Cafcass: Top Employer for innovation in flexible working

The Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service [Cafcass] is a clear case of necessity breeding  invention. In 2010 the Public Accounts Committee declared it ‘not fit for purpose’, citing unacceptably high sickness levels; low compliance by staff; and poor management information system.

Top employer awards

Top Employer Awards

In 2014, after a complete overhaul, including a move to smart working, it was assessed as good with outstanding leadership by Ofsted and had doubled its productivity rate, reduced sickness rates and increased staff health and well being.

It is this transformation in a sector known to be fairly rigid and paper-based as well as its determination to keep innovating that won Cafcass’s Top Employer Award for Innovation in Flexible Working as well as its Overall Top Employer Award 2015.

To get from where it was to where it is now has involved a lot of work on its work culture and management structure. Part of the problem, says Senior HR Manager Darryl Maitland, was that expectations about day-to-day performance levels were not clearly communicated.

The organisation created a rigorous new framework which involved staff having face to face meetings with their managers every six weeks where they would be assessed and appraised.

Staff were encouraged to work from the office to develop a strong team culture based on quality of service and supporting people to work in a different way.

“People had felt isolated from the organisation and had lost any sense of the organisation’s expectations, culture and performance levels,” says Maitland. “We had to rein in that flexible working so that we could communicate our expectations and standards effectively.”

Once Cafcass had done this, they started getting better ratings from Ofsted and could begin to relax and support a more flexible culture. Cafcass – the largest employer of social workers in England – also changed the way managers supervise staff.

Now supervisions only take place once a quarter, although everyone has to attend team meetings once a month in the office.


The organisation has also invested heavily in technology in consultation with staff. All social workers were initially given laptops and tablets with 4G and Blackberries so they could work remotely.

The organisation rolled out smartphones to all frontline staff in October, giving workers access to a range of apps, allowing them to view and edit documents on the move, photograph documents and their notes and use speech dictation and further enabling remote and flexible working.

“Smartphones take working remotely to another level,” says Anji Owens, Assistant Director, Business Development. “It’s easier to get your phone out and access case information than to take out your laptop and log into a system.”

Cafcass is developing a mobile friendly app for case management which will save workers more time. The full electronic case management system is already available on the move on the tablets, which helps staff to work more efficiently and means they can use dead time, for instance, when they are waiting to go into court, to do update case notes as well as other admin work which can now be done on the smartphone, such as booking holiday, checking emails, or claiming expenses and save time later.

Case files are all available electronically as a live record, and Cafcass’ IT systems are subject to strict security controls to keep service users’ information safe wherever staff need to use them.

Kevin Gibbs, Senior Head of Service, who manages services across 16 counties in the south west of England and the Thames Valley, says of the system: “It puts staff more in control of their work.

This has definitely increased their health and well being. “When we talk to local authority social workers about how we work we do get longing looks when they see how we have cut down on bureaucracy.”

There are also benefits for the children and adults Cafcass works with. For instance, staff have been using apps on their tablets to improve their communication with the children they work with.

These include interactive tools which help them to understand children’s wishes and feelings. There is a sliding scale on one app which they can use to quantify their feelings about a situation.  “Children feel more comfortable relating in this way. They are so used to electronic tools and apps,” says Owens.

“They enjoy using technology and the tools are fun and interactive and less bureaucratic than paper-based systems. It helps them to open up.”

Cafcass is also developing a virtual, interactive tour of a courtroom so children can visualise the court system and process. This should be ready by early next year. “It will help children understand what happens in their case in court and prepare parents to feel able to participate fully in the process.

They can, for instance, explore the roles of the Judge and other professionals involved, what the court room looks like, along with frequently asked questions and signposting to other services.

Many parents don’t have legal representation and this can help them feel better prepared and more confident,” says Owens.

Remote working

Cafcass also promotes remote working through hosting many meetings and training sessions online or through video and conference calls, which further saves on time. Training is mainly done by elearning and videos. There is also online chat and telephone support from line managers.

In terms of induction to the new ways of working, new social workers spend more time in the office than their colleagues initially so they can get to grips with all the systems.

They are buddied up with a mentor to talk them through how Cafcass works, including its overhauled quality assurance model. In the past, every time a social worker finished some work it would go to their line manager to be quality assured before it was filed, but now if they have met the required quality standards for three reports in a row social workers can file reports to court on their own.

The same system is in place when cases are closed. Managers do a dip sample of three pieces of work per quarter. “New recruits are helped to understand this culture, which is based on greater freedom and autonomy,” says Maitland.

He says the changes have been good for Cafcass’ work and for staff – the majority of the work completed is now assessed internally as good compared to just 30% a few years ago, and when Ofsted inspected in 2014 they validated Cafcass’ own assessments.

Furthermore, more than 80% of staff felt Cafcass cared about their health and well being.

Gibbs, who is in charge of customer services and complaints and partnerships with the voluntary sector, says the number of complaintsCafcass gets from service users has fallen by more than a third in the last year. Currently, less than 1% of service users make complaints about dissatisfaction with the service it offers.

He puts this down to an indirect consequence on new, more efficient ways of working. Social workers discuss with service users how they want to communicate. Most communication tends to be by email and text rather than written letters, meaning clients get answers quicker. Information for service users is also put on their website so people can access it 24/7.

One of the challenges of moving to more remote working was maintaining a sense of a team identity, says Anji Owens. Cafcass has thought about this carefully.

For instance, the organisation uses SharePoint with ‘virtual team room’ sites with discussion fora and noticeboards. “Information is now even more accessible than in a physical office and by being online, you can ask questions of your team members at any time, share documents or post links to things that might be of interest,” says Owens. Cafcass also uses Yammerfor organisational and group discussion.

“To manage staff remotely you need the right tools to support you,” she says, adding that toolsdeveloped by Cafcass such as My Work and My People give managers a snapshot of staff performance at any given time and help managers to understand individuals’ workloads and capacity so cases can be fairly allocated, for instance, there is a traffic light system which shows managers if staff members are overloaded.

Managers are also trained in how to manage a remote team, for instance, in how to build trust where the focus is on outputs of work instead of physical presence in an office. “People and the quality of work we produce is more visible to managers through electronic working,” says Owens.

Another way Cafcass supports remote workers is through social groups. Service areas have their own social groups and events and there are nationally organised activities such as sponsored events for Children in Need to which friends and family have come along.

Family friendly benefits

In addition to family-based events, Cafcass offers a range of family friendly benefits, including a health and well being plan which covers everything from access to dental care to sports massage. Children are covered for free and a partner can be added at a discount.

Asked whether he is worried about government cuts, Maitland says “the cuts have been tough, but we try to see the positive side – having to make savings gives us the impetus to think in a more innovative way”.

He says the new way of working also helps to save money without affecting frontline services. Cafcass has been asked to find savings of £20m in the last six years, but so far the number of social workers has remained stable.

Flexible working has delivered a lot of savings, for instance, through a shrinking real estate. Five years ago Cafcass had 93 offices and now it has less than half that number and operates a hot desking system on a ratio of one desk per 10 members of staff. “It works well as generally social work staff are on the move and working from courts or home, and spend less than 30% of their time in the office writing up reports,” he says.

Another way of reducing costs has been to lower Cafcass’ reliance on agency staff. Use of agency staff has fallen by 80% over the last few years. Instead Cafcass uses a small pool of bank staff and self employed workers.

This gives them access to a flexible pool of skilled workers who can deal with work peaks. These workers may be, for instance, parents with young children who want greater flexibility or have taken time out and want to keep their hand in. “The benefits are two way, and this allows us to manage changing demand in a cost effective way,” says Anji Owens.

Cafcass’ success in turning itself around has led to a number of inquiries from other organisations who are interested in how it has made remote working work. “For Cafcass, the technology allows us to do more.

It allows people to work smarter. This is because the systems we have have been designed by those who will use them. They have been involved at every step so the developers understand their job and what they need. That is the key to why it works,” says Owens.

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