Zoe Amar: Charities of all sizes can learn from CRUK's flexible working

In many organisations, implementing new policies is done in a very top-down way, but CRUK is designing changes with staff

Zoe Amar
Zoe Amar

There’s a good chance that your organisation will have made some kind of change to its way of working over the last year, whether it’s a new intranet, a new office or changing work patterns. If my experience is anything to go by, these changes don’t always take off. Why is that?

When we introduce a new online tool or change the way we want staff to do things, I wonder if we view it as a purely operational process. But if we want to make it stick we need to look at the underlying behaviours, and how we can influence them.

So I was intrigued when I came across this tweet from Rachel Xavier, service designer at Cancer Research UK, about its Future of Work programme. CRUK is moving to new offices in Stratford, east London, in September and it is taking this opportunity to look at how it can work in ways that are more flexible, collaborative and adaptive. I wanted to find out how it was going about it and what other charities could learn from it. You can read more about CRUK's programme here.

Xavier explains to me that the focus of its programme isn’t just about flexible working. Its goal is to make sure that CRUK’s culture resembles what a 21st century organisation looks like. This will help CRUK to attract and retain talent and meet the changing needs of the workforce.

CRUK is looking at the hardware and software that is needed to do this, but also at how its new office space can help people work effectively and what policies and guidelines are needed to help staff make the change. Xavier points out that policies such as flexible working are often refreshed based on new legislation, but CRUK is factoring in the evolving needs of its staff and involving them in this process.

In many organisations, implementing new tools or policies is done in a very top-down, linear way, but CRUK is designing these changes with staff, involving them in testing new ways of working and sharing the findings. Staff are encouraged to run their own tests – for example, about flexible working – as long as they share what they’ve done, why they’ve done it and what they have learned. This data is then fed back into the programme. Xavier tells me: "Test and learn is the bedrock of how we work. We’re scaling that up and putting that at the heart of our culture."

Asking staff to change their behaviour requires sensitive handling. Xavier says: "Where we have experienced challenges is where there is a function in which the staff might not be used to a certain way of working."

She advises charities to be mindful of team subcultures and to meet those teams where they are, testing resources to see if the message lands in the right way and adapting the approach as necessary.

What can smaller charities with tight budgets learn from CRUK’s programme? Xavier recommends working with colleagues to define what the problem is. What would help your staff be more productive and motivated? Xavier suggests looking at the smallest thing you can test to solve that challenge, think about what you need to measure to see if the test is a success, then look to scale your approach up.

CRUK hopes that the Future of Work programme will help staff learn continuously and have a better work-life balance. Xavier thinks it will help build a more diverse workforce. "If we really embrace flexible working, I can imagine we would have more working parents, or would tap into a wider audience of people who are disabled, or people who have worked previously in jobs where they’ve had long-term sickness such as cancer," she says.

If your charity really wants to change the way it works for the better, you need to collaborate with staff to define what the change looks like and encourage them to own it. The power ultimately lies with them. What can you do to influence it?

Zoe Amar is the founder of the digital and marketing consultancy Zoe Amar Digital @zoeamar 

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