Brought to you by
Share this content
The Wellcome Trust, Euston, London

Employee engagement at the world's third-largest charitable foundation, the Wellcome Trust

by
4th Jul 2016
Brought to you by
Share this content

Deirdre Carty is Head of HR at the Wellcome Trust. Deirdre is an HR and Organisation Development generalist with over twenty years’ experience of leading and developing the people agenda and HR function in an innovative, fast moving, global charitable foundation. The Wellcome Trust is a biomedical research charity based in London, set up in 1936, and the second largest private-funder in the world after the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: Why do you think you appeared on the Best Workplaces list? What makes you stand out?

Deirdre Carty, Head of HR, Wellcome Trust: Wellcome has always had something of a reputation for being a good employer, we do great things, we have good benefits and a great working environment, but we have not tested this against other employers up to now.

We have conducted surveys every two or three years in recent times, but this was our first time using the Best Workplaces survey. We were delighted to get into the top 30 on our first attempt.

I believe that the combination of the strong and powerful mission and the focus on the culture of our organisation at the root of the engagement framework has enabled us to be recognised this year.

One of the notable things about us, that hasn’t changed, is that our people are very proud to work for this organisation. With a strong broad mission – dedicated to improving health – everyone can really identify with what we do and take pride in our achievements.

However, we recognise that being proud of the things we do, will not be enough if the culture, environment and practices within the organisation do not drive engagement and we have been focussing on this aspect for the last few years based on feedback from previous surveys.

Historically the organisation was rather paternalistic and feedback suggested that this approach stifled flexibility, agility and empowerment. In 2014 with a newly appointed Director (CEO) we initiated a top-down and bottom-up initiative to articulate our values/what we stand for. 

The project was a great opportunity to hold a mirror up to the organisation and we received some rich data on which to build.

We try to stay away from jargon and policies as much as possible and engagement is discussed in very practical terms.

Based on this we have been focussing on evolving our culture further away from the paternalistic approach to a more balanced and adult relationship.

One example of this has been to move away from highly-defined policies (of which we had many) to a more values-based decision-making approach.

This was not entirely comfortable for some people, at least initially, but it is now being embraced and has had a profound impact on what it feels like to work here.

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: What is your approach to employee engagement? What is the underlying belief?

Deirdre Carty, Head of HR, Wellcome Trust: We are clear that the success of the organisation is entirely dependent on everyone here. We try to stay away from jargon and policies as much as possible and engagement is discussed in very practical terms.

As a first step we want people to understand and continue to be proud of what we do, and to have lots of opportunities to get involved in things and to contribute in whatever way they can.

In terms of understanding our impact outside, we have been putting greater emphasis on stories and examples.

With our broad remit, wide reach and diverse population this can be a challenge however. Firstly as we have a lot of individual specialist area working in silos and secondly as some people internally felt a little remote from our achievements.

To tackle the first of these we have been focussing on bringing together cross-organisation working parties, interest groups and virtual groups (through our intranet). In terms of understanding our impact outside, we have been putting greater emphasis on stories and examples, bringing more of the people and initiatives that we fund into the organisation and providing people with the opportunity to see what we do for themselves.

A particularly popular event was the opportunity to try out some 3D printers and hear about the possibilities and opportunities for health and clinical use. 

One example was our Research and Technology series of talks, with interactive talks and practical demonstrations of how technology is revolutionising research.

A particularly popular event was the opportunity to try out some 3D printers and hear about the possibilities and opportunities for health and clinical use. 

Our values (which we call ‘principles’) - “Savour the Mix, Defy Expectations, Enjoy the Challenge and Act Boldly” - aim to capture the spirit of Wellcome, our sense of ambition, for the organisation as a whole, but also for everyone who works here.

They have given people the licence (where they needed it) to seize opportunities to be open and to aim high, and this has been liberating in some areas.

We also recognise that fundamental aspects such as the working environment, and development and reward strategies are also key parts of the engagement framework. 

We are fortunate enough to have a great surroundings in which to work, but our focus on CSR, sustainability and environmental issues, such as steadily reducing our waste and usage, and our growing volunteering initiatives are also appreciated by those who work here.

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: What have you learnt about engagement that has helped you be more successful?

Deirdre Carty, Head of HR, Wellcome Trust: Try lots of different things.

There is no golden bullet because people communicate, learn, engage in different ways and with different things. This is a really diverse organisation.

We attract people from across the spectrum of previous employers from NFP, charitable and public sector to highly commercial organisations. We try to embrace and capitalise on this diversity, but that does mean that we need to be flexible and appeal to people in different ways, at different times, and through a variety of channels. 

We don’t always get everything right, but there is now more tolerance for managed risk and trying things out and less emphasis on trying too hard to get everything right from the word go.

There is no golden bullet because people communicate, learn, engage in different ways and with different things.

Accessibility and interaction with our executive team, was one of the issues highlighted in our values project. 

Our (relatively new) Director (CEO) strongly believes that every person here matters. He makes himself accessible to everyone, tries to ignore hierarchies and structures and through his informal approach really embodies the values. 

Openness is seen as a key part of ‘savouring the mix’ and we have been working at providing open access to as much information as possible, for example, Board papers, and Executive objectives are now shared openly.

The Director has a collaborative space near his working area where people from across the organisation are encouraged to hot desk and work with others.

Having completed the staff survey for this year, we are not continually referring to it, but rather the themes for improvement are now being embedded in our strategy.

One of the key challenges for us, which was highlighted in previous informal surveys, was the challenge of career development in this diverse and relatively flat organisation, so a couple of years ago building on our L&D strategy we launched an annual careers month, which grew into a careers season the following year, and is now an integrated ‘My career’ integrated programme with a varied and eclectic mix of development opportunities aimed to support people to take personal responsibility for their career and development at various points across the year.

Events such as CV, interviewing and LinkedIn workshops for example, sit alongside those where we leverage our internal resources with talks from people who have developed through volunteering and secondments, or the ‘how did I get where I am today’ session which is led by a mix of internal people and alumni. 

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: Most common mistakes that other organisations make when it comes to engagement?

Deirdre Carty, Head of HR, Wellcome Trust: Not listening enough, making assumptions, providing things that are not valued or just using the wrong language or approach. (We have probably been guilty of all those at different times in the past). If I had to single one of those out, not listening (or perhaps not hearing) enough, is probably key.

People can see through empty messages and rhetoric, and that can drive down motivation and engagement really quickly.   

That said it is also possible to try too hard. Having completed the staff survey for this year, we are not continually referring to it, but rather the themes for improvement are now being embedded in our strategy and operational plans this year.

We recognise that leaders and managers play a crucial part in people’s experience of any organisation and it was interesting for us to note that the majority of our 10  least highly scoring questions referred to ‘management’.

This is therefore a key focus for us this year, with a transformational leadership programme just commencing and a greater emphasis on manager feedback expected to help us improve people’s perceptions next time round.

The other key factor is that behaviours and actions must match the words. People can see through empty messages and rhetoric, and that can drive down motivation and engagement really quickly.   

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: How do you get employees on board for engagement initiatives?

Deirdre Carty, Head of HR, Wellcome Trust: Employee engagement is not seen as an HR function per se.  The people function here includes internal communications and our internal comms team, working across the whole organisation help to drive our employee engagement agenda and specific initiatives.

We are probably fortunate in that this is a really stimulating environment in which to work with lots of bright people most of whom will have opinions that they are happy to share! We have always had a high response to any survey and normally get a good turnout for events, so on some initiatives we don’t have to try too hard.

Our intranet is becoming increasingly successful as a means of engaging people.

With our external speakers, who come in to talk about the work that we support, the reputation of the speaker or the interest in the subject matter will bring people along.  Technology also helps. Our intranet is becoming increasingly successful as a means of engaging people.

Using the intranet to launch events which everyone has an opinion on has helped.  It is amazing how many people are prompted to comment on changes to the catering or sustainability initiatives, such as charging for take away packaging for example.

We also just stop communicating on things in other ways, so people come to expect that they will no longer get an all staff e-mail on issues and will go to our intranet to find out what is going on and to make open comments.  The opportunity to respond openly for all to see and get an immediate response has been very helpful is dispelling some misconceptions or ‘folk lore’.

We will also run, for example, competitions for various things, a recent example was providing free tickets for an external theatre event (sponsored by Wellcome) through a ballot on condition that the successful applicant wrote a review for our intranet.

As we are all largely based on one site there is nothing like physically getting people together to find out what is going on and to engage directly with our people.

That said despite the increased benefits of our intranet, as we are all largely based on one site there is nothing like physically getting people together to find out what is going on and to engage directly with our people. On a monthly basis we provide  feedback briefings on our Governors meetings where people can ask questions both on what was agreed and why.

We also hold 'all staff' meetings. Whilst  these are not  new, the format and approach has changed substantially in  the last 18 months. The meeting is not hosted by the Executive team but is open to all people and we actively encourage less senior people to run short sessions.

The emphasis on ‘short’ (normally a maximum of 5 minutes for each item) has really helped with the flow and we increasingly get people to try things out, vote, discuss and generally get involved in the item. The attendance of these meetings has more than doubled as a result and they are often standing room only.

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: What's next for employee engagement at the Wellcome Trust?

Deirdre Carty, Head of HR, Wellcome Trust: One area of focus this year is our working environment, which although very comfortable, doesn’t really encourage collaboration and isn’t well aligned with our principles (values), so the HR team are about to pilot a new trial workspace with some hot desks, collaborative spaces, different ways to meet and talk and an open area where people can come and work with us.

We are hopeful that that will have an impact, continuing our themes of increasing involvement, collaboration and openness. We are happy to be guinea pigs and to help provide a blue print for changes elsewhere.

Where we have achieved greater empowerment and flexibility, we need to ensure that there is sufficient clarity of expectations and purpose now.

The survey highlighted many things that our people value about the organisation which was great to see, but it also highlighted areas for improvement, where we would like to see more positive responses in the future, so we are clear on our objectives for this year, a number of which focus around leadership behaviours and where we have achieved greater empowerment and flexibility, we need to ensure that there is sufficient clarity of expectations and purpose now.

The interesting part of addressing cultural themes and engagement issues is that it is all dynamic, adjust one area and another may be impacted, so your work is never done, but at least you can see tangible results.

The Wellcome Trust ranked 27th on the Great Place to Work 2016 UK Best Workplaces list for large organisations. If you're interested in improving employee engagement in your organisation, take a look at this report on making sure flexible working is really working to improve engagement and productivity, produced and compiled based on Great Place to Work data and the Great Place to Work Hub - Employee engagement - Getting from good to great

Replies (0)

Please login or register to join the discussion.

There are currently no replies, be the first to post a reply.