk and property) at the executive level also provided a new perspective on the organisation, Reich said.

“This was complemented with an executive charter and a RACI (a tool for identifying roles and responsibilities during organisational change processes) so that everyone had a very clear understanding of where they had control and where they only needed to be informed or consulted on decisions, and ongoing support and coaching to the executive as they learnt to operate in this new way,” she added.

“We were also intentional about building trust across our senior leadership team by being honest and, at times, vulnerable with each other”

“Being part of this new organisation and working in a different structure meant leaving old allegiances behind and adjusting to new colleagues and new relationships,” Reich explained.

“We used quarterly leadership forums with our top 70 leaders to focus on navigating change using models (like Bridges model of transition and David Rock’s neuro leadership SCARF model).

“We were also intentional about building trust across our senior leadership team by being honest and, at times, vulnerable with each other.”

All Uniting’s senior leaders completed The Leadership Circle 360 process, which included at least two individual coaching sessions and two full-day workshops, which were focused on building the culture and creating a high-performing team.

“TLC was the framework and catalyst for some of the most valuable conversations we’ve had as a leadership team,” Reich said.

“As a faith-based organisation I think that we are naturally reflective, and we are fortunate to have a network of chaplains and pastoral practitioners whose skills we can all call on when needed.

“During this time we also added a compassion and mindfulness course for people at all levels which focused on techniques for managing self, including heightened levels of anxiety during change.

Reich explained that there are many decisions, big and small, to make during a major transformation.

“So right at the start we discussed and agreed some guiding principles that ‘kept us honest’ and on track,” she said.

“This also ensured that we were able to communicate consistently and openly throughout the process because we knew that we were staying true to our stated aims and purpose.

“It was important to us to protect our frontline staff from any direct changes to ensure that they were able to focus on continuing to care for our clients with a minimum of disruption”

“Conscious that change is unsettling for many people, we adopted an agile way of working, breaking up the change process into short sprints.

“This made the change more manageable and created certainty for people as we progressed through the transformation.

“We also acted quickly and decisively, which gave people confidence and a sense of momentum.”

Uniting also consolidated key back office functions such as HR, IT, payroll and finance first to enable these areas to support the change to one organisation, implementing consistent systems and processes in place of multiple recruitment systems, payroll and HR processes.

These were supported by new policies, said Reich, so that expectations were clear and consistent for everyone.

“It was important to us to protect our frontline staff from any direct changes to ensure that they were able to focus on continuing to care for our clients with a minimum of disruption,” she said.

“Now that the changes are embedded, we are focused on reinforcing our one Uniting culture, and are running values workshops for all of our staff and volunteers to help them feel connected to our mission and purpose.”

Reich explained that the organisation’s culture is influenced by the Uniting Church, and as such, it is highly consultative.

“We like to chat,” she said.

“And while we have to guard against this slowing us down, the strength of our relationships and instinct to collaborate are real virtues in a transformation process.”

The executive were all closely involved and helped to co-create the new structure, which meant that HR had buy-in from the top from the start.

“The strength of our relationships and instinct to collaborate are real virtues in a transformation process”

Uniting then moved quickly to provide certainty to people in critical roles, providing new contracts and position descriptions and getting key people to get on board with the change early.

“There will always be people who want to take a different path, and we supported those who wanted to leave to have a dignified and respectful departure with as much counselling and career coaching support as possible,” said Reich.

“As an organisation we have well-articulated values and purpose, but we wanted to ensure that we really understood our people as individuals, and what brings them not just satisfaction but joy in their work.

“So we chose this time to begin the journey of creating our employee value proposition, with extensive research and consultation to understand what is important to them and how we can support that.”

Reich’s team then created and ran Uniting’s first bespoke employee experience survey, which measured wellbeing as well as culture and more traditional measures of engagement.

“These have helped us better understand the drivers for employee experience and provide a benchmark for further improvements,” she said.

While Uniting is still in the process of bedding down some of the changes, Reich said many people have moved on quickly.

“Our leadership forums have a real sense of purpose and buzz about them, and people are starting to be more cross-collaborative and explore ideas for how we can leverage our expertise and scale to proactively impact on issues of social disadvantage at a community level rather than simply providing separate services,” she said.

“Inside the organisation, our streamlined processes have freed up significant amounts of management time with reduced administration and quicker turnaround times for key processes such as recruitment.”

More recently, Uniting has also developed a “future horizons” strategy, which focuses on the impact the organisation can create for communities and clients.

“This has also affirmed the importance of all the effort that went into our transformation,” she said.

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