How South Essex Partnership University Foundation Trust uses flexible working to increase efficiency and productivity, saving £1.5m a year

At South Essex Partnership University Foundation Trust we have met the challenge of making efficiency savings while improving care delivery through our WorkSmart agile working project.

This innovation, delivered in collaboration with BT, has helped delivery of community-based care and is currently saving around £1.5m a year in property costs.

SEPT provides mental health and learning disability services in South Essex and Bedfordshire. Recently we have also acquired a range of community services in South Essex, Bedfordshire and Suffolk.

Like other community trusts, we have found that as service delivery has become increasingly community focused, the buildings we inherited were underutilised and became a drain on resources. Consequently, as part of our broader efficiency agenda we have adopted agile working to rationalise our estate and make more effective use of the remaining floor space.

‘Overall, the £2.9m we have invested from the start of the project has generated total property savings to date of over £3.1m’

A pilot project at our Thurrock site in 2009 clearly demonstrated that staff supported flexible working. With this knowledge and positive experience we rolled out the WorkSmart programme across the trust in 2010.

The secure broadband connections, telephone lines and remote connection to the trust’s network mean that most of our community mental health staff, such as psychiatric nurses, are now mobile and can access emails, files and applications without needing to return to their base site. Other administrative staff share desks and access the corporate network from home or other trust sites.

The WorkSmart programme is overseen by a project board including directors of finance, operations, capital planning, facilities and IT and our delivery partner BT. My role is to connect the estates, IT and operational sides to provide a coherent service. Due to this coordination and director level buy-in, the programme has proved to be good value for money.

Optimise patient time

By reducing demand for desk space we no longer needed to continue with a number of expensive leases and have relocated over 300 people into existing trust-owned estate, helping us save energy, reduce utility bills and ultimately meet government efficiency targets.

Overall, the £2.9m we have invested from the start of the project has generated total property savings to date of over £3.1m. The property savings from ending these leases will rise to around £1.5m in the current year and this of course represents a recurrent benefit. The cash invested to date includes the costs of providing new accommodation as well as the technology costs of our programme.

Crucially, flexible working is also helping improve the quality of care. Clinical colleagues can optimise time with patients and are more productive as they no longer need to travel back to the office after every visit.

Now that clinicians have remote access to the corporate network, it is easier to meet targets by completing notes within hours of a home visit. Cutting the miles that health workers need to travel combined with reducing the amount of buildings we heat has also helped us reduce our carbon footprint.

To provide the best care, trusts must look at patients’ needs in a holistic way, often working with partner agencies and across service boundaries. At SEPT we work closely with commissioners and other providers of health services to ensure a comprehensive integrated service for local people. This requires our community practitioners to be mobile and flexible.

The flexibility of the WorkSmart programme is also important at a time of unprecedented change for NHS staff who must evolve their practices and work with new partners to deliver care.

The successful implementation of flexible working requires cultural change and policies which encourage people to use the innovative technology available.

We have used BT’s online WorkSmart portal to reach the cultural tipping point where flexible working is business as usual and benefits staff, as well as patients. Staff answer questions through the portal to determine which of six work styles, each offering a varying amount of mobility, best suits their needs.

Major challenge

As a result, our flexible working programme caters for everyone from pharmacists working across the trust’s buildings, to “mobile plus” workers like community psychiatric nurses, to full-time home based employees such as administrators and call centre staff.

Since the rollout of the WorkSmart programme across our entire organisation, we have increased satisfaction among all types of staff who now tailor their day to be more productive and reduce unnecessary travel. The resulting impact on lifestyle choices has helped improve recruitment, retention and return to work.

We are now looking to build on this success and are developing our electronic patient record system so that in the future clinical personnel will have secure, remote access to patient records wherever they are. We are also adapting WorkSmart to new mobile technologies so that staff will be able to work flexibly through their smartphones and other handheld devices.

A major challenge for us now is to integrate WorkSmart into our recently acquired community health services in Essex and Bedfordshire. We know that our new staff are keen to adapt to new ways of working and this will be invaluable as we continue to seek out and deliver rationalisation opportunities across our estate.

Make no mistake, smart working doesn’t just happen. It needs investment, strong leadership, and positive internal marketing. Successful planning and implementation requires IT know-how and estates planning expertise, but above all staff buy-in.

This comes through choice of work style, functional technology and most importantly a strong service culture at the heart of the organisation.

Martin Norton is WorkSmart project manager at South Essex Partnership University Foundation Trust