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Use person-centred work design to improve service quality and staff engagement

4 April 2019 at 8:08 am
Join esteemed international social care expert, Helen Sanderson, and Australian experts to learn about how purpose-driven person-centred work practices are enabling community sector organisations to deliver better services and more satisfying jobs.

Contributor | 4 April 2019 at 8:08 am


Use person-centred work design to improve service quality and staff engagement
4 April 2019 at 8:08 am

Join esteemed international social care expert, Helen Sanderson, and Australian experts to learn about how purpose-driven person-centred work practices are enabling community sector organisations to deliver better services and more satisfying jobs.

After many years developing the concepts and resources behind person-centred approaches towards social care recipients, Sanderson observed that for an organisation to be truly person-centred it had to apply the same approach to its workers.

To show how this would indeed lead to better results for everyone, Sanderson established a new company: Wellbeing Teams. Wellbeing Teams is now a fast-growing English care provider using the self-organising team model.

At a workshop on 30 April in Sydney, Sanderson will present her journey and findings. She will be joined by Australian experts from Purpose at Work who will share the why of person-centred work design and how self-organising teams are giving Australian social care providers the means to succeed in new funding contexts. The workshop will look at potential barriers as well as the “how-tos”.

Moving to self-organising teams requires managers to let go, give up control and trust staff – and each other. It means agreeing on the outcomes the organisation needs to achieve, and those which are longer term and aspirational. And it means developing internal decision-making, co-support and continuous improvement practices that are authentic to your organisation.

What’s this all about and why is it relevant to me?

A purpose-driven approach based on self-organising teams is a way of running a business, and organising work, that’s getting lots of attention in today’s community sector and beyond. It’s well-suited to disability and aged services, where workforce challenges are major, funds tight, and service quality a priority.

Core features are:

  • small, functional or geographic teams as the main unit of the structure;
  • team self-management; staff making (more) of their own decisions with the people they support and serve;
  • a radically reduced role for hierarchical management;
  • many more opportunities for staff to learn and grow collaboratively; and
  • guidance that comes from the organisation’s vision, its responsive relationships with clients and from broad guidelines – rather than from detailed policies, procedures, and micro-management.

More context

These principles have a long history in both the industrial democracy movement and the organisational development field (particularly socio-technical systems theory). In Australia, social scientists Fred and Merrilyn Emery were proponents of the approach and created “participative design workshops” as a way of democratising workplace decision-making.

In a new book on reinventing work, Aaron Dignan discusses “hidden-in-plain sight” organisations that have been doing things differently for decades but have been excluded from “popular business culture”.

Frederick Laloux, a Belgian futurist and management coach, and his extremely popular book Reinventing Organisations, has familiarised many people with what he sees as more evolved forms of organisation. He calls these “teal” organisations and sees a shift to these as being aligned with higher forms of consciousness.


One of the most successful and well-known of these “teal” organisations is the Dutch health and social assistance organisation, Buurtzorg, which emerged as an alternative to the highly bureaucratised and regulated system created by the Dutch government in the 1990s.

Of relevance to Australia is that Buurtzorg was the product of frustrations with the cash-for-care system, as it was implemented in the Netherlands. Buurtzorg founder Jos de Blok famously declared that he wanted to create a new way of delivering services, one that put “humanity above bureaucracy”.

Buurtzorg grew from a few people in 2007 to over 14,000 people today. They work in some 1,000 small teams of no more than 12 people who provide care services in their neighbourhood. Buurtzorg now operates in around 26 countries world-wide and has translated parts of its sophisticated IT system into other languages to help those trialling its model.

Why the Australian disability sector is embracing the approach

Under the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), disability providers face the contradictory challenges of being responsive to individual client needs and expectations of quality, while they and their staff are under pressure of the constantly evolving NDIS environment and tight pricing.

Many providers are experimenting with self-organising teams as a way of increasing their ability to respond to individual client needs, use the knowledge and creativity of their staff, and reduce bureaucracy. In 2017-18 four projects of this type were funded under the Australian government Innovative Workforce Fund, run by NDS.

Clearly the approach also applies in aged care, for similar reasons. While the consumer-driven ideology is differently articulated in aged care, quality service is a priority, resources are scarce, and attracting good staff and keeping them are also problems.

The emphasis on enabling staff to do their best work in self-managed organisations allows more resources to be directed to worker skill development and improving job satisfaction.

For consumers, the benefits lie in being cared for by workers who know them well and are more engaged, are focused on meeting their needs, and are in a position to make decisions without having to get the approval of someone higher up.

About us: Purpose at Work is a workplace consultancy focusing on innovation and self-managing work practice.

Based on our experience working in social care, Yumi Stamet, Alan Hough and Caroline Alcorso specialise in this type of innovation. We offer industry advice and assistance, workshops, and research and policy work for governments and others. We have solid workforce, research and consulting backgrounds as well as strong international connections.

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