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THE BIG INTERVIEW: Douglas Webb, Director of Retirement Living, Abbeyfield Society

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Abbeyfield Society Director of Retirement Living Douglas Webb says it is a key feature of his job to help bring the best of the charity’s corporate operations and member organisation worlds closer together.

In terms of geographic reach and organisational structure, The Abbeyfield Society, including all of its members, is the UK’s most diverse and complex social care provider.

The charity’s two operating arms – Retirement Living and the many independent member societies across the UK – offer care homes, sheltered living, independent and extra care facilities, not to mention Abbeyfield’s global operations in South Africa, Canada, Belgium, Australia, New Zealand and new projects in Poland and Malawi.

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Douglas was brought in by chief executive David McCullough in January 2018 and given the somewhat daunting challenge of ensuring Abbeyfield’s diverse corporate and member organisations worked closely together with the same consistency of care, values and operational excellence.

“The corporate centre brings rigour and consistency around regulation and monitoring governance,” Douglas said.

“Our member organisations have this local connectedness and deep embedding in the local community. It’s everyone’s job to bring the best of both those worlds together.”

To do this, Douglas immediately divided Abbeyfield’s England operations into three regions in the north, east and west.

He then recruited a core team of leaders to head each region. Julie Robinson leads the corporate effort in the North with Kirstan Sparshott in the East and Heather Mohammed in the West.

“I have a dream team. Heather has a lot of experience in the housing sector,” Douglas noted.

“Kirstan has a very good track record in the care sector and Julie has a long track record in the customer service and education sector.”

With its back office HR and finance operations handled at the charity’s corporate centre, HR business partners have been appointed with strategic responsibilities such as recruitment and learning and development in each of the three regions.

“I am a great one for structure and process and having business plans and coming back to the objectives that have been set is really helpful to people,” Douglas noted.

“When the essential things are done regularly without having to think about it, you can then get around to doing the more creative and innovative things.”

Recruitment

Douglas said Abbeyfield prided itself on being one of the first Living Wage employers.

“That’s just one example of how we demonstrate how we value people who work in this sector,” he said.

With turnover near 20% and agency use at 5%, the charity is significantly below sector benchmarks.

“In common with all providers in this sector, recruitment and retention are key and unsurprisingly we focus a lot of our energy on building a brand and reputation for fair employment with a priority on training and development that is utterly focussed on customers,” Douglas stressed.

While noting the tough recruitment climate for social care providers, Douglas said he did not subscribe to the view that care homes compete in the same labour market as retailers.

“I don’t buy the usual media comparison between care and stacking shelves in supermarkets,” he said.

“That’s disrespectful to people who make these choices for different reasons.

“It’s a miserable comparison. There’s a lot of people that are powerfully motivated to work in care and see the value of doing it and love it. It’s all about making sure we recruit the people who really want to do this. I started off my career as a volunteer in a day school for severely handicapped children so I am the perfect example of how career progression can work in this sector.

“As a Living Wage employer, and I think we were one of the first in the sector to commit to this, we are competitive but what is more important is our focus on providing the right care and support for the people we work with. This is really important to people that feel drawn to working in this sector and I am happy to lead on this basis.”

Technology

Douglas said technology had played a key role in helping Abbeyfield implement best practice consistently. The charity has begun trialling the Nourish Care electronic care planning system at two of its care homes and is using the system for the first time from day one at its latest care home Speedwell Court in Southampton.

“We have got a very people-based approach about spending time with our customers and getting to know them,” Douglas noted.

“Understanding how technology can contribute to that is really important, however, we need to be really sure that using systems contributes to human engagement and does not detract
from that.

“I am absolutely convinced that Nourish can bring something excellent to the table but we need to be rigorous in how we apply it. We have got to see what the best combination of the way we use it is and look at the ways we can customise it to fit the way we work.”

In terms of other technology, Abbeyfield has installed Tovertafel interactive dementia tables in its homes and is developing a relationship with My Life Films, which will help prompt reminiscence by creating films of people’s lives.

Strategic review

Under their CEO’s leadership Abbeyfield has conducted a strategic review which will plot how the charity evolves over the coming years.

“By building on our founder Richard Carr-Gomm’s reputation for social reform, we have a great challenge and great opportunity, not just to build on what we already do well but to think about how the next generations are going make choices about how they live,” Douglas noted.

The charity currently provides shared sites offering independent living with flexible care and domestic support. Going forward, Douglas said Abbeyfield would be increasingly interested in developing models of flexible support while exploring developments in the heart of the community with a strong component of intergenerational care.

“At the moment lots of organisations are building very large schemes for very good reasons outside of town because that’s where there’s land and that’s where it’s affordable but that’s not how people live,” Douglas argued.

“People live in small units in small communities focused around local churches, local shops and local clubs. We have got to do what we can to move back into those areas and into brownfield areas to ensure that people are at the centre of their communities and not at the periphery.

“We are very much in tune with the more advanced local authority thinking of helping people stay in their communities. The next generation of people are going to express their needs and wishes in a very different way and that is not necessarily about gated communities. It’s about staying in their communities. It’s about intergenerational living. It’s about remaining valued. I think that will look like a very different model. That’s why our history as a social reformer is very important.

“Charities should do more than simply reinvesting surpluses. They should be about reform. They should be about stretching the boundaries of what is possible and that’s what Abbeyfield is going to be about.”

As a social reform organisation, Douglas said it was Abbeyfield’s responsibility to overturn the idea that growing old was a disabling process by proving that, with the right intervention and support, cognitive and physical abilities can be maintained and even enhanced.

Winnersh and Castleoak

As the creator of the Winnersh dementia care home in Berkshire along with partner, Castleoak, Abbeyfield became a pioneer in creating a future model for dementia care.

The home, which is designed with circular corridors to support independence and wayfinding, was named Best New Elderly Care Home at the 2017 Pinders Design Awards.

Designed in collaboration with Castleoak, the 60-bed facility has achieved Sterling Silver accreditation with Abbeyfield hoping to soon achieve Gold status.

While Winnersh took a revolutionary approach to dementia care home design, Douglas stressed that there was no fixed template for Abbeyfield home designs going forward with each site being individually catered to meet the individual needs of residents and local communities.

“It’s still early days for Winnersh,” Douglas noted.

“We need to continue to review it before we roll out a model like that again.

“We need to flex our model to suit local needs.”

Abbeyfield also partnered with Castleoak and a private pension fund on its latest home, Speedwell Court in Southampton. Castleoak approached Abbeyfield to run the home on a long term lease.

“Castleoak have a lot of important knowledge on design because they have been around a long time in the sector so working together is really important,” Douglas said.

The Abbeyfield director said the lease scheme provided another route to market for the charity in a climate where new sites can be hard to find.

Further upcoming schemes include a member society development in south London, a housing  scheme in Plymouth and a new development in the South Downs area, as well as a number of extension and refurbishment projects across the UK.

“There’s a huge amount happening across the whole family in uniquely different ways,” Douglas concluded.

“It’s fantastic that we have these local members strongly connected with the local community feeding back all of their experience and combining that with some of the things we can do as a corporate entity.

“I am looking forward to a really interesting and bright future.”

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The author Lee Peart

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