Case study

Employee engagement and wellbeing: Cabinet Office's Social Investment and Finance Team

How the Cabinet Office's Social Investment and Finance Team sustained high staff engagement from 2012 to 2014.

Key ideas from this case study:

  • all team members have responsibility for engagement
  • build trust and innovate

The Cabinet Office’s Social Investment and Finance Team (SIFT) is responsible for helping to grow the UK’s market for social investment: the use of repayable finance to achieve a social as well as a financial return. SIFT is an entrepreneurial team, working on a growing area, and their work ranges from acting as a classic government “market steward” dealing with issues such as regulation, through to setting up Big Society Capital, an independent financial institution which helps to grow the social investment market.

SIFT’s employee engagement scores are very high, ranging from 70% to 75% between 2012 and 2014. They also have particularly high scores in the themes My Team (98% in 2014), Inclusion and Fair Treatment (97% positive in 2014) and My Work (93% in 2014). We interviewed the Deputy Director who heads the team to understand what approaches were driving these excellent scores.

Team members have responsibility for team management - including engagement

I take a highly delegated approach to managing the team. Band As (Grade 6/7s) each have responsibility for a particular area of team management, including employee engagement, learning and development, and team finance. This is included as one of their objectives and is taken seriously, being assessed at in end of year reviews.

In addition to helping develop Band As to become future Deputy Directors, delegating responsibility helps ideas to be generated from within the team. We very actively use the People Survey to identify areas to focus on. For example, in recent years our Learning and Development scores have required improvement, and someone has taken responsibility for leading this forward, speaking to people individually to establish their requirements, advising on practicalities, and working together towards a new approach which better meets the team’s specialist needs.

Innovative approaches to building trust and team spirit

We have taken a number of innovative approaches to building trust and openness. One example was our “team meeting on failure”. Everyone in the team was encouraged to bring an example of where something had not gone well to share with the rest of the team. Importantly, I started this off in style, bringing a substantial example of where I had made a bad call and this had had real consequences. This allowed team members to feel able to follow up very honestly with their own examples.

The team has fed back that they found it really helpful to see me openly share failure and learning, a topic with which people are often uncomfortable. The meeting reinforced that a risk of failure is a flipside to being entrepreneurial, and that failure isn’t bad in itself if you learn from it. The meeting also threw up a number of common themes around failure which were useful to learn from, and, while there was trust in the team to begin with, helped build an even more trusting environment where people took others into their confidence.

“Tight-loose” team leadership

The team is very mission-focused, where there is clarity or “tightness” over what they are working to achieve. However, they aim to be very “loose” in how team members achieve these goals, including being highly accommodating of where people work and their preferred communication approaches - whether people prefer a structured discussion, a quick chat or to work through a PowerPoint presentation. Their aim is for managers to support people, not direct them. While this approach works really well for this team, this level of autonomy in delivery asks a lot of people, and it is only possible when given space from senior leaders. Feedback from team members is that they really value the trust and freedom given to them, and that it helps to breed creativity.

A supportive, high-feedback environment

Our team has actively taken a number of small steps to create an environment where people feel supported and offer feedback. We try to start every meeting by asking people how they are - while the answer’s often ‘fine’, this sometimes opens up conversations which focus on real issues people are having. As people leave for the day, they check in with others who are still working and offer to help. This helps people feel like they’re part of a team effort, where people have a genuine interest in how others are. They enjoy spending time together, meeting up frequently outside work - including at the weekend!

A culture of ‘yes’

Innovative approaches to work are promoted - if team members suggest something new they are encouraged to take it forward. While ideas need to fit within work priorities, this culture means that team members are able to shape new ways of working. This in turn makes them feel that processes are shared and agreed upon rather than imposed.

Engagement and trust creates benefits to the wider business

The trust and engagement in our team really helps our credibility with stakeholders and creates a virtuous cycle of positive behaviours and productivity. People pull their weight, support each other and the default is to be positive and not project blame. Through being given greater autonomy, people are more passionate, deliver more, and become more engaged. The UK is now a world leader in social investment, starting from a similar position to other nations, and I think that the high engagement of our team has absolutely had a part to play in that - and that is why it is explicitly an objective for the team.

Learn more about social investment

Published 18 February 2016