The Power of Dreams: Rachel Law from PossAbilities

In: BlogDate: Sep 18, 2023By: Claire Lickman

In this talk from the 2023 Happy Workplaces Conference, Rachel talks about the power of dreams to create a happy workplace, and motivating and retaining staff in a notoriously difficult sector. Rachel discusses the importance of trust, listening to staff and linking with local communities, as well as gardens, a miniature Shetland pony, holidays, and Duvet Days.

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Rachel Law Speaking at the 2023 Happy Workplaces Conference

Maureen: Our next guest is Rachel Law. Rachel Law is the CEO of PossAbilities, a Rochdale based social enterprise delivering adult social care services.

After years of suffering cuts to Rochdale's adult social care services, Rachel thought there had to be a better way, and that better way was to take the learning disability service out of the local authority control, and to set up a PossAbilities CIC.

Now that's major. So today, Rachel is going to talk about the power of dreams.

Over to you, Rachel.

Rachel: Hi everyone. I'll just try and share my screen and get my presentation. Two minutes, okay? Yeah. Can everyone see?

Okay, so, we are a social care organisation and deliver a range of services for adults with a learning disability. And funnily enough, my story starts with unhappiness.

So I was working for Rochdale Council. They are not a bad council by the way, they were just faced with lots of cuts. They had to find lots of efficiencies. I found myself over the years, putting staff at risk, restructuring services.

We had no money to invest in services for the people we supported. I was becoming more and more miserable, and my colleagues were becoming more and more unhappy. So I kept thinking about ‘what can we do differently?’ and I'm quite a curious person. So I was looking around at different delivery models and I found something called the Mutual Support Programme, which supported public sector organisations to spin out of local authorities.

To cut a long story short, we were accepted, and we got some funding. We took the services out of Rochdale Council on the 1st of April 2014, and formed PossAbilities, and staff took a leap of faith. The 220 staff that were transferred into the organisation took a leap of faith with the promise that we were going to do something differently.

Now, as you probably know, social care has got a bit of a negative reputation. Who wants to work in social care? It's underfunded, it's low paid, and staff work loads of hours. The current turnover rate, according to Skills for Care, is around just over 30%. PossAbilities turnover rate is under 20%. And the vacancy rate in social care is around 11%, and the vacancy rate in PossAbilities is under 4%.

We still incur the day-to-day problems of social care. They haven't gone away. But what we can do is things differently. So, when we spun out the local authority, our turnover was around £4 million. It now stands at over £20 million. We've now got 650 staff, and we deliver services all across the northwest.

So, what did we do to book that train? One of our company values is about being happy. We believe that fun is the key to success, and we ensure that ‘happy’ is in the forefront of everybody's mind. So what do we do to, create a happy workplace? Well, first and foremost, we're really lucky that we have a day service for people with learning disabilities attached to our headquarters.

I meet some amazing people every day. People with learning disabilities, despite some of the setbacks, are probably some of the most happiest people that you will ever get to meet. They live in the moment, so they don't dwell on the past. I think that's something for people to think about, surround yourself with positive people and live in the moment.

We also have a wellbeing farm at our head office. We've got pigs, we've got goats, we've got a Shetland pony, we've got a parrot, we've got dogs. It's just, you know, the animals. It creates happiness and peace, and you know, I'm not kidding when I say that the animals come into the head office!

This week, Fudge, the miniature Shetland pony, had a trip round the head office and was going into people's offices searching out Polo's, and at lunchtime I was outside, tickling the pig's bellies because they particularly like that when the sun's shining.

We've also got a wellbeing garden at our head office, so we had some land which was underdeveloped, and so we applied for some funding and put some of our own reserves in and created a £150,000 wellbeing garden that staff can access. They've got a beautiful environment which they can go and access during the day, and that's also open to the community as well.

In terms of leaders. We are regulated by the Care Quality Commission, and all of our services are either rated Good or Outstanding, but there's obviously certain regulations that we need to follow. Whilst we do have leaders within the organisation, somebody’s not more important than somebody else. Everybody has the same values. Everybody's equally as important. We just have different roles.

We've also developed a leadership manifesto. We asked our employees, what makes a good leader? And they told us what makes a good leader. And so we've created a leadership manifesto with a range of different pledges that leaders have to subscribe to, and one of those is around building healthy and happy teams. It's really important that our leaders get to know our employees. They make sure that they have real positive work in a real positive working environment and that they really enjoy coming to work.

We want our leaders to be approachable, big hearted and really care about their employees, and we hold our leaders to account based on the leadership manifesto. For example, we have something called ‘Reflect and Refocus’. We got rid of our annual appraisals, which everybody thought was really dire, and we have Reflect and Refocus where we asked managers to reflect on their performance, reflect on what they are doing well in terms of the pledges within the leadership manifesto, and some of the things they need to improve on. We encourage them as well to ask the staff and their colleagues, look, what do we need to get better at? And then, they develop an action plan. We also have a 'We're Listening' survey, which we send out to staff on an annual basis.

Some of the things that staff have told us from the survey is, 90% of our employees say they're trusted to deliver the role in the way they think's best, and trust is really important to us. So for example, some of the things that we do is around support people to self-roster. Of course, we do have to meet the needs of the people we support, but we want people to be able to develop a role which not only meets the needs, but meets their own obligations that they may have at home. So we encourage people to self-roster….

Maureen: Rachel, sorry to interrupt you. Are your slides supposed to be moving? 

Rachel: Yes, they are. I'm there. Rabbiting on.

Maureen: Okay, there we go. Yay.

Rachel: Sorry. I'll remember. Yeah. So just, so there we go.

So what we do as well is 80-85% of our staff say they have a good day at work and 80% of our staff say that they're proud of that.

I guess a lot of social care organisations say that they they're part of the community, but they're not, they just have an office in the community. What we do every year is we have huge events, which we encourage staff to attend with their families and encourage the community to attend. We've had a Hooray for Happy Wood, where we had a month long festival of celebrating happiness and the science of happiness.

This year we're doing a carnival, and we think that that's important because we want people to invest in work personally and emotionally. When you can see that we're making a difference to not only the people we support, but the communities that we work in, then people really feel proud to come to come and work for the organisation.

Every year we get some reindeers, real reindeers, and the staff dress up as Father Christmas and naughty elves, and we invite local schools in. Some of the schools that we invite in are from really deprived areas and we just have fun. We encourage the elves to be naughty, which some people take that, they love doing that and slightly worrying that they, you know, you can only imagine the things that they get up to!

And again, some of the feedback that we've got from the schools that staff listen to and obviously staff see how happy the children are, it is the best day of their lives. And again, they feel really proud to work for the organisation.

We also have leadership and staff away days. We don't want to talk about business planning and we don't want to talk about strategy. Of course that's important, but what we want to do is have fun, so our away days include breakout rooms, cocktail making, [and] visiting the Crystal Maze.

So yeah, we try and do things a little bit differently.

Okay. And my question is: There's evidence that curious people find more happiness. What things do you think you can do to become more curious?

So what makes PossAbilities a great place to work?

We have a peer-to-peer recognition scheme. Every month we encourage staff to nominate some of the colleagues that have done some amazing things, and we share that across the organisation. Staff like to feel valued. We have in terms of the peer recognition [coughing], a draw and they can win a voucher.

We also have something called Wow Cards, which I give out very spontaneously, with a bottle of champagne or some chocolates if people don't drink. That's just to recognise people that have gone over and above. It literally is really, really random. Somebody might say to me, oh, somebody over there has really gone over and above, and so I go out and visit to them with some champagne and a Wow Card.

We also have a staff awards night, which we fund. We encourage people to nominate their colleagues and we have a list of different categories, and we book out a hotel where there is alcohol. I've got this alcohol theme running through PossAbilities! It's a little bit worrying! We have a three-course meal and then we have the award ceremony. People that win can get a £100 voucher to spend wherever they like to go shopping.

Depending on company performance, we give out vouchers at Christmas, so Christmas just gone, all employees got a £1,000 voucher. We pay the tax and national insurance on the vouchers which obviously helped this year, or last year, sorry, with the cost of living crisis. But not only do we give a voucher, we also give a beautiful card with some words and a heartfelt message just to thank people for all the hard work and support over the year.

We also have something called a Big Idea. As managers, we recognise that probably we don't have the good ideas our employees do, so we encourage them to come up with big ideas, which we fund.

We are currently in the process of arranging a rave for some of the people we support, and that was a Big Idea of a staff member.

Another staff member said that people struggled to go on holiday, so we purchased a lodge at Ribby Hall. It costs us £150,000. Ribby Hall is a bit like Center Parcs, but near Blackpool. We purchased a lodge, which is made available for staff at a real discounted rate. It's fully booked throughout the year because it's important that our employees get a break with the family members.

[It was] Learning at Work Week in May. We said, let's celebrate Learning at Work Week, but we don't want you to do any learning in relation to work really because we put on an awful lot of courses for you to learn at work anyway, so we put aside £25,000 and said to our employees, you can put in your bid up to £500 to learn whatever you want that makes you happy. We had people putting in bids for jewellery making, learning to drive a car, Korean cookery – all sorts of wonderful things that people wanted to learn. I've mentioned the logic before.

I also try and get out and have lunch with colleagues, and I ask them three questions: what do we do that's amazing for the people we support and families? What do we do that you think we can improve on? And what do I ask you to do that's stupid and how can we do it better?

And so I’ve had some really good feedback around some of the stuff that we asked people to do – we were frustrated with some of the stuff around paperwork and some of the stuff around ‘we want you to trust us’. We want to be able to self-roster. Some of those things came into play following lunch with myself.

We also do every year a listening survey where we ask staff, are they happy at work? We focus as well on health and wellbeing. We do want to do some pulse surveys throughout the year just to do quick snapshots around ‘are people happy at work?’.  If anybody has got any nickable ideas for me around pulse surveys, then I am all ears!

We also have a Duvet Day, so staff with 100% attendance get an extra day off in the year.

We have a Happiness Manifesto. Yes, Henry, I nicked this from you! So whilst it's not yours, it's ours – we developed our own Happiness Manifesto and it's just some form for staff to say, happiness is important.

So, living [in] the moment, be more curious and be yourself. Just some ideas about how you can find happiness and joy in your life.

I guess one of the things that we're not good at is celebrating our success. As an organisation we are quite humble and in some of the listening surveys, staff said, look, we don't celebrate our success. That's something that we've had to take on board because staff want to celebrate our success. They want to feel proud, and they want to feel part of the organisation. That's something that we are looking at – being more vocal in terms of telling our story.

And just from me, finally – believe in the power of dreams. I think that was a strap line from Honda, and I guess Martin Luther King didn't walk up the steps of Lincoln Memorial and address the crowd and say ‘I have a strategic plan’ or an integrated, structural reorganisation – he said, "I have a dream". And the message really from me is, we had a dream. We worked for the local authority to move outside of the local authority and to create an organisation where staff feel valued. They were happy. We had fun and they wanted to come to work. I guess my [challenge] to you, is dare to have a dream.

Thank you. Oh, and my final question is – celebrating success inevitably contributes to happiness. How do you celebrate success in your organisation?

Henry: Anybody got any questions, either hands up or in the chat? 

Maureen: Please share your thoughts or your question.

Delegate: Yes. Let me unmute. Yes, I have got a question. My question is touching on the conclusion aspect of Rachel when she mentioned that the organisation’s dream is to try and move away from the local government.

One: how do you do that? How do you do that?  I think this should encompass recent work, the government, that the level up where they see that there is the need for the communities, the local government to really develop a flattened hierarchy that will serve community purpose. And I think I have one of my colleagues Jack Newman, who just published a paper right now about that.

So if that evolved to a better service, will you still stay within the community, local government structures or no?

Rachel: So, would I ever go back to working in a local authority? And would a lot of the employees that work that transferred my local authority go back? Then no, because we've got the opportunity to innovate, and we can be flexible.

And just in terms of how did we manage to take services out? I talked an awful lot with staff around different delivery models, and I got staff buy-in and they trusted that the organisation that we were going to establish was going to be better than the local authority, just because we could innovate and we could do things differently.

It was a real hard slog. It took us 12 months with all sorts of stuff that we had to go through in terms of setting up the organisation. Of course, I still had to run the day-to-day services, so it was incredibly difficult. I could talk for absolutely ever and ever on it, so if you want to have a conversation outside of this about how we did it and some of the stuff that we had to consider, then I'm happy to have a chat with you. It was really complicated, but happy to catch up with you outside of here and have a chat about how we did it.

Henry: Okay. 

Let's go for Chris McQueen. 

Chris, tell us your question.

Chris McQueen: Just curious what your planning process looks like and if it's possible to make something that for many organisations is a bit painful, whether it's possible to make that a happy process.

Rachel: In terms of our planning. Business planning? So we have developed two plans.

We have our business planning in terms of how we're going to go and develop our business, and we also have our strategic plan, which is co-produced with the people we support. We look at what's working well and what's not working well and what we need to do to, to develop and deliver better services for the people we support.

But we do it in a fun way. We do different activities and we laugh a lot. We have fun. [For] the business planning, we're doing some workshops next week. We're calling it the Decade of Dreams. And we're saying, because we're nearly on our 10 year anniversary, we're talking about the things that we've achieved, but we're asking staff, look, you know, over next 10 years, what shall we be doing? What are our dreams? And some of it might go into our business planning and some of it might not.

Chris McQueen: Thank you. Awesome.

Henry: Excellent.

Maureen: We have a question by DJ, do you want to ask your question?

DJ: Yeah, sure. So I was wondering how you ensure that things like your Wow Cards and your peer-to-peer recognition stuff doesn't end up with just the popular people that make themselves obvious, get recognising with the quieter people, then disappear into the background because no one's recognising their contribution.

Rachel: Anybody can nominate anybody for a Wow Card, so it's not just leaders or managers. I get emails where staff say, ‘I've worked with a colleague and they've done something really amazing’, and over the last [few] years when I have been sending out Wow Cards, it is a breadth of different people across the organisation, it's not just the same people. So, we make sure that everybody knows about the Wow Card and anybody can drop me a line and say, ‘look, this person is really deserving’.

In terms of recognition, again staff put in recognition for the colleagues. Anybody can put in a positive recognition. It's not managers doing it, it is literally, ‘I've worked with somebody the other day and they're truly amazing’ and it's lovely. It's probably one of the nicest things I read is the positive recognition because there's just some great stories about people doing some great stuff across the business.

Henry: Excellent. And over to Lou. Over to Lou for your question.

Lou: I can't even find it now. I've responded to so many other people. I think in our conversation we sort of discussed, I loved all of your ideas. Some of them seemed like they cost quite a lot of money, which as a charity sector we don't have, and our discussion was just, I'd like to do something more than just a word of saying thank you, but then can't necessarily afford to do much more than that as a charity. What would be your kind of starting point suggestion, I guess to do a bigger thank you, that can't just be words.

Rachel: What have we done is just around creating a culture where people do feel valued and where people want to come into work. [When] we started off, when we spun out the local authority, we had no money in the bank at all. We had not a penny, we didn't have any reserves or anything. We've now got healthy reserves that we can reinvest in the workforce.

But what we did do is we asked staff to create the company values, and so staff created our values with ‘happy’ being one of them. We decided that while all staff values are really, really important, ‘happy’ was probably one of the main ones, because if the people that come into work are not happy or having a good day, then the people they support are probably going to have a really rubbish day. We really focused on happiness and all the things that we could do, not for much money, to create a real positive working environment.

So start small and ask your staff as well, because [our culture] didn't come from leaders. It's come from our employees – what can we do to make sure that you enjoy your work and you're having a good day? You get some amazing ideas from people and staff. Your staff are probably the most resourceful people you can ever meet. We had no money. We used to get things for free from local businesses because we had no money our staff was so resourceful, so get them on board.

Henry: Excellent. Thank you so much, Rachel. A big round of applause for Rachel. That was brilliant.

There's so many, so many great stories in there, so, you know, I love that. Love that.

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Rachel’s key message is: “Believe in the power of dreams. Martin Luther King didn't walk up the steps of Lincoln Memorial and address the crowd and say I have a strategic plan or an integrated, structural reorganisation, he said, ‘I have a dream’. And the message really from me is, we had a dream. We worked for the local authority, and we moved outside of the local authority and created an organisation where staff feel valued. They are happy. We have fun and [staff] want to come to work. So… dare to have a dream”.

Rachel describes the tools she has developed towards achieving her dream of a happy workplace, the importance of surrounding yourself with positive people, living in the moment, making sure no member of staff is valued less than any other, building trust and listening to staff input at every stage.

What you will learn in this video:

  • How PossAbilities brings happiness to the process of business planning
  • Some examples of how PossAbilities’ leadership team engages with and involves staff
  • How PossAbilities ensures that recognition schemes don’t overlook quieter members of staff
  • How to create a climate where staff feel valued, without spending a great deal of money on ‘Thank you’ rewards

Related resources

Learn the 10 core principles to create a happy and productive workplace in Henry Stewart's book, The Happy Manifesto.

Download for free


About Rachel

In 2014 Rachel Law took the Learning Disability Service out of the control of Rochdale Council and created PossAbilities CIC, a social enterprise delivering adult social care services. This multi-award-winning organisation drew inspiration from their service users, primarily people with learning difficulties, whom Rachel describes as “some of the most happiest [sic] people you will ever get to meet”, and made happiness a core value of the company, with having fun being the key to success.

After becoming increasingly disillusioned by being forced to make swingeing cuts to Rochdale’s Adult Social Services, Rachel sought out a better way of working that was better for both service users and staff. Following a lengthy period of hard work and research she finally obtained funding to take the service out of local authority control, and in 2014 she and 220 staff transferred into a new organisation, taking a leap of faith with the promise that things were going to be different. 

Nearly 10 years on, the resulting social enterprise, PossAbilities CIC, has a staff turnover rate of under 20% in a sector where the national average is over 30%, and a vacancy rate of under 4% compared to 11% nationally. Although still faced with the everyday problems of social care, the company turnover has increased from £4 million to over £20 million, employs over 650 staff, and delivers services across the northwest.


Next Conference: 2025 Happy Workplaces Conference

Our Happy Workplaces Conference is our biggest event of the year, and we'd love for you to join us on Wednesday 25th June!

Our 2024 event was our first ever hybrid event, and so we hope to run next year's in the same way. We will host up to 50 people face-to-face at Happy's HQ in Aldgate, London, and we can host up to 200 people online via Zoom. However you choose to join, there will be interaction, discussion, space for reflection and opportunities to network with others.

Stay tuned for full details of our speakers for next year's event. As always, our speakers share practical, hands-on ideas that you can implement to create happy and engaged workplaces.

Find out more