The market for top IT talent is incredibly competitive. Helen Thomas, CEO of Digital Health and Care Wales (DHCW), tells Martin Cooper MBCS why communicating your values can help you find and retain the best people.

‘We’re the national digital organisation for the NHS in Wales,’ says Helen Thomas. ‘We also support the care sector – through partnership working – to join up care across Wales. We provide digital, technology and data services for the NHS. So, we provide the whole spectrum of digital disciplines and support digital transformation across the Welsh health sector.’

Helen was appointed CEO of Digital Health and Care Wales (DHCW) in 2021, having spent the previous year as the Interim Director of the NHS Wales Informatics Service. There, among other things, she headed up the organisation’s impressive response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

‘Our vision?’ she asks. ‘We want to be world-leading. We want to help improve and transform lives. Our long-term plan is, basically, a healthier Wales. We want people to live long, healthy and happy lives.’

Against the backdrop of the pandemic, an ageing population and the pressures on the NHS itself, helping people live happier and healthier lives is clearly a huge mission. But, if Helen’s approach to assisting Wales’ people could be summed up simply, it’s this: meeting those grand-scale challenges starts with your organisation’s people.

Putting people first

Put simply, her philosophy is that if you want to meet the biggest challenges, you need to recruit and retain the best people - and you can only do that by giving those good people the best care.

‘Organisations are about people,’ she explains. ‘People that feel empowered and engaged and connected to the organisation deliver great results. My focus, since I joined the organisation and put my leadership team in place, has always been about empowering people.’

This rigorously people-first approach has led Digital Health and Care Wales to win the IT Industry Awards’ Best Place to Work in IT trophy for the second time in 3 years.

‘Clearly, I’m immensely proud. But it means so much more than that. It’s an award for all the people who work in the organisation,’ she says.

Helen is, however, quick to point out that winning awards, though very welcome, isn’t a goal in itself. Her organisation didn’t make taking prizes an objective in a three or five-year plan. Rather, winning, she says, is a by-product of an agreed and deployed strategy. But here’s the curious thing: winning awards does help the organisation to fulfil its strategy and meet its mission.

‘It’s a hell of a strapline, isn’t it?’ Helen says. ‘The best place to work, for two years. It helps so much in recruiting. And the big bit for me is we’ve been expanding as an organisation. We’ve grown by 38% over the past few years. And we’re a brand new organisation… So, being able to actually describe and communicate ourselves as award-winning is fantastic.’

A work in progress

Focusing on the IT industry and IT skills, she says: ‘We’re in a highly competitive market for recruiting new skills. We need talent as we’re a growing organisation... Salary will always be up in the top three things that attract or persuade people to stay. But it’s not the only one. It’s that connectedness to where you work, who you work with, that sense of family and team... that sense of value. That’s also important. When I took over, I wanted to – and I still want to – lead an organisation that I’m proud of... One I’m proud to lead and proud to be a part of. And I want all our staff to feel that way.’

Expanding, she says: ‘A big part of that has to be the compassionate leadership we all deserve. Yes – it’s having lots of policies and procedures. But really, it’s about having a focus. And I wanted to focus on our people... to focus on who we are as an organisation, as an employer and as a partner. And one of the big things I’ve done is put a Director of People and Organisational Development on our board. We’ve got the people’s voice on the board. We’ve also got a staff-side representative on our board.’

Digital Health and Care Wales is still a work in progress, she explains – though much work has been done, there’s more to do. A critical step in that journey was the recent publication of the organisation’s People and Organisational Development Strategy. It talks about growing the organisation, developing people, growing a talent pipeline and succession planning. Equality and diversity also play a big part in the strategy.

‘You’ve got to remember, the definition of digital is: people, process and then – the technology. We’re a digital organisation, so we’ve got to be centred around people and process...’

People first, process next

‘The other thing that helps transform us into this great place to work is process,’ she says. ‘How do you organise yourself to deliver? How do you do that in an open, honest and transparent way – those good rules of good governance?’

Helen explains that DHCW places great emphasis on gathering data and understanding its workforce. The organisation sets goals and measures against them. A key focus, for example, is appraisals: Helen says firmly that everybody has a right to expect time with their manager to focus on their development, performance and career. As such, statistics around whether these appraisals are happening are essential. And, happily, she explains, DHCW routinely achieve around 90% against this measure. She is also very proud of the fact that 1 in 5 people in DHCW were successful in achieving promotion last year. ‘Our staff turnover rate is very low’, Helen adds. ‘It’s around 8% and for the industry itself, this figure is around 20%.’

Pausing for emphasis, she says: ‘You’ve got to remember, the definition of digital is: people, process and then – the technology. We’re a digital organisation, so we’ve got to be centred around people and process.’

Location, location, location

If understanding and providing for ‘why’ people work is a key ingredient in being a successful employer, another big challenge for leaders is managing the idea of ‘where’ people work.

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The pandemic forced businesses to embrace homeworking through necessity and now, as COVID-19 has cooled as a concern, team members are similarly cool on the idea of a commute-based 9-to-5.

For many organisations and workers alike, hybrid working seems like a good compromise. But, Helen says, hybrid is an evolving conversation which hasn’t yet reached a perfect conclusion.

‘Most of our teams are working in a hybrid way,’ Helen explains. ‘Whilst that’s great it is also a challenge. It’s something I’m grappling with as I want to walk around the building, stop and have a chat with people, but that’s not as easy now. People are not coming in to sit at a desk and do their day-to-day work, they’re coming in with a sense of purpose, to meet with colleagues to achieve a specific objective.’

This ongoing negotiation around what hybrid working means and how it might work is also reshaping buildings and workspaces. Helen’s organisation, like many others, is looking at its bricks-and-mortar estate and asking whether its existing spaces are shaped correctly and working as well as they could. Should offices, or at least areas in them, be redesigned to better serve why people are looking to meet up in person? It appears that design and architecture need to respond to the new ‘sense of purpose’ people have when they choose to commute.

‘People are coming to the office to be with people,’ Helen explains. ‘And we need to do some work to ensure that our estate is fit for purpose.’

Telling your story

With a people-first culture set - or at least evolving - and critical processes embedded, Helen explains that the final part of the jigsaw is communicating to prospective employees that your organisation is a great place to work.

‘We explain what our organisations look like and where we are,’ Helen says. ‘But the most important part is to explain why it’s a great place to work. This is a great workplace, but – what are we here to do?’

Summing up, she says, ‘We’re here to help people live longer and happier lives by providing world-leading digital services. That’s important to me, and it’s important to many people. We’re saying “if you share those values, you’ll have a really rewarding career here.”’