10 Takeaways From the 2017 Creating Happy Workplaces in the Public Sector Conference

In: BlogDate: Nov 15, 2023By: Claire Lickman

The 2017 Happy Workplaces CEO Conferences brought together a number of esteemed leaders from across the business world to share their unique knowledge on how to create happy workplaces.

The conference speakers included CEOs from food company COOK, marketing agency Webmart, timber and fencing supplier Lawsons and more, who shared the workplace innovations that have not just improved overall staff happiness, but strengthened their competitive advantage.

Here are ten essential takeaways from the event.

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1. Show the thing

Alex Segrove, delivery lead at the Government Delivery Service, introduced the conference to the phrase, “show the thing,” which sums up their culture of openness. Basically, GDS staff are in the habit of being open and talking about work as it’s in progress.

By involving others in their work as it takes shape, there’s potential for improvements and collaboration. “Show the thing” is all about being open, making things better and maintaining healthy communication.

2. Focus on strengths to build a confident workforce

NAO employees are required to abide by a number of controls and formal processes. However, while this is essential for auditing accounts and analysing organisational efficiency, it leaves staff fearful of making mistakes. This can interfere with NAO leadership’s aim to generate a culture of trust.

Their solution involves switching focus from overcoming weaknesses to emphasising individual strengths and helping them grow. The NAO became sceptical of micromanagement, too, and has installed coaches instead. They want people to feel trusted so that they can experiment and innovate without fear of failure.

3. Don’t run meetings as monologues

Children’s services is high risk, high stress work. Tracy Jelfs, head of children’s services at Monmouthshire County Council, wanted to make it an environment that people were happy to be part of, but was faced with a litany of controls, limited trust, aversion to change, and little faith in managers.

One basic yet comprehensive change was the decision to run meetings as communal discussion groups. Employees were invited to share stories about their work and various charitable undertakings outside work, while members of the police or community groups came in to give updates. Positive feedback was also related in these sessions, providing essential reinforcement in what is often a tough job.

4. Be yourself

Isabelle Trowler, England’s chief social worker for children and families, told the conference about the value of self-knowledge. People who exert influence within an organisation should be mindful of the sorts of behaviour they demonstrate at work.

By developing self-knowledge, you can monitor and anticipate your own attitudes and behaviour, which in turn gives colleagues a fair idea of what to expect from you. Isabelle said we should all be ourselves at work, but this involves being consistent, honest and authentic.

5. Make an ‘it’s ok’ list

At the start of every job, you’re told all the official things like how much you’ll be paid, your leave entitlements, and where to find your line manager, but there’s always more to a job than the official conditions.

GDS tries to be explicit about the unofficial conditions of each person’s job, which led to the creation of “It’s ok to…” list. As Alex Segrove explained, the list tells new starters it’s ok to say no when they’re too busy, to make mistakes, to not check their emails out of hours, and to challenge things they’re not comfortable with.

6. Don’t take for granted the passion of public sector employees

25 years of experience have taught Brendan O’Keefe that people in the public sector often see their job as just like any other, meaning they show up and get the work done without necessarily being driven by a strong sense of purpose.

As a result, if the prevailing systems and processes aren’t stimulating great results, leadership must step up. Brendan is the managing director at education support public mutual, Epic CiC, and so it’s his duty to make sure the people reliant on the service are best served. To do so, he has to find a way to get the most out of staff when a foundational sense of purpose is lacking.

7. Everyone learns differently

Tracy Jelfs prioritises her staff group, recognising that without them the essential children’s service work can’t be done. Having detected communication as one of the biggest issues holding things back at Monmouthshire County Council, Tracy started thinking about the various ways in which people learn.

“We all hear things differently, everyone takes something different out of things,” she said. Given every employee is interpreting everything through their own experience, Tracy encouraged more vocal input in order to broaden individual perspective and bring everyone’s viewpoint into closer harmony.

8. Why insist on qualifications that aren’t requirements for the job?

Epic CiC updated their recruitment policies in order to appeal a wider range of potential candidates. In the past they’d insisted on certain qualifications purely because it sounded like a good idea to insist upon them. This included demanding that people be educated to degree level even though a degree wouldn’t actually determine someone’s ability to complete the work.  

“We’ve taken that out unless there is an absolute statutory requirement that a job requires a particular qualification, or it’s hugely specialist,” said Brendan O’Keefe. They’ve since found some star new recruits who’d formerly have been disqualified from the process.

9. Trusting others does not mean trusting everyone

Most people want to do a good job, said Isabelle Trowler, and they’ll be in better position to do so when trust permeates an organisation. However, she offered the caveat that trusting in others doesn’t mean everyone is trustworthy.

“I would not go carte blanche and say it’s a free for all,” she said. Rather, you have to identify your allies and keep watch of your enemies. That said, Isabelle still believes in the implementation of a culture of outright trust in the workforce. Anything that deviates, she said, should be dealt with as an exception.

10. The Neuroscience of Trust

The NAO’s Steve Mirfin drew attention to an article from the Harvard Business Review entitled ‘The Neuroscience of Trust’. The paper’s findings basically back up the happy workplaces model. “When you’re happy and you trust each other, you get this lovely thing called oxytocin released in the brain,” said Steve.

Oxytocin plays a big role in social bonding and ‘The Neuroscience of Trust’ points out that when oxytocin is released within an organisation, the organisation will be more productive, have a more energetic and collaborative workforce, lower stress levels and greater overall happiness.


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Claire Lickman

Claire is Head of Marketing at Happy. She has worked at Happy since 2016, and is responsible for Happy's marketing strategy, website, social media and more. Claire first heard about Happy in 2012 when she attended a mix of IT and personal development courses. These courses were life-changing and she has been a fan of Happy ever since. She has a personal blog at lecari.co.uk.

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