Waltham Forest Council looks after the needs of more than 275,000 residents in north-east London. Like all local councils, it has a broad and diverse mix of employees, from frontline workers in healthcare and education to office-based teams at various sites, including Waltham Forest Town Hall.
For some years, the council had relied on a traditional annual appraisal system supported by a legacy HR system. The system was, as HR Director Ben Plant describes it, “complex”. Over the years, the appraisal exercise had become as much about compliance as it had development. The forms that needed to be filled in were numerous and complicated. There was a strong focus on measurement. Success was about shepherding as many people through the process as possible, not searching for ways to help employees grow.
Ben puts the challenge in context:
“You have to remember that this was set against the backdrop of austerity. All local councils were keen to make savings. When we looked closely at where our development budget was going, we saw that far too much of it was being spent helping people to navigate the system. When you have a tool designed to develop performance, you want it to develop performance. But we weren’t able to spend our budget on training to help managers have useful conversations with employees or identify areas for development, because it was going on training to use the system, helping people who were stuck in the system, and so on. That was a really unsatisfactory state of affairs.”
All of this complexity was having an effect on the HR function as well: team members were forced to act as ‘compliance police’, coaxing and cajoling people into using and completing tasks on a system that no one wanted to use. This naturally affected the value of the data, as employees and managers desperately wanted to tick the compliance box and get back to their everyday work.
HR’s aim was to redirect their budget and resources away from all this, and towards helping managers be better managers. Ben and his team conducted many conversations with senior leadership, with employees and managers across the council, and kept encountering the same opinions. People knew that the appraisal exercise had become more about compliance than development, with the ultimate aim of awarding a rating at the end of the year. Very few believed that it enabled good conversations and supported development.
The HR team wanted to avoid a big bang approach to delivering an alternative. They made a point of not announcing a big organisational and cultural change, concerned that a dramatic announcement might overshadow the work they wanted to do.
The first stage involved small-scale testing. The HR team identified three systems they were interested in — two which focussed on continuous performance development and one which offered a more traditional approach based around an annual appraisal — and chose two teams to test the systems and get detailed feedback.
The teams they selected came from two completely diverse areas of the organisation: Children’s Social Care and Economic Development. One team were very much frontline workers, dealing directly with local residents and working in a number of locations in any given month. The other team was almost entirely office-based, and with a much more traditional working week and workload. Both teams were led by managers who were keen to work with HR to trial new systems, and were enthusiastic about the idea of a new model for performance development.
Ben’s team ensured that the process of testing was done in an extremely open and collaborative way. HR team members were regularly on location with the teams to answer questions, capture feedback and discuss the merits of each system. The small-team testing model allowed HR to engage very closely and get detailed information on how the systems were being used and what learnings they could take on board. Izzie Hurrell, a project manager supporting the HR team, was one of the most prominent faces of the testing phase.
“I did a lot of sharing wall work. I’d be in the departments with a whiteboard on wheels, capturing that feedback. I’d send around group emails and post messages saying that I’d be in a certain place between certain times, and I’d be available to answer questions. People really came up and engaged. They wanted to know what was going on, they wanted to share their opinions on the wider issue of change and what they thought development should look like.”
Once they had captured a critical mass of data, Ben and his team put together a recommendation for the council board. The fact that they had tested using real teams, with raw adoption and usage data but also anecdotal feedback, was a huge factor in the success of the project.
“I don’t think we would have got very far if we’ve gone straight to senior management and proposed that we simply adopt a new performance management tool,” says Ben. “The fact that we’d run the testing, that we’d been rigorous in looking at the system with live teams in such diverse areas of the organisation: that made a really compelling case for the change that we wanted. We’d been able to focus and engage with people throughout the process. We’d captured a lot of feedback, had a lot of discussions with people about what they wanted and what was working for them. It’s so hard to say ‘I want to deliver a big cultural change for more than 2,000 people’. It’s much easier to say ‘We’ve tried this out with some of our employees and here is what they think, these are the benefits, and we feel that this system, in particular, will give us what we need moving forward.’”
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Ben was interested in a continuous performance development model from the beginning because it related strongly to the work the council already does with residents.
“So much of social care, from a practice perspective, is about ongoing relationships and conversations with service users rather than one-off assessments. Just as we’re transforming those services, investing in more meaningful relationships with residents and service users, it’s great to be able to use that model to strengthen relationships between managers and employees.”
Clear Review was by far the best received of the models that Waltham Forest Council trialled. In satisfaction surveys, which were run regularly throughout the testing period, it consistently scored 90% and above. Feedback focussed on the simplicity and intuitiveness of the system.
Accessibility was also a big factor in Clear Review’s popularity. The previous system had required the user to be registered on the council’s intranet, which added another IT workstream to the process. None of that was required with Clear Review, so yet another barrier to adoption came down.
When the council rolled the system out, one of the most immediate impacts on the HR team was, unusually, financial. Previously, HR was earmarking resources to support people in the use of their legacy appraisal system, which was having an impact on other projects. That ended when Clear Review was rolled out.
“Don’t underestimate the value of that simplicity. When we started moving teams onto the Clear Review platform we were able to say ‘We don’t need to sit you in a classroom and teach you how to use this. We think it’s intuitive enough that, with the help of a short instruction video, you should be able to log in and start using it straightaway.’ What we could then offer people, with the budget we’ve freed up, was training that made a real difference to performance. We could train people on how to have better and more constructive conversations with their colleagues.”
The platform’s flexibility has been another revelation for the team.
“We have such a wide variety of job functions and working practices within a council. We have school staff and lecturers who work to an academic year; we have accountants who work to a financial year; we have project managers who aren’t interested in those timescales and operate around the lifecycle of their particular project. All of those groups, and plenty of others, have a particular and important investment in those calendars. It’s vital that they work around them and Clear Review is flexible enough to help them do just that.”
From an HR perspective, the administrator view is equally intuitive and has given the team the data they need, at a glance, on all those diverse groups and functions. Ben and his team also have a lot of praise for the Clear Review customer success team, who were an ongoing resource during their phased rollout. Waltham Forest Council rolled Clear Review out in a staggered way, over the course of around six months, which did mean that there were times when some employees were using the legacy system and some using Clear Review. The customer success team worked closely with the council to make that transition as simple as possible.
A few months on from launch, Waltham Forest Council has 84% adoption of the system across the entire workforce, from office workers all the way through to frontline services, and as they embed its use across the council the team are confident that take up will rise further. But, in the end, the human anecdotes are the most telling for the HR team.
“We had people asking us if the data from the test would be carried across to the live system when we rolled out. Not because they were concerned about what they’d said: it was because they enjoyed the work they’d done on it during the test. They were invested. They wanted that data to stay available,” says Izzie. “And managers loved that visibility: the ability to see all the way down the pipeline. For me, the big learning was that you don’t need to be an IT person to deliver an IT project: you just need to understand what different departments need to progress things. It’s about transparency and about cutting through the inter-departmental walls to get people talking.”.
“If someone is looking to deliver a project like this, I’d tell them to be positive. In any project of cultural change — and that’s what it is, however you describe it — people will have scepticism. Although the reaction to Clear Review was really positive, you do have moments when you need to stick to your guns. And the most important thing is to remember that a project like this is about people taking ownership of their own development. That is never going to happen overnight. But when it does, it’s worth the effort.”
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