Organising for a Good Place to Work
Community organising engages with people in a community, listens to their stories of lived experience and encourages them to take collective action around shared concerns and interests. Elements of this approach can be applied in different ways for different outcomes. This case study looks at how Nationwide Building Society in Swindon used community organising to involve the existing community in a new housing development project.
In 2017, I worked with Nationwide to supervise and support their very first community organiser. The organiser was part of the Social Investment Team as part of Nationwide’s Oakfield project, which is their own words :
“…is a not for profit housing development – where we’re creating 239 quality, sustainable homes – on a derelict brownfield site in our hometown of Swindon where no other housebuilder was prepared to build…. bringing people together to build better quality homes was the starting point of what became the modern building society and Nationwide as project sponsor of Oakfield is looking to create a blueprint of how house building can be done differently” (1).
The community organiser knocked on over 600 doors and connected with groups to listen to the residents of the three estates surrounding the development site to ensure that their voices were heard throughout the project. The objective was to engage local people to help create this new community rather than it being imposed on them.
My role was to provide strategic support and supervision to the community organiser and to be an advocate for and specialist in community organising. I also acted as a critical friend to the project, particularly around any tensions that might arise as these very different work cultures came together on this bold and innovative project.
As the work in the community progressed and the organiser felt more at home in his team, he noticed that there could be a place for elements of community organising in Nationwide’s internal communications. Each year the staff participate in a staff satisfaction survey. This survey highlighted what the organisation was doing well but also what they could be doing better to make Nationwide a “Great Place to Work” (GPTW). One concern with the results of the survey was that as surveys were completed online, individually and anonymously there was no way of knowing who had raised any concerns, making it difficult to work collaboratively on a solution.
The community organiser suggested to colleagues that using community organising might support and encourage staff to speak out and take the lead on the issues where they could make change.
I led on the design, development and delivery of training for the GPTW representatives, (volunteers in each team who both lead discussions and on action taken from the results of the survey). The aim was that they would gain a better understanding of:
- how to listen to their colleagues
- engage leadership skills
- feel empowered to work alongside colleagues to tackle those areas of improvement.
The training went ahead in two rounds. We looked at listening skills, motivation and values about what helps and what hinders taking action. We explored issues of power dynamics and barriers to participation and then worked with the GPTW reps on how they could use their learning and take a new approach in their GPTW roles.
Here are just a few examples of feedback from the GPTW reps:
“It was a great, lots of overlap with GPTW, reiterated how important the right type of listening can be”.
“I found it really helpful and will endeavour to use some of the techniques and learnings within my role… I am now a massive advocate, but I started from a slightly cynical place / not convinced this would be especially beneficial.”
“I used some of the course material at our team meeting… I am pleased to say it worked brilliantly, and I believe we had our first open conversations as a result; these will feed through into our action plans.”
This highlights that organising skills and practice such as active listening, powerful questioning, understanding motivation and power dynamics are valuable. They can ignite power for collective action for social change in whatever community you are in, whether it is a community of place, of shared identity, of shared interest, shared experience or the workplace. Community members, whether residents or workers, become more connected and this collective power-building encourages them to take the lead to find solutions and take action knowing that they are not acting alone. Listening to understand creates space for dialogue and critical reflection and encourages the development of effective relationships and collaborative working. All of this results in supportive and resilient teams that focus on what is possible rather than what is wrong when a challenge arises.
- Social investment – A new community in Swindon (on Nationwide website)