Case Study

Improving engagement and communications for ambulance service staff

Read how Yorkshire Ambulance Service NHS Trust has created several initiatives to improve communications and staff experience in the workplace.

13 May 2022


Due to the large numbers of employees who aren’t office based and are offsite for most of their working hours, Yorkshire Ambulance Service (YAS) wanted to improve the ways they could communicate and engage with all staff, including those more dispersed. Through different approaches, YAS developed three schemes; they appointed a number of employees as cultural ambassadors, they procured and implemented an app called ‘Simply Do Ideas’ and they also established a range of staff equality networks with the aim of making sure staff from under-represented groups also had their voices heard.

Key benefits and outcomes

  • Every staff member has the opportunity to interact and engage regardless of their role or where they are based.
  • Employees feel listened to and therefore more connected and valued by the organisation – and hence a stronger sense of belonging.
  • The concepts are real solutions for capturing feedback efficiently.
  • Ideas can be generated, responded to and acted on more quickly and transparently.

What the organisation faced

Yorkshire Ambulance Service (YAS) has 62 ambulance stations spread across Yorkshire. Many of its staff are out on the road for the entirety of their shifts and don’t spend much time at their base, others work in the 999 and 111 contact centres or at other sites, and some currently work from home. For road staff, accessing employee information that may be beneficial to them is difficult as much of it is disseminated through digital channels and also physically (e.g. posters, leaflets) around stations, offices and other work sites.

The trust realised it needed to find ways of improving communications methods to better reach all staff and engage with them. It also wanted to improve relationships between colleagues and managers and ensure all employees feel valued by the organisation.

What the organisation did

Based on suggestions from staff during various engagement events, the trust management group decided to support three different initiatives to improve staff engagement:

1. Cultural ambassadors

The trust decided it would be helpful for staff to have some colleagues they could reach out to in person for more informal engagement – in addition to conversations with their line manager. The purpose of a cultural ambassador is to be an additional ‘voice’ for their colleagues and bring ideas forward, to be able to signpost them to relevant resources and support, and promote five key themes as ambassadors for “What it is like to work here”; the culture at YAS.

Initially YAS asked for expressions of interest from staff who embodied the appropriate ethics and principles to be a cultural ambassador and who would commit to promoting and role modelling: the YAS values and behaviours, freedom to speak up, diversity & inclusion, quality improvement and employee health and wellbeing. They encourage colleagues to address inappropriate behaviour in an appropriate way, i.e. dealing with a situation without compromising the YAS values or behaviours.

Prior to the pandemic YAS facilitated training sessions and meetings between senior managers and the 50 cultural ambassadors (representing all areas of the trust) in what they called the Employee Voice Network. Since the pandemic the engagement has been virtual only, but plans are in place to meet in person again. Feedback from staff so far has been positive. The cultural ambassadors are appreciated as the extra go-to people and staff feel they have visible, trusted and reliable colleagues they can communicate with on a number of issues and get some advice from: sometimes the advice is that they need to take an issue up with their line manager or via trade union colleagues, sometimes that the freedom to speak up route is the correct channel, sometimes the advice is about where to find the right resources to support wellbeing, and sometimes it’s about guiding colleagues to where and how they can best share their ideas.

2. ‘Simply Do Ideas’ app

YAS used to have a sub-site on its intranet called ‘Bright Ideas’. This allowed staff to contribute ideas about anything to do with improving patient care, performance or the workplace experience. However, employees could only access it through a computer and if they were connected to the intranet. It was also quite a detached process where a small team would respond, act upon and feedback on each suggestion. Often the individual who put forward an idea didn’t know when to expect a response or where it might have gone until the feedback was received – and no-one else knew about the idea, unless by chance someone had told them about it. The process felt long-winded, rigid and not transparent enough.

The ‘Simply Do Ideas’ platform and app was procured and customised / devised on the basis that all employees would be able to access it easily, rather than from a computer which the majority of staff (those on the road) would only have random access to. The app allows staff to submit ideas and colleagues can ‘like’ and rate these, leave comments and tag other colleagues if they think it’s of interest to them or if they could contribute to progressing the idea. Two examples of ideas being developed during the pandemic to support staff wellbeing are:

Welfare vehicles

These vehicles are visiting busy emergency departments where staff are often faced with handover delays, providing colleagues with a drink, a snack and a friendly chat if they wish. The business intelligence team helps to identify the busiest sites in the region and the vehicles can attend these sites with provisions. Senior managers and board members are also taking part in delivering this service and meeting staff.

Therapy dogs

Therapy dogs have been used in many guises to help people with their health and wellbeing. With additional funding from NHSE and YAS were able to run successful pilots on this for their call centre staff. They arrange for the dogs to go to call centres and allow employees to spend time with them as this has a calming effect which can be much needed when dealing with an enormous amount of calls and sometimes very distressing ones. Of course, a risk assessment has to be undertaken for these visits; the dogs would not be brought into rooms where there are any employees that are not comfortable with/don’t want to interact with the dogs or have an allergy to them. Because of the popularity of the scheme there are now plans to implement the offer more permanently and explore how this might also be used at other workplaces within the trust.

Other suggestions taken forward include:

  • Informal sessions with a psychologist (with no booking required)
  • Virtual ‘Grab a cuppa’ sessions for informal chats with colleagues
  • A “Working from home self-care guide” booklet on physical exercises aimed at office based staff who had been/still are working from home majority of the time
  • Training sessions on personal and team resilience
  • All staff provided with a wellbeing-branded thermal flask

3. Staff equality networks

Over time, the trust has formed a range of staff equality networks for those from minority or under-represented backgrounds. These networks are:

  • BAME
  • LGBTQ+ (named Pride@YAS)
  • Disability support
  • Women & Allies (the latest one, launched in March 2022)

In 2021 it was agreed to allocate each of the networks with a small budget. The membership is open to anyone who wants to join – either because they identify with the under-represented group or as an ally. Each network has a chairperson with allocated time for that role, and staff are allowed to attend network meetings during work time where possible. The trust has a diversity and inclusion steering group, which is a formal sub-group of the trust management group and includes members from the trust executive group and the board as well as the network chairs. This provides a great opportunity for reciprocal feedback and for the networks to influence the strategic direction for the trust. The network chairs are also invited along to the employee voice network meetings.  

Overcoming obstacles

As a result of social distancing restrictions during the pandemic cultural ambassadors have only been able to meet and interact virtually (online) which doesn’t have the same impact as being together in a room. However now that restrictions have been reduced there are plans for in-person meetings and more training, alongside further virtual engagement in a true hybrid approach, to take place to revitalise the scheme.

In terms of the Simply Do Ideas app, some staff were not keen on having to access this through their personal phone. For a variety of good reasons, the organisation have now issued corporate mobile phones to every staff member and the app is pre-installed on each phone.

Results and benefits

Employees feel more empowered by being able to suggest ideas, report issues and communicate effectively with colleagues, including senior staff. This helps to build trustful relationships and encourages a healthier, happier work environment.

In terms of the Simply Do Ideas app, there are currently 1475 active users and 623 ideas have been submitted.

Takeaway tips

  • Spend time engaging with and really listening to your staff. For them it means their voices are being heard and ultimately your organisation will feel like a better place to work.
  • Be transparent in your communications and use multiple ways and channels to reach as many staff as possible
  • Ensure that everyone has the opportunity to access information and contribute ideas; if there is a physical barrier think of ways to address this.
  • Recognise that under-represented staff members are just as entitled to have a voice and influence as everyone else but may struggle more to feel listened to. Established staff equality networks are a positive and effective outlet for these staff to channel their concerns and ideas and feel included and empowered.

Further information

Contact Claus Madsen, Associate Director of Education and Organisational Development, Yorkshire Ambulance Service NHS Trust: