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Suffolk libraries new bosses need to deal with low staff morale

When the full board of the Industrial and Provident Society which is being set up to run Suffolk Libraries meets for the first time on Wednesday (Feb 15) it will need to start demonstrating its independence.

The three founding directors were appointed by the county council and a further eight have been chosen, if that it the right word, by the founding directors and the council.

There were meant to be five additional directors but it seems that the chairman, Clive Fox pressed for all eight nominees to be appointed. This neatly avoided the potential allegation that the entire board was made up of placemen and women.

One of the first tasks will be to start restoring morale among library staff who are understandably worried about their futures. Radical change in employment, transferring from one employer to another, is always unsettling.

But in this case there seems to have been no planning for internal communication by the county. Staff are complaining that whenever they ask a question they are told it is a “matter for the IPS”.

The whole schedule looks rushed with the objective of the IPS taking over at the beginning of the new financial year in April. The list of those providing evidence for the transfer plan included no one from communications or HR teams.

There is one thing they could do to demonstrate both the independence of the IPS and start lifting morale at the same time — abandon the nasty plan to employ new staff at lower salaries.

The evaluation report approved by the council includes in the justification of the IPS an assumption that the IPS will pay new staff 10 per cent less than existing staff. The historic rate of staff turnover is 4.8 percent, so the saving in the first year would be tiny. perhaps 0.25 per cent of the wage bill.

Refusing to implement that part of the plan would be an easy win for the IPS board and low cost way of starting to rebuild morale.

It would begin to allay fears among library staff (who are not highly paid) that they are going to be eased out to make way for cheaper people.

One of the threats to the IPS plan was recognised as: “Potential low morale, higher sickness absence and higher staff turnover as a result of significant organisational change.”

Alison Wheeler, the IPS general manager (appointed by the council) has made a strong attempt to reassure staff, in an email, offering to answer questions and listen to concerns. She even gave out her mobile number.

In part she said:

We will have to be ingenious, practical, pragmatic and creative to ensure that Suffolk’s library services survive.  I am relying on all of you to play your part in this endeavour, working with communities, with an open mind to new ways of working, supporting each other to generate the ideas and apply solutions to new situations.

It is true that the success of the venture will depend on the staff being enthusiastic, creative and flexible. But it was not really the right time to raise the possibility of failure, although it is a fear she probably shares with some senior people in Endeavour House.

Reassurance and big hugs for the staff are what are needed at the moment. I do hope the board will see morale as one of the urgent bits of business for its first meeting.

 

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