Seeking out storm: workforce lessons under NDIS

How do you react when it comes to impending crisis or overwhelming change? Batten down the hatches, gather all available information and wait for it to come? Carry on with business as usual, hoping whatever it is will have minimal impact when it reaches you? Or do you head into the eye of the storm?

NDS spoke to Valmar CEO, Hugh Packard, to get a better understanding of how this organisation’s unique position, both philosophically and geographically, helped it to prepare for NDIS rollout. This was in combination with an organisational decision to ‘lean in’ to the change by actively seeking out the storm that was the NDIS, rather than waiting for it to come to them. Of particular interest was Valmar’s workforce practices and the various elements that support them.

Valmar and the NDIS

Valmar was established over 50 years ago, in a town called Tumut in NSW, not far from the ACT border. When the NDIS rollout first began, the ACT was rolling in earlier than most of NSW. Valmar saw an opportunity and began establishing itself in the country’s capital territory.

A number of tenets central to the NDIS also happened to reflect values and characteristics fundamental to Valmar, including supporting people to lead fuller lives in the way that they wanted, and helping people to gain satisfying work, as well as a culture of flexibility, and experience working remotely. In particular, Valmar’s encouragement of staff to ‘jump in and learn’ – to take controlled risks and be allowed to make mistakes – gave them the skills they needed to tackle a change as fundamental as the NDIS, with vigour.

Casualisation

Data consistently shows a trend towards a casualised workforce in the sector (ADWR: Third Edition). Valmar has consciously tried to avoid casualisation, Hugh explained, despite it perhaps being the most logical first reaction when looking at the NDIS and the way it operates. The message from Valmar’s clients (and their families) very early on was that two of their most valued qualities in workers were consistency and stability. Given this, casualisation didn’t seem like a wise option to Hugh.

Valmar’s numbers of casual staff have increased, although this is due more to their growth rather than to permanent staff converting to casual. In fact, often staff members move the other direction. Staff turnover continues to be much lower than comparable organisations, and there are regular reports to Valmar’s board regarding the number of staff who’ve left and their reasons for doing so. The extent of Valmar’s employee retention is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that an entire page in their Annual Report lists employees who have been with the organisation for more than a decade. In 2018, this numbered 81 employees (Valmar Annual Report 2018).

Staffing

Hugh also noted that Valmar hasn’t had the same difficulties as much of the sector in attracting disability support workers, or for that matter, those at managerial level. However, the growth brought on by the NDIS has made it difficult for Valmar to fill Service Coordinator positions, due to the knowledge and expertise these roles require. Additionally, Valmar’s preferred method is to fill these positions internally, ensuring that employees in these roles have both organisational knowledge and familiarity with clients.

Industrial Arrangements

One of the more creative approaches Valmar took pertains to their Enterprise Bargaining Agreement (EBA), which came into place as they were fully rolling into the NDIS. Given this timing, they were able to tailor the EBA with the NDIS front of mind. Of particular note was the tension between restrictions set out by the award and the movement towards flexibility under the NDIS. At Valmar, both the organisation and its staff were looking for something different from the award.

The main departure from the award in Valmar’s EBA is that they treat a sleepover as a break between shifts, whereas the award treats it as a new shift entirely. Hugh noted that staff expressed that they generally feel sufficiently refreshed after sleepover shifts and having to take a break after another three hours’ work doesn’t make sense to them. Treating sleep as a break therefore means that staff are able to potentially work up to 10 hours, sleep, and then work another 10 hours. In rural areas where travel is more significant, this can make a lot more sense from the employee’s point of view. It also means more consistency for clients as the organisation is able to have fewer people, working a larger number of hours, so teams are smaller. It has also meant that Valmar has been able to employ more staff on a permanent basis, further aiding in their resistance to casualisation. From Hugh’s perspective, it has made Valmar an employer of choice.

Sleepovers are also paid at above-average rates, and with variation depending on the average level of disturbance to workers’ sleep with respect to that particular house. There are three levels (‘restful’; ‘disturbed’; and ‘consistently disturbed’), and teams vote, based on their experience, on the predominant experience in that house. Workers are then paid for the sleepover according to the agreed level. There is an acknowledgement that the level can change over time and if, for example, a house goes from ‘restful’ to ‘consistently disturbed’, then Valmar takes this as an potential indication that something might need to be addressed in that house.

Balancing Quality and Growth

Valmar has grown since the days when the NDIS starting rolling out, although the rate of that growth has slowed more recently. From Hugh’s perspective, some form of growth is a necessary component of an organisation; a sense of dynamism is important for employee satisfaction. The current, slower rate of growth is much more sustainable, according to Hugh. One of the vital factors is being able to ensure that supports are provided at a consistently high quality, and in a way that reflects the values and priorities of the organisation. In this vein, Valmar has created new Quality Auditor positions, which operate similarly to Community Visitors but internally, and have both scheduled and unscheduled visits. Being able to have positions like this is one of the advantages of growth. Another position Valmar created is that of Senior Support Worker: hands-on workers who may be able to fill in for a coordinator if needed. These roles also function as a useful stepping stone for support workers looking to move through the organisation.

Finances

As with many organisations operating in the NDIS, Valmar’s provision of some service types is subsidised by its provision of others. Valmar has seen most of its growth in providing Supported Independent Living, however this has also been one of its biggest challenges when it comes to staff. Its day programs, on the other hand, are less financially viable. Valmar is also looking outside of disability, including in-home care and community transport provision, to assist with revenue and cash flow.

Digital Systems

Valmar invested heavily in building new IT infrastructure to support staff in the field, allowing them to spend the maximum amount of time with clients rather than on administrative tasks. The IT system was designed to work for staff, rather than the other way around, Hugh stressed. Despite this, the transition has not been without some resistance. All staff at the organisation had to get used to new ways of working, including an increase in communications and operational flexibility. Most dissatisfaction with IT is to do with the accuracy and timeliness required in reporting, rather than with the system itself.

The transition didn’t happen overnight, either. Valmar originally scheduled six months for the change; it ended up taking nearly two and a half years. Part of this was conscious: there was a decision to take the time needed to make the change correctly and bring staff along on the journey.

Conclusion

Upon reflection, Hugh notes a recognition from the beginning that there would be no magic bullets; that it takes hard work and patience; that it would likely take years to get where they wanted to be; and that they would need to move from a top-down approach to one with greater balance of power.

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