Published date: 08 December 2021

Team Charters: driving cultural change to enable smarter working

Smarter working goes beyond adapting physical spaces and providing the right technology, but how do we create a working culture where colleagues feel empowered to choose where they work best? Mark Pemberton, from our Smarter Working team, explores our Team Charter programme.

The past two years have seen significant change in all our lives, and our working lives have been no exception. Covid-19 meant many of us transitioned to remote working where we could, relying on virtual ways of staying connected. Organisations around the world are learning that embracing flexible working can improve efficiency, and more importantly, employee wellbeing. This includes the NHS, which, as one of the largest employers in the world, presents an exciting prospect for us helping to shape ‘the new normal’.  

As part of the NHS, NHS Property Services (NHSPS) is creating a more flexible working environment for our colleagues, implementing a smarter working policy that will support them to work in whichever way, or location, that they wish to work in. Our expertise in estates and facilities management has put us in good stead for this transition, and our specialised National Office Programme team brings rich experience of optimising and designing the NHS office estate to encourage more agile ways of working.

Leading cultural change to enable smarter working

Smarter working goes beyond adapting physical spaces and providing the right technology, and we know it also means significant changes to our working culture are needed. We want to create a culture where colleagues feel trusted and empowered to choose where they work, and feel safe in the knowledge that they will be measured by their outputs, not time spent in the office. Although this can be more challenging to apply to our frontline (i.e., not office based) colleagues, we want to find ways to enable every colleague to work in a more agile way and feel trusted to deliver.

I have helped to lead this change, working with internal teams and external consultants to ensure we’re supporting NHSPS colleagues at every step during this transition. Much of our initial smarter working policy felt quite theoretical at the time we published it in 2020, as all office-based colleagues were still strictly working from home and not able to embrace true hybrid working. So, our challenge throughout 2021, as restrictions slowly lift and colleagues return to the office, is ‘translating’ this policy into impactful, lasting cultural change.

Team Charters: a new way to shape ways of working

One core element of this cultural change was launching Team Charters earlier this year. This was a new way for teams to discuss and agree on their new ways of working, creating their ‘team charter’ through a series of workshops. The workshops create an opportunity to have practical discussions on the new working environments available, how everyone feels about using them, and what this means for each team. However, this goes beyond a prescriptive agreement on whether teams come into the office, or how often, and we are encouraging a wider discussion on how the team works together. For example, how do we propose to remain socially connected? How do we onboard new colleagues? How do we best communicate with one another?

When developing this concept, we made sure it aligned with existing NHSPS values and commitment to positive and supportive leadership. Team charters are not to be dictated by managers, and we are instead moving to a ‘management by consent’ model where colleagues feel involved and empowered in shaping their working lives. We know that our colleagues have a wide range of backgrounds, including home life commitments and health concerns that might mean they won’t be using our office space, and that’s perfectly OK. With our team charters we hope to trigger these conversations so colleagues can learn about and be mindful of differing circumstances, creating a more open and understanding culture.

For new starters this could also be an invaluable resource, making up for the lack of informal and accidental learning opportunities that would have happened naturally in the office. Team charters help us to become more intentional with our onboarding and training process, articulating each team’s “set of commandments” to follow.  

Developing our Team Charters

We began to pilot team charters over summer with our Executive Directors and each directorate’s Senior Leadership Teams, to garner the senior understanding and buy in needed to effectively cascade this through the organisation. It took some challenging to get the teams past a prescriptive view of “I’m coming into the office X days a week”, but it was a helpful way to explain the wider cultural impact of smarter working. We then ran 8 workshops for a wider pool of managers, creating a pack and giving them the tools to run their own sessions.  

We have been deliberately non-prescriptive on how this initiative cascades through the organisation, and we aren’t dictating which teams or regions need to create one. Each office ‘hub’ doesn’t need its own charter, as hiring more nationally means we have teams working together from across the country. The charters also don’t need to look the same – indeed, that’s the whole point – they’re meant to offer flexibility in how teams interpret and adapt to our smarter working policy, rather than impose a ‘one size fits all’ approach.

However, we of course have a team on hand to support as we go. Covid-19 restrictions lessening and offices starting to re-open in recent months has caused a spike in interest and requests coming through. Teams are – for the first time – facing what true hybrid working might look like, and with colleagues now more dispersed across home, office, and site visits, structures on how we work and communicate are becoming more needed.

Evolving our Team Charters

Cross team learning and development is an important part to the programme, and we are encouraging teams to upload their charters centrally to do this. We’re open to the fact it may raise some challenges as teams spot differences, but we hope this prompts further conversation and evolution of the charters. We don’t want charters to gather dust once complete and will ask teams to review their charters quarterly so they can adapt as flexible working becomes more of a reality. In these reviews, teams will consider whether their original principles are still working, whether they still feel like a connected unit, and what else they could do to improve. We have also developed an ‘It’s OK to’ list to help further embed the charters, summarising the agreements into a more bitesize and digestible format.

These initial changes have already proven to make a positive cultural shift within our organisation, and we’ve been thrilled to see so many teams creating and sharing their charters so far. We are still learning but hope that sharing our journey will help support other NHS and public sector organisations in their own approach. Offices make up a significant proportion of the NHS estate, with the NHSPS portfolio alone covering approximately 400 office holdings and serving multiple NHS bodies, and we are already applying our new experiences and techniques to customer projects to help grow and enable smarter working across the NHS.

Learn more about smarter working for the NHS

Offices make up a significant proportion of the NHS estate, with the NHSPS portfolio alone covering approximately 300 office holdings and serving multiple NHS bodies.

We therefore have a huge opportunity to create better working environments for NHS staff, and to boost productivity and wellbeing via enabling smarter working and collaboration. There is also a significant potential to drive efficiencies and system savings, and create a more sustainable estate for the NHS through proactive management of the office estate.

Learn more