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Aspire Community Works: the power of employee voice

LGT employees

London Gypsies and Travellers

LGT employees

London Gypsies and Travellers

Author: Katharine Sutton, Director of Aspire Community Works

Katharine Sutton, director of Aspire Community Works, explains the importance of employee voice and why incorporating the lived experience of employees is a vital ingredient of building a better, more inclusive society.

Aspire started off in 2004 as a charity drawing upon central government grants, providing training for people at risk of homelessness, the homeless and people who were unemployed. In 2010, it was informed that the central government's funding would be phased out over two years.

The Board had to take a difficult decision to deliver its objectives of tackling disadvantage in the labour market and combating inequality and poverty differently or to close down: to do or die. It chose the former.

A community enterprise was set up to build a sustainable business, training local people to provide estate management and open spaces services through contracts in the open market. Aspire won its first contract in Tower Hamlets with a smaller housing association providing grounds maintenance, cleaning and bulk removal services in 2010.

The DNA of the business was to tackle discrimination and disadvantage within the labour market through providing high quality, Real Living Wage employment and decent working conditions while providing quality, environmentally friendly services which improved the fabric of local communities. There was a fundamental shift away from working as a traditional charity working for beneficiaries to putting the interests of our employees at the heart of building a sustainable business.

From the offset, providing employee voice was integral to building business success. In return for the Real Living Wage and quality working conditions, our community business model needs our employees to do the best that they can to provide quality services. Yet the lived experience and the disadvantages created by the labour market could be conducive to low levels of trust, low aspirations and confidence in the workplace to deliver respect and to eliminate the low status of the occupations that they were involved in.

Our employees are drawn from diverse walks of life with one thing in common. The labour market disadvantages them for diverse reasons: from inflexible working hours or institutional discrimination to failing to cater for caring responsibilities or for people with no previous experience in the labour market. To build a sustainable business, we needed to prove to our employees that jobs in the everyday economy are vitally important, worthy of respect and build the confidence of our employees to deliver frontline services through devolved management and working in one team. To do this, we had to build the skills, confidence, capabilities and capacities of our employees and enabling them to have full voice independent of a seemingly well-meaning management.

Employee voice prevents issues from escalating and allows for collaborative solutions during change or crisis. It contributes greatly to organisational resilience.

Developing employee voice and engagement within an organisation is an ongoing process that enhances trust and respect with more employee involvement in the development of our business. Aspire now has worker representatives on its Board that help steer the business and connect it with the frontline. There is high employee morale and low staff turnover. Employee voice prevents issues from escalating and allows for collaborative solutions during change or crisis. It contributes greatly to organisational resilience.

Involving employees in decision-making and managing change and positive engagement with Trade Unions cuts across all parts of the Mayor of London’s Good Work Standard, which Aspire achieved in 2021. Trade unions have been a vital part of helping to achieve and develop employee voice within Aspire. In 2016, following employee research, Aspire signed a recognition agreement with Community, a smaller general union. Community focuses on developing a partnership approach with employers, believing that while there may be differences, both employers and trade unions have a shared interest in pursuing the route to developing sustainable businesses. The alignment of the organisations was reflected in the agreement: "Partnership working will explore how the Union and Community Enterprise can work together to strengthen the capacities of local communities and to promote stronger communities and a sense of well-being." Since then, a learning partnership has been formed, providing employees, their families, and other local communities with access to over 400 training courses. The Union also supports the organisation through periods of change and crisis, from collaborating during a High Court Action to actively participating in Aspire’s #BetterForUs campaign.

Good employment and employee voice are critical factors in breaking down inequality and poverty. Yet, all too often, the voices of the most disadvantaged in our labour force are left unheard or ignored. The #BetterForUs Campaign, run by Aspire Community Works and supported by Trust for London and Community, aims to amplify employee voice, particularly amongst people in the everyday economy. It incorporates employee voice as one of its five key principles.

More information is available at www.betterforus.org.uk. If you would like to be an early supporter of the principles, please contact better@aspirecommunityworks.com.