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Getting on track with training

Training and staff development are often seen by organisations as a “nice to do” but investing in employees could actually be critical to a business’s future. By Michelle Gordon


STAFF training and development is all too often treated as a nonessential component of a business, something that it is nice to offer when times are good, which then can be dropped when the going gets tough.

But training is so much more than a tick box exercise and investing in staff can help organisations to offer value for money and to build strong foundations for the future, as David Wingham, director of corporate services at Coastline Housing, explained: “Good training is all about ensuring that staff are able to work more efficiently, and perhaps identify ways in which time and money can be saved in different parts of the company. The more people build on their skills and knowledge, the better job they will do for Coastline and our customers. It helps improve the overall service we offer.”

Every member of staff at the Cornwall-based housing association has an individual training plan, which forms part of their annual appraisal process, as well as completing basic core training on a regular basis, covering subjects such as equality and diversity, health and safety and customer service. During appraisals the employee and their manager discuss training needs or requirements and staff are able to make requests for particular courses or something they would like to do for continuing professional development such as a conference or networking event.

Training is available to everyone from apprentices to senior staff, covering subjects including working at height, housing law, customer service and computer software training.

“It’s vital to us that we enable our staff to develop and grow within their roles as this, in turn, means the company continues to develop and grow. If we expect our staff to deliver an excellent service to our customers, then it’s only fair that we deliver an excellent training plan to them so that they can do this to the best of their ability,” said Wingham.

“If staff are well trained, it means they do a good job and it means Coastline, as a whole, can deliver an excellent service. One of our core values is to ‘value each other’ and training is one of the ways we make sure our staff feel appreciated.

“We have an enviable customer satisfaction rate of 90% and one of the lowest rent arrears levels in the country, at a time when many others are bucking that trend. I believe that investing in staff development and training has been absolutely integral in achieving this sort of performance. It just wouldn’t happen with staff who didn’t have the right tools or attitude for the job.”

There are many benefits of offering staff training from helping to have a more commercial focus in an increasingly tough operating environment to bringing staff through the ranks to step into managerial positions said Paul Dutton, director at training and management consultancy Dutton Fisher Associates.

“You have got a significant shift in the sector in terms of increasing commercialisation, higher levels of risk overall and development risk owing to the new funding arrangements for development as well as organisational risk around revenue streams, so you have got this need for commercialisation and delivering value for money,” he said. “You have got the wedding, if you like, of commercial skills underpinned and enforced by social heart so for your leaders that requires significant rethinking about what the organisation is about and where it is going, so you need transformational leadership to take everyone with you.

“There are a lot of challenges because the sector is changing, it is commercially driven, budgets are being squeezed but at the same time there is a greater need for training and development than ever before.”

Succession planning is very important to housing organisations, he said, as they look to replace senior staff who are moving on and there are many benefits to be had from promoting from within rather than recruiting externally.

Offering existing staff opportunities to develop their skills is also good for morale and staff motivation, explained Dutton and can help organisations to retain good staff who may be tempted to look elsewhere if they feel they are not able to develop their skills. A well-established training programme with a clear path for succession can also be used to attract new staff to an organisation, particularly people who are keen to continue their education but may not wish to study full-time at university.

“It is very good for other staff to see that there are opportunities that you can develop people inhouse,” said Dutton. “If people get the view, well I am stuck at officer level, there is no opportunity to move upwards because they are getting people from outside you have a management issue of motivation and willingness moving forward. I am a firm believer that if you invest in your company you will keep the right people, if you don’t invest you will lose the right people, so training and development makes business sense.”

Isos Housing launched a 12-month training programme, in conjunction with Cestria Housing, after identifying a gap in skills which was preventing existing staff from moving into managerial roles. Stepping into Management is all about “getting people ready for that next level”, explained learning and development business partner Julie Brayson.

Staff were invited to apply for the programme and following an application process 12 were chosen to go through to the final scheme which was launched last September.

“We introduced them to the concept of having a live personal development plan, got them to set their own goals and aspirations, to think about where they wanted to be, where they were now, and to analyse some of the gaps that were stopping them from getting there,” explained Brayson.

Participants matched their skill sets against job descriptions for the roles that they aspired to do and created a 12-month development plan. They also participated in profiling and completed sessions covering topics such as management and basic leadership skills, coaching, recruitment best practice and handling disciplinaries, as well as having the opportunity to complete mock interviews and attend conferences.

“The sessions covered all of those things that it is really difficult to get experience of,” explained Brayson. “The idea of it was to give the skills and tools so that when that next level job came up they were able to demonstrate live examples in the interview to be ready to move into that next role.”

The programme also involved participating in a couple of existing projects within the business and bringing a “fresh pair of eyes”. One of the projects – Homes Under the Hammer – involved looking at whether Isos could be more commercial in terms of purchasing homes at auction and using the skills within its trades department to renovate the properties and sell them on at a profit which could then be reinvested in other areas of the organisation.

Three out of the 12 participants have since moved into management roles and as well as helping Isos to fill vacancies the programme has supported staff to fulfil their potential and helped to keep employees engaged. Whatever the focus all training should be closely linked to an organisation’s business objectives, said Dutton, and organisations should be asking what staff have learnt and how they have developed.

“You need to be clear on what the outcomes are that you want to achieve from your training and development so you don’t want training providers to put on a fantastic show and the participants come back and say the vol-au-vents were fantastic,” he said. “You need to demonstrate that training is linked up to organisational objectives, the mission and vision and values of that organisation.”

There are many different formats for delivering training from classroom-based sessions to hands-on workshops or e-learning. Dutton prefers to take a “blended” approach and said that workshops and face-to-face interaction is invaluable for sharing best practice and helping staff to develop but e-learning has its place in helping people to learn basic facts. So for example people can participate in e-learning to help them to understand a topic prior to a workshop. They will then be ready for workshop discussions around that topic, having already learnt the basics.

“Blended allows developing an understanding but also discussion to help with that application of knowledge and contextualising it in their own organisation and sharing good practice with how other people do it in other organisations,” he explained.

All too often organisations are put off by the perceived cost of employee training but upskilling your workforce needn’t be expensive.

“We haven’t spent an awful lot of money and I think we have proved that when it comes to development it isn’t necessarily about spend if you think about the return on investment in terms of what we got as a business in terms of engagement,” said Brayson. “Even for those people who we have recruited into team leaders’ roles, what it would have cost us if we had to go externally.”

Coastline Housing is “determined” to maintain its training and development budget despite the “tough times,” said Wingham as “training is still absolutely paramount”.

The organisation maximises access to grant funding for apprenticeships and makes use of free e-learning from the local authority where possible, as well as accessing training through its membership of the Advantage South West procurement group. There are also opportunities for organisations to utilise the new Trailblazer Apprenticeship Standards to develop staff for succession planning.

Under the Apprenticeship Levy any employers in England with a payroll of more than £3 million will have to pay a contribution of 0.5% of their annual pay bill, but rather than treating it as a tax, organisations need to be “smart” with their money and have an “obligation” to make sure they spend the cash on training, said Dutton. While the name suggests that the cash can only be used by new starters, straight out of school this is not the case, he said, and the money can be used to train existing staff for new posts.

“It is for all staff, as long as you can demonstrate that they are being developed for new posts and new apprenticeships it is part of the Apprenticeship Levy,” explained Dutton, who is working with a housing association which is using Trailblazer funding to develop a number of staff to become managers as part of its succession planning.

Not to mention, getting things wrong can prove costly and well-trained and confident staff are key to getting things right first time. “Having knowledge and confidence will help people to make the right decisions because the wrong decision, the wrong intervention is costly,” said Dutton.

“For example one organisation worked out that every call to their customer care centre works out at £7 to £9. Now if an officer gave a customer the wrong information they may have to call up two or three times rather than once. It makes sense, not only in the long term but in the short term, managers having the confidence to make decisions based upon increased knowledge, increased discussion and understanding gained through learning and reflection means they make the right intervention and with confidence.”

Training looks set to continue to have a significant role to play in building a strong workforce for the future as housing providers find their way in an increasingly commercial operating environment.

It will be “absolutely fundamental,” said Wingham, adding: “In the age of austerity and uncertain times we are currently navigating, more and more people will need the services of our industry. Tough times call for good people and even more innovative ways of working. We simply cannot allow the organisation or our people to stagnate. Training and development is the key that will allow the industry to continue to grow and flourish.”


This article first appeared in the October/November 2016 print edition of Housing magazine

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