As the largest parish council in Bracknell Forest, Bracknell Town Council’s mission is to be the guardian of 250 acres of parks, play areas and green spaces across the town. We spoke to them about the great outdoors and how Leave Dates has helped them to make staff leave simple, cut their carbon footprint, and save time, slashing phone queries to just 5%. What’s more, its success has inspired them to modernise all of their systems
Founded in 1955, Bracknell Town Council was set up to provide services for people living in the burgeoning “new town” of Bracknell, Berkshire. Today, it serves 56,000 residents and is responsible for managing 33 parks and play areas, as well as providing high-quality services including community grants, events, environment wardens and spaces for hire.
“Our vision is to make Bracknell Town a great place to live, work and visit, and we do that by promoting our green spaces,” says office manager Rachel Gordge.
Increasingly, we know that green spaces in towns and cities are crucial not only for biodiversity and clean air but also for our physical and mental health – and never more so than in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
The council’s main aim is to maintain these special green spaces for all residents to enjoy – whether that’s playing sports, meeting with friends, walking, fishing, or gardening in one of their allotments – and to protect them from future development.
The council is formed of 27 councillors, served by a team of 34 staff. Of that team, five work in the office, based in the town’s Lexicon centre, and the rest work outside maintaining these outdoor spaces, installing new play equipment and “making sure that everything’s really nice for the residents to use,” says Rachel.
And let’s not forget the town mayor, who chairs the council and carries out community engagement duties.
After two years of remote working, the office team are back together. “We’re a real community here and it’s lovely dealing with nice things like parks, trees, play areas and families. Every day is different, we’re constantly kept on our toes,” Rachel says.
Downtime is vital: “If you don’t take time off, you don’t rest and recuperate. We encourage staff to take that time and make sure they’ve got a good work-life balance. It’s so important to go away and come back refreshed for the job, especially because most of our staff do such a manual job.”
Back in 2019, the team managed staff leave using a variety of spreadsheets and paper timesheets. Holiday allowances were a huge challenge, says Rachel:
“Information would get crossed, there was human error, and staff couldn’t monitor their own allowances – what they’d used, where they’d used it – so we were getting a lot of phone calls to find out “How much holiday have I got left?” or to say “This day’s wrong”. Also, we found that we were duplicating a lot of the information.”
And there weren’t just mountains of phone admin – there were mountains of paper timesheets, too: “We had folders full. Every time there was a query, we’d have to go back through all of the timesheets, scheduling and holiday sheets. It was a lot of paperwork.”
It was clear they needed a modern solution – and one, crucially, that would work not only for the office staff but for all the grounds staff working outside in the parks, remotely:
“Our grounds staff don’t have work email addresses or computers, so we needed something that could be rolled out to a team on their personal devices.”
At the end of that year, Rachel discovered Leave Dates. “Once I saw it, I was struck by how easy it was. I loved that it could be used on a phone or a tablet. Through the app staff can access their holiday or lieu time anywhere they are, day or night, they don’t have to wait to submit a form for their holiday in person.”
And for those who didn’t want to use their devices, they’ve provided a laptop in the mess room that staff can log onto and book holidays. “It’s really flexible and has meant we can provide such an easy system for people who aren’t using technology all of the time, in a varied way. It’s so much more accessible.”
For the first year, the office team trialled Leave Dates using the free plan for up to five users, making sure it would be easy for their grounds staff to manage and make their lives easier. “Once we decided to roll it out, we just gave them their logins and they were off.”
“We also figured out how to manage leave for some of our more complex staff who work on an hourly basis rather than a fixed rota. The rollout went really well.”
“It did take a little while for some people to accept the change. Particularly those who’ve worked here for 20 or 30 years and are used to doing things in a certain way. But I think now they’ve seen how much control they can have over their own leave, and the data they can get without having to phone somebody, they’ve really come on board. It’s really changed the way that all of our staff view technology, and that’s purely down to how simple it is.”
Where allowances were once difficult to track, “now all of that is very transparent,” Rachel says. “Just by logging on, staff can see all the information they need, which has freed up a lot of time here. You can see everybody’s leave all in one place, it’s so much more efficient. If there are any queries, the reporting on the system is so good that you can show exactly how much leave they’ve used, where they used it, specific dates, specific hours, and it makes it so much more manageable.”
Planning is made easier, too: “Managers can authorise their own teams’ holiday and can be much more in control of keeping not too many people off so it doesn’t impact the workload. We also use the calendar that links into our Outlook so we can see who is on holiday in a particular week when we’re booking meetings, it’s made us much more aware of what people are doing, who’s in and who’s not, so it’s helped with our scheduling a lot.”
Has it solved all of their problems? “100%. Absolutely. I’d say we’ve only had 5% of the phone calls we would have usually had based on queries, because it’s all so clear. It’s really good.” And where before they’d be going through all the paperwork, “now we don’t have to do any of that, so it’s saved a lot of time. It’s a real time-saving system.”
What’s the best thing about it? “The ease of it. How simple it is – it’s easy for people who aren’t very technologically literate, it’s easy on the admin side which makes it difficult to make mistakes. It’s just so clear and simple to use. If we can do it, anyone can use it! It’s made our whole process so much easier and smoother, there’s less room for error.”
“I would also like to say how good the customer support is. I’ve always had a response on the same day, the level of customer service is brilliant. And I like how it’s updated frequently – Phil always asks for suggestions on how it can be improved and adding some of those things in has meant that we can manage our staff who work hourly, so the flexibility, the fact they’re willing to make changes to suit our business, which of course means other councils will be able to use it as well, has been really valuable.”
Would she recommend it? “Definitely. I’ve recommended it to other councils. We’re a big advocate for Leave Dates. We’re on Microsoft Teams but we like Leave Dates so much that we’re not moving onto the Teams scheduling tool.”
Wonderfully, the success they’ve had using Leave Dates has inspired the council to modernise all of their systems: “It was the first step in modernising our leave processes that led me to write up a project on regenerating all of our IT, all of our systems, all of our equipment. We’ve had a complete revamp. Everything has changed.”
“It was a really good trigger point for changing the way we think about the technology we have in the business. The success of it is what’s prompted us to evolve all of our other IT, so it’s done us a great service.”
“We saw how much time it saved and realised the old ways of working, on paper and spreadsheets, didn’t need to be that way. So since then we’ve moved on to Teams, we’ve got laptops, new phone systems, we’re developing our social media to get more engagement from younger people in the community and to make sure we’re accessible to all ages, and we’ve installed new conferencing equipment so we can have hybrid meetings to include the public without having to get them to travel, reducing our carbon footprint too.”
Paper is out: “Part of moving onto Leave Dates, and the other systems, is to try and reduce our paper usage. Everything we’re doing essentially is to try and reduce our carbon footprint, and it definitely has improved, our paper usage has gone down drastically.”
“Literally everything has changed. We improved all our processes, giving us time back to do the nice things that were missing over the last couple of years with the pandemic, like organising summer events. We’ve revamped everything so we can move with the way the world now works.”
Leave Dates is proud to help them make this move.