The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) is the national membership organisation for Scotland’s voluntary sector. It has 95 employees and over 2,000 member organisations from charities, social enterprises and voluntary groups across the country.

Embedding a coaching culture to empower staff

For Anna Fowlie, CEO of SCVO, promoting health and wellbeing in the workplace starts with building an organisational culture that empowers staff to fulfil their potential and supports them through understanding and responding to individual needs. When Anna joined the organisation in 2018, she was shocked at the behaviour and attitudes of some staff: ‘The culture was quite toxic. Just to get people to be respectful to each other required a significant change from the top–down.’

Anna initiated a huge culture change programme based on an intensive one-on-one coaching programme for managers:

‘We wanted to build a coaching culture focused on empowering staff
– moving away from a directive, top–down management approach to one where you trust people to do the right thing. It’s about people who are in management positions understanding our staff and working with our staff and taking as many decisions themselves as they can, but knowing the framework and knowing that they will be supported if they make a mistake. We have a strong focus on people being accountable for themselves, their own work and to their colleagues.’

Key policies were also reviewed and updated to ensure they supported the desired culture. This included changing the language of communications from the passive to the active voice. Anna explains: ‘We moved from “it was decided” to specifying who decided so that people feel accountable and everything is more straightforward.’ The SCVO has been supported by an external adviser, Maria Moreno, in this work.

Establishing trust and encouraging employee voice

The success of the culture change programme has supported the SCVO’s employee- centric approach to wellbeing through improving relationships and trust and encouraging employee voice. Communications were further ramped up during the COVID-19 pandemic when employees were forced to transition to working from home:

‘We had been conducting regular staff surveys prior to the pandemic, but we stepped this up with monthly temperature checks. We wanted to know how people were feeling, what was impacting them – anything – including work issues, family issues, financial worries…. We’ve got trust now, which we didn’t have before the culture change programme and things came to the surface that people had been struggling with, even prior to the pandemic, but kept really quiet about.’  Anna Fowlie, CEO 


Some employees struggled to work from home during the COVID-19 lockdowns. Their living situations, the available workspace in their home, confidentiality issues or the nature of their partner’s work made it really difficult for them to have a space to work. As Anna admits: ‘There was little we could do other than be really understanding and really flexible.’

The senior leadership team demonstrated their understanding of the challenges people were facing through strong messaging and role-modelling. As Anna explains:

‘One of our male senior directors has very young children and his wife is a teacher. She was having to teach remotely and he had to do the childcare. I encouraged him to put it in his diary that he was not available due to childcare so that people could see that even a man in a very senior position can take time to look after his children. It sent a very strong message that showed it was acceptable for everyone.’

Employee-centric, flexible approach to wellbeing

Regular and open communications have enabled the organisation to understand individuals’ circumstances and needs and tailor their wellbeing approach to best support them. For example:

  • Responding to the physical nature of working from home: Employees are regularly asked if they have the facilities and equipment they need, and a portable kit is provided that can be used at home or in the office. Staff can request a chair and desk to use at home if they don’t already have a suitable set-up. During lockdown, the facilities team delivered individuals’ office chairs to their homes. The organisation made clear that the health and wellbeing of employees was a priority and they would pay for any appropriate equipment people needed:

‘Some people have taken up standing desks to avoid or help back problems and we offered advice on what would work best. Some people didn’t have a table in their home to work on when lockdown started. We have really emphasised to all staff that if they haven’t got something, don’t feel you can’t ask or we can’t afford it because we just had to afford it.’

  • Mental health and mental wellbeing: The SCVO had a strong focus on promoting mental health prior to the pandemic, including through training for managers, staff and mental health first aiders. The monthly temperature checks helped to identify additional health risks, particularly related to remote working, such as loneliness or, conversely, the challenges of being unable to escape shared living arrangements. This has enabled the organisation to provide appropriate support. The SCVO also established a Teams channel for people to post articles or classes related to mental health and wellbeing issues and strategies, which many employees found helpful and engaged with.
  • Managing workloads and working hours: Many in the organisation faced very heavy workloads at the beginning of the pandemic, as they worked in partnership with the Scottish Government on the pandemic response and faced a surge in demand for member services (such as managing furlough processes, and digital support):

There are times when you have to do that but it really takes its toll, so we had to be quite clear with people around working hours. And of course people had to balance work with family responsibilities, especially when schools were shut. So, whereas normally we would discourage people from sending emails at 9pm at night, we recognised it might suit some people best to send emails then. But we were also aware that others who received emails at 9pm might think they had to respond then. So we had to be really, really clear that that isn’t the case. We had to take everyone’s circumstances into account.’ Anna Fowlie, CEO

As a consequence, the organisation established a blended working policy, developed in collaboration with staff. Employees can agree with their line managers when and where they work, within agreed parameters, giving staff and managers the flexibility to balance business needs with individuals’ needs. To support blended working, the SCVO has removed the need to work for the organisation for a certain period of months before you can make a flexible working request and removed the one flexible working request per year limit.

Genuine focus on flexible working: The SCVO’s efforts to support individuals’ needs and circumstances extend to their location of work. Anna comments: ‘We have people who work abroad when it suits them, for example, one of our colleagues, even before COVID, worked part of the time in Greece, part of the time in Scotland, for family reasons. Another colleague has family in Ghana, so he works from Ghana for a few months of the year.’

Financial wellbeing: During the pandemic, it became clear that a few employees had been struggling for some time with financial concerns. The SCVO has connected them with practical sources of support through its strong links with organisations in the voluntary sector and has also improved communications to all employees regarding support in this area. The organisation ensured that the few employees who were furloughed did not suffer financially through topping up their salaries in full. It has also shown staff how to claim work-from-home tax relief through HMRC to offset some of the costs of remote working.

Mutual gains  

The SCVO’s investment in building an empowering and supportive culture through coaching has had clear productivity benefits for the organisation. As Anna comments: ‘Engaging the services of an external coach was not cheap for us, but our evaluation of the monetary outcomes found it had resulted in more business coming in, shorter meetings and other benefits for the organisation, so that it almost paid for itself.’

In addition, the employee experience has been transformed. The organisation’s success in embedding wellbeing, flexibility and accountability within the culture is demonstrated by teams and individuals initiating dialogue on how they can better support each other and avoid slipping into unhealthy practices. This has included agreeing, trialling and documenting team ‘rules’ and etiquette, such as limiting the number and length of meetings, establishing protected time away from screens and making use of an open voice channel to enable remote workers to chat while working on routine admin tasks and emails:

‘Our absence rates have gone right down and turnover has been low. Our staff surveys and feedback confirm how far we’ve come. People say this is a great place to work and that it feels like the organisation really cares about them. We were proud to achieve a high score in a recent self-assessment against the Fair Work Principles and we’re going to continue to gather feedback and improve through working with Investors in People.’  Anna Fowlie, CEO

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