Annual Staff Conference Organising
“Although we knew what we wanted to achieve with this event, we weren’t entirely sure how something quite so unusual would go down with staff from so many different backgrounds. But what happened on the day itself surprised and pleased us all.” Jackie Carter, Central Services Director, Southern Housing Group
Like many not-for-profit organisations, Southern Housing Group has recently faced new challenges as the social housing sector becomes increasingly competitive. In responding to these challenges Southern Housing Group was looking for innovative ways to communicate a positive vision for the future to encourage staff to take up enthusiastic ownership of the Group’s plans.
Southern Housing Group is a not-for-profit housing association that has been helping people in housing need for 100 years. Working with 50 local authorities, the Group has a reputation for innovation in regeneration schemes, community development and construction work. The organisation’s development programme is now worth over £200 million and will produce 1,500 homes.
Fresh Tracks have been providing innovative solutions to motivate and develop teams and individuals from Europe’s most forward-thinking organisations since 1992.
Fresh Tracks had worked with Southern Housing Group on two previous occasions. The first was an away day for head office staff shortly after a move to a new building, while the second was a senior management conference to discuss implementation of new corporate objectives. In both cases Fresh Tracks were charged with rewarding, recognising and re-energising the team and breaking down any barriers that might inhibit the organisation realising its aims and objectives. It was also important that individuals and teams began to take ownership to implement the new business philosophy.
Southern Housing Group, with Fresh Tracks, began to plan for a staff conference “with a difference”: a full day’s programme bringing together their entire staff for the first time from regional offices all over southern England – approximately 400 people in total. The aim was to motivate and inspire the staff with an inclusive vision for the future – and to have some fun in the process.
By now Fresh Tracks had developed a good working relationship with Southern Housing Group and knew that it was an organisation open to new ideas. The programme was developed in liaison with Southern Housing Group’s Central Services Director, Jackie Carter, who was keen that the day should be seen as a valuable and inspiring use of each participant’s time: “We wanted everyone to leave feeling proud of the organisation, ambitious for its future and energised to develop their own skills within it”.
In planning the programme, we ensured that sessions would be informative, stimulating and highly participative. One of the main objectives was for all delegates to leave with a greater understanding of the diverse activities going on throughout the organisation, including new projects, awards and achievements. Sessions would therefore focus on getting participants to think about and respond to key themes and developments.
By dividing the delegates into mixed groups of about eight people from different regions, disciplines and levels of seniority, we aimed to make informal participation and discussion one of the key elements of the day. There would be fifty of these groups, or teams, and to ensure that on the day the programme would go smoothly, we decided to ask for fifty volunteers to act as table hosts to lead their teams through the various activities. Once word about this year’s annual conference started to get round, we had more volunteers than we needed. We ran two training days focusing on leadership and facilitation skills for these table hosts in sessions that were intended as personal development seminars, as well as a planning session for the annual conference.
On the day itself, a senior Fresh Tracks facilitator led the programme. We had built a certain amount of flexibility into the day’s schedule, but it was important to keep the programme moving to time and keep up the pace throughout the day. It was also important that the day was managed informally, underlying the nature of the day’s activities.
As the doors to the conference hall were thrown open and the delegates began to make their way to their tables, the room came to life with lights and music. After a welcome from Southern Housing Group’s Chief Executive, Tom Dacey, we went straight into the first session – a fun and lively ice breaker in which participants introduced themselves to their team-mates and designed badges for each other that reflected their interests and areas of expertise.
There was then a formal presentation by the Housing Corporation on the recent and very positive review of Southern Housing Group that highlighted many examples of excellence throughout the organisation. This was followed by a specially-commissioned piece of film made by Fresh Tracks in which staff and residents talked about their roles within the organisation and what contribution they and their teams made to Southern Housing Group’s successes.
The next session was a hugely popular activity in which teams were asked to develop a storyboard for a 2-minute promotional video about Southern Housing Group. This was to be based both on what they had seen and heard that morning, and their own experience within the organisation. Each team was given a Polaroid camera with which to create images for their storyboard and then had 45 minutes to get their ideas onto the board. Over lunch the completed storyboards were displayed, highlighting an impressive breadth of ideas, creativity and imagination.
After lunch an energetic percussion workshop prevented any post-prandial dip, and then it was on to the keynote presentation by motivational speaker Robin Seiger who provoked, inspired and entertained the audience with anecdotes and encouragement.
Then came one of the day’s real challenges: getting a room of 400 people to juggle simultaneously. After some coaching by their table host and several practice sessions, we were down to the play-offs. At the end of the session the winning team received a bottle of bubbly!
The final session asked participants to begin to pin down ideas for implementing some of the examples of best practice that they had heard about during the day. This was done in the form of a confidential “letter home” which was posted by Fresh Tracks to the recipients a month later to remind them of their inspiration and plans.
At the close of the conference Tom Dacey thanked everyone for coming and asked all participants to accept a reward voucher from Southern Housing Group. This entitled staff to one of a range of activities, trips or visits and closed the conference on an enthusiastic and positive note.
At the end of the day, most participants were leaving with a smile on their face: “I really enjoyed it”. Our aim had been to get people talking to each other and give everyone an opportunity to find out a bit more about the successes and plans of the organisation for which they worked. Above all people had had fun and in doing so, were encouraged to think creatively about their contribution to the organisation, and ways in which they could enrich their own working environment. “Very informative, good team building and a fun day for all”
A major contribution to the day was the role of the table hosts who helped to ensure that the despite the logistics of the programme – with over 400 people moving around the venue – the activities were well managed and productive. Thanks to them, “everything appeared to fit together seamlessly”. As for the overall programme itself: “The pace was exactly right. No spare time for boredom!”
SHG Objectives Realised
At the outset, SHG had told us that their aims were to:
– share knowledge and expertise
– celebrate their successes
– meet other people in the Group
By the end of the day we had certainly achieved the first objective. The energy and originality expressed the video and in the storyboard exercise immediately following had clearly highlighted the range of talents that exist within the Group and the contributions individuals make to the whole organisation. Likewise, the Housing Corporation presentation at the start of the conference flagged up one of the Group’s major success of the year as well as outlining examples of best practice.
We had celebrated a number of individual, regional and Group-wide successes by highlighting “beacons of excellence”. Meanwhile, the exhibitions and displays by the various SHG regions showed enthusiastic support from all disciplines within SHG and gave everyone the chance to find out about other people within the Group.
At the close of the conference, we hoped that everyone would feel that the day had been a valuable and inspiring use of their time. Feedback indicated that the audience felt “overwhelmingly” that they had had a productive day. “a brilliant day and a fantastic way to meet staff from different work areas. By the end of the day it really felt that we had established sound working relationships which may be useful in the future.”