Fircroft College has been through a large restructure that has transformed the way that they work. It was a difficult transition, as around 60% of staff left, but through this change employee voice, collaboration and involvement of all employees in having a say in decision-making has improved. They have introduced new sets of values, which they seek to embed into everything that they do, and new ways of working, including new meeting formats, which encourage greater participation and voice. They continue to experiment with new ways of working and see employee voice as central to what they do. This is perceived as a continual and ongoing process.

Challenges

  • imbalanced power culture among a minority of employees
  • developing work practices in the challenging environment of further education

Initiatives

  • changing the ethos of the organisation post-restructure
  • developing values and gaining buy-in from staff
  • changing internal communication processes
  • developing a mission statement and aims

Background

Fircroft College provides further education (FE) to some of the most disadvantaged and excluded members of society and is one of the few remaining residential colleges in the country.

Founded in 1909 by George Cadbury Jr, grandson of Cadbury’s co-founder John Cadbury, it is based in Selly Oak, Birmingham. Fircroft College is a small college employing approximately 50 people, including tutors, administrators, IT, cooks and cleaners. As a residential college it is more than just an education provider, functioning more like a hotel.

The college runs almost 200 short courses throughout the year, including the Access to Higher Education Diploma and higher-level professional development qualifications.

Fircroft College also builds and delivers bespoke training aimed at meeting the needs of employers and other local partners.

Challenges

Fircroft College has been through a major restructure, which sought to overcome many of the key challenges that existed. This was understandably a difficult process, with around 60% of people leaving, many of whom had been in the organisation for years. Employees describe the outcome of this process as positive; however, it should be noted that all the employees included in this case study were new employees or employees who remained at Fircroft following the restructure. 

(We recognise that our access to this group of interviewees presents one perspective of the organisational change process. Throughout this narrative, we present the views of those currently working at Fircroft College.)

Centralised decision-making

The organisational culture prior to the restructure was one of clear divisions between different roles, where most employees’ voices were marginalised. Employees highlight that the majority of decisions were made by only four senior leaders. This had two key consequences:

  • All decisions went to a small group of senior leaders, who spent all their time firefighting issues and needed to be constantly on-site to solve any issues that arose.
  • This approach also created a parent–child relationship, where every decision was made by this small group, causing many of the employees to feel dependent on them to make decisions: ‘Before we restructured… the culture was, we’ll leave it to them really, they’re the managers.’

Unequal voices

As mentioned above, prior to the restructure a small group of academics were considered by current employees to hold ‘enormous power’. The power these academics had, current employees claim, arose due to role and status they had as academics – a legacy from traditional ways of working established by the longstanding institution. This status brought with it privileges and benefits, including longer holidays and more investment in continuing professional development. However, in recent years senior leaders considered the modernisation of these roles that evolved to be more akin to FE college tutors.

A consequence of this legacy, according to the current employees, was that the division between academics and other employees resulted in silos where employees felt disengaged and excluded, and there was a lack of trust: ‘I would say that the feeling of people in the organisation was that their voice wasn’t heard, or represented, anywhere really.’

These social divisions went against the core founding principles of the college, based on the Quaker beliefs of ‘collectivism and community, living and working together’. According to the staff surveys, trust in management was also low and relationships across the college were bad, producing a toxic environment where 30% of the organisation had grievances within 12 months.

Tackling the challenges to improve employee voice

Restructure

To tackle these issues, the college went through a very challenging major restructure. Approximately 60% of the staff left, including virtually all the academics: ‘I don’t think they were happy. … People were averse to change and scared of it. And there was such a set culture that had been set for a long time.’

The organisational changes included:

  • Rewriting HR policies to equalise all job roles: ‘There wasn’t any denigration of terms. It was harmonisation. It was more bringing people up than bringing people down.’
  • Academics redefined as tutors: Job evaluations were conducted, benchmarking against other FE colleges, which meant that the academics’ jobs were changed to tutors.
  • A newly established employee voice forum: The old forum was seen as a place where personal gripes were put forward without much constructive action. A new forum was established, set up by HR, with new membership, remit and agenda.
  • Focus on organisational values: Core values were developed and agreed, which were then embedded throughout the organisation.

Equalising voice

One of the outcomes from the restructure was a shift in the way that employee voice operated throughout the college. With the redesigned tutor roles, previous power and influence held by academics no longer existed. As these powerful voices diminished, other voices started to emerge:

  • Culture shift: with a new openness to change: ‘With the restructure came a lot of new members of staff. And with [them] came a new culture. And those of us that still remained were able to still be influential within that. This cultural change released a massive surge of positivity – “a can do” sort of attitude.’
  • Professionalisation and value-creation: staff professionalised meetings, rebranded the employee voice forum and focused on the college values. They created new posts in areas like IT and professional services that didn’t exist before, changing the structure of the college.
  • Emphasis on collaboration and communication: the restructure broke down silos and enabled staff to work more collaboratively around joint projects: ‘I’m also exposed to more things. So, for instance, the workings of different awarding bodies, actually working closely with their data. And there’s lots of things that I get to work with within this new structure.’ Employees also described having a ‘collective spirit’ where collaboration and good communication led to ‘joined-up thinking’, where everyone responds collectively. Employees also meet daily to eat together, which aids informal communication and personal relationships.
  • Empowerment and responsibility: the culture shifted from senior leaders making all the decisions towards staff taking responsibility and being empowered to make decisions. Part of this shift was to encourage more responsibility but also consider employees’ suggestions more seriously. The senior leaders are no longer micro-managing and individual staff can take on more responsibility: We want to treat people like adults, we don’t have a command-andcontrol culture. We want a flatter hierarchy, want people to have ownership over their own roles. So a lot of that is about employee voice and about it being heard and about the changes that go on in college being led by employees – not just communicated to, but kind of led from the bottom-up. Some of it might be operational decisions, but it would impact on the wider strategic goals in that way.
  • Senior leaders taking a strategic focus: as a result of employees taking on more responsibility and decision-making, senior leaders spent less time firefighting and more time focusing on strategic issues.
  • Capitalising on the organisational context: the restructure has enabled staff to work collaboratively together and reduce siloed working. It also created a culture where employees are encouraged to share ideas: ‘it’s much easier to collaborate and the college uses the word collaboration a lot. It’s one of the values so people are working together here.’

Embedding the cultural change

Value-creation driven by the leadership

Fircroft College has sought to embed their organisational values throughout the work they do at the college. Prior to the restructure and appointment of their new principal, Fircroft spent a long time working on their values, running engagement activities such as away days. However, it was felt that the values were not fully embedded within the organisation. This was one of the key goals of the new principal. Having the values enables Fircroft to describe behaviours and expectations so that everyone has a common way of thinking about the organisation.

The college has made the values highly visible by displaying them throughout the organisation, for example on posters and printed on staff cards worn by all employees. The values are also a central focus in meetings, policy documents and interviews. Initially the focus on values felt unnatural at times, but once familiar they found them more easy to embed in their day-to-day working lives: ‘There was a period when every meeting, we took one of the values and at the end of the meeting, somebody reflected on if they had seen that value in the meeting.’

Employee voice as an ongoing accomplishment

At Fircroft College, employee voice was more than an add-on, but rather there was a sense they were seeking to embed voice into the fabric of the organisation. It was notable that staff did not only talk about employee voice in terms of channels for voice, but also about the practices and values that shaped employee voice. Some of the channels, such as the employee voice forum, had been restructured, with a focus on the people practices that underpinned them. One of the most evident examples was the way in which meetings were structured. Fircroft had been experimenting with techniques such as ‘checking in’ and ‘rounds’ drawn from sociocracy. 2

However, introducing these practices was challenging. Employees reported that the decision-making process feels slower and the new ways of working require learning how to best manage this process. The college acknowledges that until this becomes the norm, processes will feel difficult, awkward, or uncomfortable at times.

Fircroft is also experimenting and finding new ways to encourage voice throughout the college beyond employees – for example, rewriting their student engagement plan to develop student voice by encouraging students from different backgrounds to be represented within the college and developing their relationship with the student union.

For Fircroft College, employee voice is a long-term, ongoing process that requires hard work and flexibility. They describe it as a process of continually redefining what collaboration, voice and engagement really mean to the organisation. They have high aspirations for voice and recognise that the journey may be difficult, but worthwhile:

So I would hope [in five years’ time] that we would be able to be setting an example of a workplace that people will set as their standard, really, and won’t accept anything other than that.

1 We recognise that our access to this group of interviewees presents one perspective of the organisational change process. Throughout this narrative, we present the views of those currently working at Fircroft College.

2 Sociocracy ‘is an inclusive method of organisational governance based on the equivalence of all members of the organisation… [that is]… the equal valuing of each individual, in distinction to valuing for example, the majority or the management more highly’ (Buck, J. and Villines, S. (2007) We the people: consenting to a deeper democracy. Sociocracy.info Press, pp242–49). One of the core principles of sociocracy is that ‘every voice matters’ (Rau, T.J. and Koch-Gonzalez, J. (2018) Many voices one song: shared power with sociocracy. Amherst, MD: Sociocracy For All), so the aim is to create practices that enable everyone to be able to speak and be heard.

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