Leadership: Staff motivation and retention

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

All children's services teams face the challenge of keeping staff turnover low against a landscape of tight budgets, so it is essential employers master the skills to retain, motivate and reward employees.

Staff are your most valuable asset. This is true for childcare provision but equally the case for all other children’s services teams.

Every manager wants a motivated team of staff who enjoy and take pride in their work. Keeping staff happy and making sure turnover is low is key to a quality service that makes a real difference to children and families. In addition, children and parents are much happier when a team is stable, and each member seems content and secure in their role.

In the early years sector it is an ongoing challenge to recruit and retain staff. While working with children is fun, motivating and interesting, it is also stressful, demanding and comes with many responsibilities. Many staff in early years are low paid, although this will improve with the introduction of the National Living Wage and stakeholder pension. The sector is also highly regulated and policy driven and that is not always a cocktail of success.

For example, restrictive and confusing government policies about entry qualifications to the sector, which may make it harder to recruit, have come at the same time as efforts to expand the service to more children. In addition we are regulated by Ofsted, which focuses on the quality of the service and the ability of staff to deliver against a wide set of criteria. Employers have to cope with competing challenges. How do we recruit staff to a low-paid yet highly demanding sector?

One way to motivate, retain and reward staff is to engage them. American psychologist Frederick Herzberg remains one of the most influential thinkers in the field of business management. His “dual-factor theory” distinguishes between basic expectations such as job security, salary, status, and working conditions, and “motivators” such as challenging work, recognition, the opportunity to do something meaningful, and involvement in decision making. Although the basics need to be met to eliminate job dissatisfaction and are soon taken for granted, it is the motivators that secure satisfaction and true employee engagement.

Employee engagement

At the London Early Years Foundation (LEYF), we consider three main areas when looking at employee engagement – attitude, behaviour and outcomes. An engaged member of staff with a brilliant attitude will feel loyal to the organisation and proud of their role. As a result, they will always go the extra mile in their work and support the nursery to achieve great outcomes for children and families. This includes providing stimulating activities for children and working with parents to ensure fantastic home learning experiences. Staff engagement ensures the whole team benefits from greater innovation and other advantages like reduced sickness rates. Add all of this together and you’re looking at an “outstanding” Ofsted rating.

There are four steps in achieving employee engagement. First you need to make your staff feel part of the story. Help them understand your vision, values and ambition. At LEYF this is all about being a social enterprise. Connect them to the organisation’s past and present, and give them a clear message about how they can be part of the future. For example, at LEYF we have a goal of extending our service to 5,000 children.

Good leadership is key. Create a learning environment by coaching staff, providing activities and opportunities that extend and enthuse them. Reduce unnecessary barriers. At LEYF we have developed an Aspiring Leaders Programme using all the techniques of engagement to develop exceptional leaders. Don’t just focus on acquiring knowledge and skills. Consider how people learn, their individual approaches and nurture their emotional intelligence.

It is vital to give staff members a voice. To be fully engaged staff must feel their views are considered equally and listened to. Staff should be part of a solution and not a problem. We have developed the LEYF Staff Forum, which is a varied group of nominated staff members who meet the chief executive every two months. These meetings are an opportunity to discuss the organisation’s plans and collect and share staff views about anything from the new brand campaign to staff benefits.

We also have regular sounding boards where staff are invited to a pizza evening to explore new pedagogical research with a view to improving the service they provide to children. We also have regular afternoon teas with our executive team where staff discuss ideas and improvements to their daily experiences in nurseries.

Every employee wants to work for an organisation with integrity. The values you have stuck on the wall should be reflected in the behaviour of everyone in the organisation so staff can see them in action. Be honest and transparent – employees will see “spin” straight away. There is no engagement without trust.


Top tips

  • Make your staff part of the story – they should feel connected to your organisation’s past, present and future
  • Engage and train your managers – they are the lynchpin of your work
  • Treat staff as individuals and allow them to perform to the best of their ability
  • Encourage staff to have a voice. Your setting, service or department should be a safe space for your team to share their thoughts and ideas. Make them feel their opinions matter
  • Practice what you preach. Everyone wants to work for an employer with integrity. The values you promote should be evident across every aspect of your organisation

June O’Sullivan is chief executive of the London Early Years Foundation and author of Successful Leadership in the Early Years

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