The power to empower

by 19 Aug 2009

Thinking outside the square, open communication and living company values is not just rhetoric for not-for-profit organisation Workpower. Sarah Sharples speaks to CEO Shane O'Connor and executive manager, people, performance and strategy, Lee Broomhall, about becoming a preferred employer

Workpower developed a three- year strategic plan to become a preferred employer, so being awarded 2009 WA Best Employer by WA Business News and the 2009 Insync Surveys Innova tion Award just a year into their strategy was a pleasant surprise.

The awards, based on survey results from employees which compared Western Aus tralian organisations, recognised Workpower for its ability to take calculated risks, think outside the square, look for growth oppor tunities and diversification and to create a fun and dynamic culture for its staff.

Scooping the award was a positive result for Workpower, which has faced the chal lenge of ensuring communication is kept open in the face of growing staffing levels. The number of employees at the company has almost doubled in the last few years to 100.

CEO Shane O’Connor says Workpower has always aimed to be transparent in any communication with staff.

“With our staff we tell them on a reg ular basis … how we are going as an organisation, what our plans are, what our performance is and if we do that openly and honestly it gives our staff trust in the executive and CEO and the board and they realise that we are working just as hard as they are to make sure that we achieve the outcomes that we want to do with people with disabilities and mental illness,” he says.

“[Staff] appreciate it and they also then respond to that by pitching in and helping out when we need the support in another area or [for staff members to] take on new job opportunities when we have growth. So staff respond to that trust and engagement that we have with them.”

Lee Broomhall, executive manager, people, performance and strategy, says that is one of Workpower’s key HR strategies – a cycle of regular communication to employees, includ ing newsletters and a “stop press news flash” which contains significant news and signals to employees that they should stop what they’re doing and read their screen for “great news”.

Beating the slumped economy

For the 2008/09 financial year, growth in the business and program areas meant that Workpower exceeded its annual turnover of $10 million for the first time ever – a result representing significant growth in the last three to four years.

Despite times being tough, Workpower has managed to drive business growth inter nally by growing existing customers and externally by developing new business oppor tunities. The company has been identifying business it could acquire, take over or set up. It recently took over a fire services business in Mandurah and is trying to improve its sale and market presence. It also set up a food and catering division called Mint Food and Catering, which employs about 10 people with mental illness and disability.

Evidence of Workpower’s innovation can also be seen in its plans to hold an event next year which would be the first of its kind in WA for a disability enterprise, says O’Connor.

“[We want to] get all of the people with a disability and mental illness from all of our programs, plus their families or support workers and other important people in our organ isation, and get them together for a function for a few hours where we celebrate the achievements of people with dis ability and people with mental illness. That’s a significant cost and logistical exercise for us, but those are the sorts of things that we feel we want to do to be a good organisation that values the contribution of all of our people,” he says.

Also for the coming financial year, Workpower is aiming for an increase in profit of 20 per cent. But O’Connor says the positive financial forecast is not being made without strategic planning. The company is ensuring that reliance on significant growth can be quantified by executive management and that staff con tinue to be supported and are not made redundant as a result of the financial crisis.

“We’re working very hard at using things like natural attri tion or growth in different [areas] or other programs to trans fer people. We have a recruitment freeze to make sure that if a position is vacant that we assess that before we fill that position and see whether we need to have staff transfer into that position from another area of the organisation,” he says.

“We have also frozen our executive pay salaries since March and, again, it’s in the small things that we’re trying to set an example to the rest of the organisation – that exec utive salaries are frozen, that we will not recruit new people if we feel that someone else can fill the position and we are just trying basically to make sure that no one loses their job.”

Broomhall adds that she has learnt from past experience that the importance of having the right people in the right job should not be underestimated. She says Workpower has a strategy to develop and nurture its own people and pro vide opportunities for advancement.

“Last year out of our 100 staff we had a total of 15 people that were promoted to internal higher level posi tions, which we thought was a great outcome,” she says.

Rewards and values

In terms of HR strategies, Broomhall says, Workpower is a results-focused organisation and achieves that by communicating the strategic plan and educating staff on the direction of the organisation to ensure it becomes embedded.

“What we find that [communication] does is [ensure] staff members are connected to the business and they are kept up to date with issues – issues that might impact on results and solutions – so they feel committed to seeing the business succeed,” she says.

The company also has a performance dashboard, with a set of indica tors that is linked to rewards, she says.

“We try and make those rewards meaningful so, for example … [offer ing] a day off to celebrate their birthday with their family or to celebrate their child’s birthday or whatever it might be,” she says.

Workpower also employs staff members based on a core set of values that have been in place since 2003. These values include positive outcomes for people with disability and mental illness, commitment to business suc cess, collaborative working relationships, quality work performance, pro fessional conduct and integrity, leadership at all levels and a safe and healthy workplace.

O’Connor says a key strategy is to actually live the values of the organ isation every day. Broomhall adds that the values encompass clear philoso phies, ethics and values which can be translated into workplace behaviour.

“[The values] spell out pretty clear expectations and we act pretty deci sively when a standard isn’t upheld and we have let people go for ongo ing breaches of values. So the values, they are in every publication, they are referred to all the time,” she says.

“But right from the beginning of induction we talk to people openly about ‘How are you going to tell people about what you do in your job every day when you go to the neighbour’s BBQ? How will you be talking about work?’”

Meanwhile, feedback from the award’s survey from one of its staff members included reducing Workpower’s environmental footprint, which is a value the company introduced in June. A “green team’ within the organisation has been set up and a grant from Lotterywest will be used to conduct an environmental audit and make improvements.

Another improvement identified by staff who responded to the survey was a pay increase. Broomhall says Workpower will soon be negotiating an EBA with staff and hopes it will be a good opportunity to address employees’ concerns.

A wake-up call for O’Connor was a staff member’s comment that man agement should ensure lazy employees were properly performing their duties, he says.

“So their feedback to me is get rid of people who are not pulling their weight – obviously, I’m not about to charge out and do that – but it’s nice to think people have a standard and expectation about ‘We’re all work ing hard’ and even if we have a mixture of not-for-profit and commercial businesses, people want to see everyone contributing to the success of the organisation,” he says.

“That’s why I think we do well with our staff. Because we do try and make everyone understand that we have to – through all of different busi nesses and programs – make sure every one of them is successful for us to be successful as an organisation.”

Looking forward

Workpower has a number of goals in terms of looking to the future. First, the company wants to continue to creatively communicate the right mes sages to staff and receive their feedback on how the executive team can improve. Another strategy is to become a preferred serv ice provider and ensure the highest standard of service is delivered to people with disability or mental illness.

O’Connor says the greatest challenge facing Workpower, however, is consolidating the business and people prac tices over the next year and emerging out of the current economic times a stronger organisation – one that is bet ter positioned to take advantage of future growth.

“For us, it’s a matter of being really satisfied with our performance, not getting too carried away with it, keep ing awards like this in perspective as being great recogni tion but [saying] ‘Let’s keep the eye on the ball’ … and keep working hard on the things that staff are telling us that they like and improve on the areas where they would like us to improve.

“If we do that than I think we can continue to grow as an organisation and come out of the next few years as an organisation that is further positioned to be an even stronger and better employer and provider of services to people with disability,” he says.

“We don’t want to go out and yell at the top of the rooftops that we are now ‘There’, what we want to do is be humble about [the awards] and thank our staff for thinking that we are on the right path, but we do know that we have to continue …to listen and to improve things.”

What is Workpower?

Workpower Incorporated is a Western Australian not-for-profit organisation that aims to support and assist people with mental illness and people with disability. The company provides employment options through its businesses - Qualipac Plus, which provides outsourcing options for packaging, manufacturing, finishing or filing processes, and EMS, which offers an environmental rehabilitation service and commercial property care.

Workpower also runs Aspire Employment, which assists people with disability to obtain employment in the community - 34 per cent of its placements have held their job for two years or more and 57 people were placed in the 2006/07 financial year.

Providing access to leisure and skills development programs, mental health services - including training and consultancy, respite for carers and holiday and wellbeing programs for care recipients - is also an organisational function of Workpower.

Being rewarded

In July, Workpower was named 2009 WA Best Employer in the medium-sized employer category by WA Business News. It was also named winner of the overall 2009 Insync Surveys Innovation Award.

The awards sought feedback about companies via employee surveys, which were then compared to other WA organisations. There was a 72 per cent response rate from Workpower employees and a finding that 61 per cent of staff that responded would actively promote the organisation.

CEO of Workpower Shane O'Connor says the award was unexpected but that the company was pleasantly surprised. "The awards and the messages from employers were strong reminders for everyone about the importance of looking after your people, working hard and having a good dose of fun along the way," he says.

Lee Broomhall, executive manager of people, performance and strategy at Workpower, says the findings from the survey would be valuable in helping the organisation understand the unique wants and needs of its staff.

"It is great to receive feedback from your staff that is independently collected and analysed and then benchmarked against your peers. We will be using the reports to help improve our practices where there are gaps in performance," she says.