Spread across a 90-acre site, complete with its own shops and bus service, the Nottingham City Hospital NHS Trust is more like a small town than a typical workplace. The hospital employs more than 6,000 staff, and as a specialist centre for services including cancer care, plastic surgery and bone marrow transplants, plays an important part in the local community.
The hospital's hotel services department, winner of Caterer‘s Public Sector Best Places to Work award in association with recruitment specialist The People Tree, operates on an equally impressive scale. Responsible for feeding staff and patients, the department has more than 700 full- and part-time staff working in areas like housekeeping, laundry and catering.
A large staff restaurant caters for workers round the clock, and on an average day, 5,000 meals are served to patients on the wards. "We're open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. You could say we're like a hotel with a thousand beds," says assistant hotel services manager John Hughes, who oversees the catering side of the department.
There's also a thriving retail business, which brings in £1.5m a year from vending machines across the site, and Coffee City, the hospital's own coffee shop chain. With four outlets on campus, there are plans to roll out the brand to three new locations off site.
But it was the hospital's clear commitment to its staff and their development that resulted in it scooping the award. Aware that working conditions and pay structures were overly complicated and staff morale low, the hospital initiated a two-year consultation with employees to find out exactly what changes were needed.
Since then, a number of people-focused initiatives such as flexible working, appraisals and a structured vocational training programme have been introduced at department and organisational level. Staff have also been given pay rises of up to 7%, as well as three days' extra holiday a year.
Results so far have been significant. Staff turnover has dropped by half, feedback shows increased motivation among staff and an estimated 80% of hotel services staff are now on some form of workplace training.
Improvements have also been made to the department's facilities, funded largely by the recycling of profit from retail. Four years ago, a brand new kitchen was installed, and large windows were fitted on the corridor side so that visitors and staff can see inside.
For Hughes, the investment was about upgrading the quality of service but also thinking long term. "Most hospitals don't even have a real kitchen nowadays as they get meals delivered instead. But to us that's lunacy," he says. "Not only are you losing that skill base and underusing staff potential, but over any period of time it costs much more to buy everything in."
One of the biggest areas of change has been the introduction of a new training programme. Under the new knowledge and skills framework (KSF), annual appraisals have been brought in and every member of staff, from top to bottom, is encouraged to map out his or her own training schedule. Once training is completed, staff can then move up through career "gateways", which can mean a pay rise and promotion.
"It was obvious that we had some very talented, knowledgeable staff here but we weren't using their skills effectively," says Hughes. "This is about giving people the opportunity and motivation to develop themselves. And, if you're ambitious, you now have an outlet as there's a clear career path available."
Staff can now study part-time for NVQ and HCIMA courses, delivered at local colleges. Links with nearby schools have also been established to give pupils the chance to try out work experience in catering and housekeeping.
In-house training has been expanded too. An on-site learning centre offers IT and computer courses, and job roles associated with a high staff turnover have been weeded out for attention. "For example, we found that retention rates for supervisors were quite low, mainly because of lack of support and opportunity. So we've introduced a specific supervisors' training scheme and a buddy system for support on shifts," Hughes says.
The only drawback has been an increase in paperwork. "We've effectively had to analyse everybody's position to regrade it in line with the new system, and we've had to start people's appraisals from scratch," he explains. But he's in no doubt that the new system is beneficial for staff. "The system is beginning to bear fruit already, and responses have been very positive so far," he says.
For Hughes, getting the system to work has been as much about encouragement as anything else. "Some courses are obviously mandatory, like food hygiene for example. But with other areas it's a matter of choice, so it's important to offer ongoing support to make sure people make the most of the opportunities," he says.
One particular success has been the chef apprenticeship scheme. Trainee chefs work in the kitchens for four days and also get paid to attend college one day a week. Once qualified, chefs are offered full-time employment at the hospital.
"People come to us as porters and can train up to become fully qualified chefs, which isn't just beneficial to us, it's beneficial to the industry too. Everyone moans that there aren't enough chefs and we're losing skills, but we're addressing that," says Hughes. "The only sad thing is that we lose 70% of them as they often move on."
Trainees are encouraged to take part in industry events too. Two years ago, an apprentice chef won a gold medal in the Salon Culinaire at Hotelympia, and this year, the hospital team picked up silver.
"We have to give them time off and of course there's an associated cost to that," admits Hughes. "But taking part can have such a dramatic effect on motivation levels and attitude to the industry. This year, the lad who took part had never been to London, so it was a fantastic experience for him."
Another key area of change has been flexible working, which has been introduced throughout the hospital. Staff can now work annualised hours, which means they work a set number of hours per year which can fit in with personal circumstances, like family or study commitments. Part-time workers can increase or decrease their hours when it suits them, and a generous maternity and paternity scheme is also in place for every employee.
"We're a large organisation, so we can be more flexible. Basically, we'll consider any reasonable arrangement of hours," Hughes says. "That's not because we're desperate, it's because we want to be supportive of the local community. It makes a huge difference to carers, for instance, or those with long-term illnesses, and families can now take school holidays off if they want to."
The new system is already proving popular with staff. Attendance levels are significantly up and turnover has dropped to just 6%.
"It's simple. Fewer people want to leave now, partly because they don't have to," Hughes says. "As a public sector employer, we ought to be leading the way when it comes to flexibility and staff benefits. The advantages to both parties are obvious. So many companies have a disposable attitude to staff, but it doesn't work and long term, the associated costs can be huge."
Best Places to Work Awards 2007
The Caterer and Hotelkeeper Best Places to Work Awards were launched last year to recognise the very best employers in the British hospitality industry.
For businesses already demonstrating HR best practice, our awards offer a chance to prove they're employers of choice. For companies seeking to improve their employment practices, they showcase some businesses to learn from. And for jobseekers, they offer a means of benchmarking prospective employers against the best in the country.
Our search for the winners of the Best Places to Work in Hospitality Awards 2007 is now on.
How to enter
Do you run a successful business and treat your staff well? Why not get greater recognition for your achievements? Enter the Caterer and Hotelkeeper Best Places to Work in Hospitality Awards 2007. Go to www.caterersearch.com/bestplaces and complete the application form.
2007 Award Categories
\* Hotel chains with one to 10 sites.
\* Hotel chains with 11 or more sites.
\* Restaurant/bar chains with one to 10 sites.
\* Restaurant/bar chains with 11 or more sites.
\* Contract catering companies.
\* Public sector.
\* Individual unit.
\* Hospitality supplier company.
Closing date for entries is 31 October 2006.