Staff Network Leadership – University Hospitals Dorset NHS Foundation Trust


University Hospitals Dorset (UHD) NHS Foundation Trust has several active staff networks, including:

  • Pro-Ability
  • BAME
  • Pride
  • International Doctors Support Group
  • European Union
  • Women and Armed Forces.

Most came into being before the pandemic, with the Women’s network being a new addition.

Case study summary

Senior Organisational Development Manager, Tracy Mack-Nava, said: “Many people go the extra mile to take on a network role, drawing on their unique and valuable life experience to support people.

“Yet, even with protected time for network tasks, leads struggled to balance network commitments with their work without becoming overburdened by peers and manager pressures.”

What was the aim/problem?

Network leads explained a lack of understanding about the importance of protected time, and colleagues ignorant to the work of the network led to an expectation that staff networks would be doing the organisation’s work.

What was the solution?

Trust networks became involved in organisational decision-making, including policy development, inclusion projects such as reverse mentoring and recruitment panels for senior vacancies.

Supportive senior leadership has helped the trust’s staff networks to thrive, with each network having an executive director as a sponsor, chosen by the network members.

The organisation provides regular, appraisable opportunities to develop leadership skills and exposure to senior executives with a quarterly, four-hour leadership development skill session that increases confidence in progressing network aims.

Each network developed organically, understanding members’ needs, nurturing the necessary internal relationships and establishing their purpose and priorities.

Early days are spent raising the visibility to increase membership, holding listening to events, providing pastoral support and sharing lived experiences. You will then focus on recruiting network allies to create a more inclusive culture.

Tracy adds: “We have agreed on an organisational requirement to allocate protected hours for staff network leads to undertake their leadership role, which is to flag issues, provide data and lived experience, to influence and signpost people.”

A clear written explanation of the protected time has been developed to emphasise the organisational support for staff network leads aligned to the staff partnership protected time agreement.

What were the challenges?

Tracy continued: “Organisations would be naïve to think a network just sets itself up and starts running. The right conditions for thriving networks include recognition, visibility and feeling valued for their contributions. It is also so important to develop trust and empathy that allows for honest and meaningful conversations.

“Just being allocated protected time isn’t enough without the confidence and boundaries to take that time and use it well, so sponsors and organisational leads need to go out to formalise that protected time regularly. Engagement with their direct manager is also crucial.”

What were the results?

The hard work of the teams at University Hospitals Dorset NHS Foundation Trust has established best practices that has been shared with NHS Dorset Integrated Care System.

What were the learning points

Supportive senior leadership and objective terms of reference have helped the trust’s staff networks thrive, as well as providing the skills development and understanding of common priorities and issues that help people feel valued.

Encouraging membership and interest means not being too ambitious too quickly and starting with listening events, pastoral support and elevating lived experience.

Effective staff networks build resilient and compassionate cultures of safety and belonging and support the high-quality, considered decision-making needed to create a service fit for the future.