Could you describe The Reader’s workplace culture?
Anna: It is quite a unique culture. I joined The Reader last September and I’ve worked for a variety of organisations before, some of them quite corporate. If you’ve been in a corporate organisation, culturally The Reader is a big change.
I’d say our culture is very collaborative, we try and listen to the employee voice as much as we can. I think we’ve got a very individual culture that is apparent in all of our branding and corporate language. We’ve definitely got our own voice and our own specific ethos.
I think one thing that sets The Reader apart from other organisations is that our values are actually meaningful to us. I’ve worked in organisations where they had corporate values but they didn’t mean anything and no-one stuck to them whereas our values are the thread that guides us through the decisions we take and how we interact with our employees. Our culture is also very informal and non-hierarchical.
Do you still have Think Days?
Anna: We typically have Think Days twice a year and they usually last two days and are structured around a theme. Our employees are based all over the country from those working in our criminal justice teams who work in prisons and aren’t based in Liverpool, to our teams in London, Somerset and Wales.
Think Days give us an opportunity to bring everyone together at the mansion house. Staff really appreciate the chance to spend time with their colleagues and have meetings and discussions around the particular theme of the Think Day. We usually have some relevant external speakers as well.
The theme of the latest Think Day (which was cancelled due to Covid) was going to be diversity because that’s something that we’re really focussing on at the moment. Feedback from staff suggests that they find Think Days really useful and are great for engagement. Think Days bring us closer together as an organisation.
Zoe: Part of the purpose of Think Days is dispersing information to employees and getting organisational messages across. We use Think Days for collaboration, to work on a piece of thinking and/or to gather information on organisational processes. We bring volunteers to our Think Days too, and have done some cocreation work with them.
What does diversity mean in your organisation?
Anna: As an Arts Council Portfolio Organisation we need to report on diversity. We’ve separated our diversity action plan into workforce and recruitment, programmes, engagement, and board and governance. The workforce and recruitment strand of the plan is very much looking at our policy, our recruitment processes, how we’re attracting a diverse range of candidates, what our literature looks like and how we speak to people.
We’ve been looking at a lot of guidance on how the language you use in application forms and job specs can exclude certain applicants because they can’t relate to your corporate literature. We’re doing a big review of our application process based on this guidance.
We’re also doing a huge review of all of our texts and our anthologies to make sure that we’re incorporating a diverse range of texts into our shared reading activities making them more accessible.
Diversity has been discussed a lot in HR the last year with discussions on how to make work more inclusive to everyone. It’s a massive challenge and a huge conversation. We’ve found that no one knows quite how to tackle it but everyone knows they’ve got to start doing something to change. Change is gradual and we’ve found it to be a process of trial and error.
Does decolonise the curriculum movement come up at all?
Zoe: Not really as we try to steer clear of the curriculum. We’re always looking for new diverse material not just work that’s included in the curriculum. We mostly care about how good literature makes you feel. We know what works and we have lots of tried and tested literature.
We think the good thing about literature is that it brings diverse people together, we’re looking for work that enables our participants to talk about, and share, the human experience.
Could you say a bit about the volunteer model?
Zoe: We’re currently investing in a volunteering kitemark. Volunteering for The Reader started off reasonably straightforward, but we’ve since expanded and now there are several ways to get involved. I think there are now 10 different types of volunteer role.
There are a number of things you can do at the mansion house, ranging from a receptionist to a gardener. There are also volunteer roles that centre around the shared reading model including leading shared reading sessions.
The volunteer model has been through a number of transitions over the years. Our shared reading programme used to be entirely staff-led, but we’ve now moved to a volunteer-led model. We’ve also got a team of support volunteers helping those volunteer-led reading groups around the UK.
We have really committed volunteers who actually undertake to recruit and support other volunteers, and together they support a shared reading community.
As an organisation, do you use self-assessment tools or discussions of your values as a team?
Anna: We definitely use discussions of our values as a team, though I’m not sure we use self-assessment tools as such.
Zoe: Our values are still relatively new and we put them together with our staff. It was a massive collaborative piece of work, with a consultant helping us. We had 12 and more recently refined them to 5. Those values, though, are very much alive in what we do, they’re threaded through our policies and embedded in the language we use in day-to-day work.
Our values are also a big part of our Think Days. We have an awards programme called Values in Action where staff nominate each other when they can see that someone has really championed our values, or employed them.
We don’t tend to go for very many prescribed tests. We did once use a Mental Toughness Questionnaire, but really what we’re looking for is emotional resilience in candidates. That goes back to the pace of the work and also needing to have boundaries when you’re working with vulnerable people.
Can you tell us about the coaching culture you’re thinking of implementing?
Zoe: Yes, we are committed to building a culture of coaching within the organisation. It is in our People Strategy and is really important for us. Not only to make good relationships but also to improve ways of working.
We’ve noticed with staff that, because of the pace, sometimes if you’re not careful – despite the time and effort we put into our development review process – relationships between managers and staff can easily become quite transactional because you’re trying to get through a lot of stuff all the time.
We’re trying to make sure that, along with our commitment to develop people and promoting from within, we are really coaching and helping people through their work and enabling them to progress.
Sitting alongside that, we’re also committed to developing our volunteers. Sometimes we see people progress from being a group member to a volunteer. We know that lots of people could make that leap from being a volunteer to being a supporter of volunteers, but our staff can find it difficult to make that ask of volunteers, even though they can see they’ve got the skills.
When volunteers do take that step up, we have great training available but you then need to move into that more mentor/coach relationship to support volunteers rather than just putting in a training intervention.
It’s also worth saying that team meetings at The Reader begin with shared reading, to avoid relationships becoming too transactional. Starting a meeting like this puts your head in a different place. In fact, some of our funders – Nesta and the National Lottery – have said “we’ve seen your model and we’re doing a session on this. Can you give us something to read at the beginning?”
Anna: If you’re having a really stressful day with back-to-back meetings, just that twenty minutes of shared reading allows you to pause and reset. Since going into lockdown, doing shared reading with some of my colleagues has definitely helped. Everyone has been feeling lots of different things and it’s helped us to talk about what we’re struggling with.
Mentally, it’s really useful and it connects colleagues as well because you end up talking to them about things you wouldn’t have done beforehand.
What’s the developmental structure like within your staff?
Zoe: It’s a real challenge for us. There is some formal and required training we use for development but we have tried over the years to develop different career developmental pathways. We don’t tend to buy in standard development, so we wouldn’t send someone on a generic leadership course, for instance. We think we could actually do a better job of that ourselves, using really good literature and our workforce experience.
A lot of our internal learning, we try to develop ourselves. We’re just relaunching a programme called ‘The Revolution Begins at Home’, which is a series of staff development sessions, again using literature. So say if assertiveness was the theme, one of our staff would go away and find a short extract to read that would give you insights into assertiveness to build on.
We’ve tried to formalise pathways, but we haven’t quite nailed it yet, to be honest. We try to expose people to lots of on-the-job learning, often asking ‘who would like to work on this?’ or ‘could you take on a little bit more responsibility?’, letting people have a go and building from there.
Anna: Our challenge is that we haven’t got the resources to send people on extensive training programmes, because we’re limited by our budget. Also, due to the size of The Reader, there’s not always the possibility for people to progress because sometimes the roles aren’t there.
However, in everyone’s individual development planning we do talk a lot about where people are at the moment, what they’ve learned, and where they’d want to go in the future – whether at The Reader, or elsewhere, or personally. So it’s not just about what they want to do at The Reader, but what they want to do with their life generally.
I think that employees do feel they can talk to us about where they want to be. If they, for instance, wanted to move into another department or there was an opportunity that came up that they would like to try, we encourage them to tell us. Even if they don’t necessarily have the skills for that role, we would develop and train them in order to be able to move across to that role.
There’s definitely the scope to move between departments at The Reader. You might start out doing one role and end up in a completely different department based on the opportunities that arise, your skillset and what you want to do.