Radfield Home Care co-founders Dr Hannah MacKechnie and Alex Green talk about the resilience of the home care sector throughout the pandemic and how the crisis has triggered the launch of new services and solutions across their growing network.
Growing a business through a pandemic is never going to be easy, especially for franchisors, who rely on new business partners to expand their network.
For Radfield Home Care, the risks of starting a business in the current economic climate have meant that franchise sales have dwindled. However, the resilience of the home care sector during the crisis has appealed to new entrepreneurs and inquiries are now on the increase.
In an exclusive interview with Home Care Insight, co-founders Dr Hannah MacKechnie and Alex Green talk about a how heightened public awareness of home care has strengthened the market.
They also discuss the importance of re-energising care staff as the UK enters a second wave, and supporting the workforce through their Caring for Carers pledge.
Finally, the brother-sister co-founders announce the introduction of new technologies that will enhance the way Radfield Home Care supports its clients, and the launch of new services in response to people’s changing care needs.
When we spoke this time last year you had just moved into a new office in Shrewsbury, after having opened 12 franchise offices in the space of three years. How has Radfield grown as a network since then?
Hannah MacKechnie: Yes, we’ve moved offices, which is great. We’re now based right in the heart of Shrewsbury, which is a lovely little town and really handy for our franchise partners and anyone interested in joining the franchise network to come and see us. So it’s been a really positive move. In terms of how growth has been since then, it’s been a strange time, it’s fair to say, so what we experienced is that throughout the onset of the pandemic the interest in franchise sales decreased quite significantly. But, over the last few months, we’ve seen that that’s picking up again, which is really encouraging.
I also think the pandemic and the news around home care has shone a different light on the sector. It’s always been a bit of a poor cousin to residential care and I think, actually, it’s been really positive to see home care being talked about in the news and awareness being raised amongst the general population that our services do exits and our carers work incredibly hard.
So have you seen an increased demand as a result of the media coverage?
HM: Yes, and I think that will hopefully increase. I think as people look at the sector, they can see that it’s resilient. We actually set up Radfield Home Care in 2008, when we were in the financial crisis and then we’ve existed and run the business through the pandemic, so this highlights how resilient the sector is. So I think that’s very appealing for people who are looking to invest and set up a franchise business of their own.
We have high levels of staff retention and client satisfaction and what we found is that it’s really important for our clients to know that their carer is well looked after and that they are paid properly.
You had a national office team of 10 this time last year and you were in the process of recruiting more people. Who have you brought on board and how are they helping you grow the business?
HM: Since we last spoke we’ve brought on more people into our marketing team, so we’ve now brought on a content manager and we’ve also brought on digital marketing executive to support our franchise partners with their marketing needs and requirements in their local area. Also, we’ve recently appointed our operations director, Neil McPherson, so that’s a really exciting appointment for us. He comes with a very strong financial background and has supported businesses to grow, so he’s going to be a real asset to our franchise partners.
Alex, could you talk about the challenges of growing a company during the pandemic and attracting a workforce?
Alex Green: I suppose it’s a tale of two halves. On the care side of the business, there’s been a very consistent need for our services and we’ve seen some strong growth across all of our offices through the pandemic. So, on that side, the challenges haven’t been about growing the business, but keeping the business safe and keeping it secure. On the other side, with the franchising, the challenge is the fact that it’s still quite difficult to launch a business in the current climate. The banks are very positive about franchising as a sector and specifically the home care as a sector. It’s actually been earmarked as one of their number one priorities to see as a resilience through the pandemic, so that gives us a lot of confidence.
But there are some structural things that aren’t in place at the moment, so it’s very difficult for new businesses to borrow money. It’s not impossible, but it’s not as easy as it was, and we’re waiting now until Brexit’s finalised and probably into next year to see some of the government guaranteeing schemes coming back online so that it makes it easier for new businesses to access the initial finance they need. That will make a significant difference because, obviously, most businesses launch with a financial need, so that’s going to put things back on track.
You moved your Franchise Discovery Sessions online in April. How have they been received so far?
AG: We did that as a response to lockdown as it was impossible to have face-to-face meetings, but it was something we’d been thinking about doing anyway to make it easier for people to have an initial conversation and find out more about the sector. So I suppose the pandemic gave us the push to get it launched. It’s been very positive and very successful. People can meet us and find out everything they need to know about us, and then, if they are interested, they can come and talk to us face-to-face if they can.
Many care providers have reported a surge in job applicants since the start of the pandemic. Have you experienced the same? And how have you managed to whittle those candidates down to ensure they are well-suited for frontline care roles?
HM: Initially, we were flooded with applicants for care assistant roles, which is quite unusual because recruitment’s always been quite a challenge in our sector. I have to say, it was quite difficult to whittle down those candidates just because of the sheer volume of applicants and because our offices weren’t geared up to having that volume to deal with. However, what we found is that throughout the pandemic and as the months have moved forward, that demand has settled down, especially after the furlough scheme opened and was established. It’s not quite back to pre-COVID levels – the spotlight that’s been shone on the sector has meant that more people are aware of the roles that are available, but it’s definitely settled considerably.
I think we’ve reached a point now where some of the in-home technology systems have matured to the point where they’re useful and accessible.
Have you been out to retain the people that have joined your company from other industries, such as retail?
HM: I would say the answer to that is a bit of ‘yes’ and a bit of ‘no’. We had a lot of people join us across the network once the furlough scheme allowed people to work in health and social care at the same time as being furloughed from another role. However, for a lot of those staff, we always knew it was going to be a temporary situation. So, of those people, a large percentage of them did actually return to their original job once they were able to. But we did see some people really enjoy working in our sector and have decided to stay, which is fantastic. I has been really nice to see that.
You revamped your employee retention and wellbeing strategy, Caring for Carers, in November. Could you explain how this works and how it has helped support your workforce during the pandemic?
HM: We launched our Caring for Carers pledge when we first set up the business. We were always focused on wanting to be a really good employer and so we wanted to demonstrate to our workforce how were going to look after them properly. We decided that it had been several years since we set it up so we wanted to revamp it. It’s not changed significantly, but the whole focus is around trying to drive the right organisational culture across our network of franchise offices. That will then enable us to empower, appreciate and reward all of our care and office staff who work incredibly hard.
We’re Living Wage accredited across many of our franchise offices, so that’s really important to us, as is encouraging our staff to develop their skills and to progress with us. We have high levels of staff retention and client satisfaction and what we found is that it’s really important for our clients to know that their carer is well looked after and that they are paid properly.
What impact would you say that the coronavirus pandemic has had on your workforce in general?
AG: Initially, there was a lot of fear of the unknown. No one knew quite what we were heading into when the pandemic started, so I think one of the biggest concerns at the beginning was that the government guidance was changing so rapidly, on a daily basis.
We were having so many updates and it left our offices feeling worried that they weren’t on top of things. But we gave them the reassurance that we had a team in place that were keeping an eye on the changes to legislation so, through that, we managed to get all of the correct PPE in place very quickly, as well as the correct guidelines and working practices in place. So I think that initial fear subsided pretty quickly.
Knowing that we were probably going to be heading into a second wave this winter, we did a survey with our carers across our network to find out how supported they felt by their managers and the organisation as a whole. The response was overwhelmingly positive.
How can care providers re-energise their staff and keep that momentum going as we enter a second wave?
AG: I think it’s about making sure that we praise our carers, we reflect on what they’re doing, we take on board any feedback from the clients and we share that with them. We want to make sure everyone’s fit and well and that they have breaks. We also want to make sure the office teams are well energised to support the carers. That’s what we really have to do – keep focusing on the mission that we have and keep everyone working towards that shared goal.
How have you supported your clients to feel less isolated and to keep their spirits up during this period?
HM: In a variety of ways. During the lockdown period, lots of families weren’t able to visit their elderly relatives, so, in many cases, we were the only people that were allowed to go into their homes. That put a real duty of care onto us and our care teams to make sure that we were looking after those individuals holistically. So we made sure that we stepped up the communications with families so that they heard from us regularly about how their loved ones were doing. We also supported clients to contact their families directly, using Zoom, for instance.
Also, at the outset of the pandemic, because we didn’t really know what we were going into, we contacted a lot of our clients who had very low-level needs to see whether they needed those calls. We were very mindful that we didn’t want to introduce risk into their home if they didn’t really need it, but overwhelmingly, the majority of them wanted to keep the care in place because they value their carer coming into their home and the relationship that they’ve built.
We are looking at whether a live-in care service is something that will benefit the network and it is something that we are planning to roll out across the business.
You created a Digital Support System back in December. How has this helped you stay resilient through the crisis?
HM: Yes, this communication portal, if you like, has been fantastic. We’ve be able to keep on top of the many, many changes to legislation and regulation and communicate that to the network in a really efficient and clear way. So we really put that to the test as soon as we built that into the business.
Another real benefit is that it allows the network to communicate with each other more effectively. So we’ve got the ability through our digital communications platform, Radius, to actually allow our care managers to talk to one another and share best practice and information.
What would you say are the benefits of investing in home care technology?
AG: We’ve always been interested in how technology fits within care services and how it can enhance what we do, and I think we’ve reached a point now where some of the in-home technology systems have matured
to the point where they’re useful and accessible. I think that there is a strong role for technology to play in home care services, particularly around keeping people safe when carers aren’t there. You can put in a non-intrusive system into somebody’s home that basically alerts if there’s a problem, so if there’s been a fall or if there’s potentially an illness that’s progressing, the change in behaviour gets noted by the system and that can be flagged up to a care provider like us, who can then intervene and help. That’s something that’s of amazing benefit for people.
So we’re introducing an exceptional care solution, which is a mesh between technology and the care service. It’s going to be a very flexible system that will enhance how we can provide care and support to our clients. Another area where we’ve looked at using more technology is around the marketing that we do, so in terms of building an enhanced content solution for our offices. We have a digital marketing team that is looking at how we can build content locally using the different channels available to us.
Alex, you’re a founding member of the campaign to make social care zero-rated for VAT. How important is this campaign for Radfield Home Care and how do you intend to invest those savings back into the company?
AG: We founded the campaign to bring more investment into what is a very underfunded sector and to bring some kind of level playing field across care. Care providers don’t charge VAT on our services, but we have to pay VAT on all of our rent, utilities, our bills and our running costs, and that’s something that’s uniform across home care and residential care. If you compare that to other industries that work in the care sector it’s not the same, so some of the products are zero-rated as opposed to VAT exempt, and that creates some challenges for us.
A change in the VAT regime would instantly drive investment into the sector. The effect would be immediate and it would be uniform across the sector, so you wouldn’t have to go through a very complex political process to reform the whole care sector – you could make a very simple change to the VAT regime that would drive investment straight into care providers’ bottom lines.
It would help with resilience and it would help with sustainability. It would also drive innovation, and that is something we are focused on. As we’ve discussed, technology can help build a stronger care service and not just the client-facing systems, but also the logistics, HR and recruitment platforms that help recruit and train workforce.
From my perspective, it’s a win-win. We’re not talking about a massive investment from the Treasury to make that change and when you consider the knock-on effects – an increased use of technology can drive massive cost-savings through to the NHS, for example – you’re saving the government money by preventing people from being admitted to hospital. So if you start to look at things in that context, the investment would be minimal compared to the savings you get at the other end.
Knowing that we were probably going to be heading into a second wave this winter, we did a survey with our carers across our network to find out how supported they felt by their managers.
What projects have you got lined up for the next 12 months?
AG: We’re pretty busy! We’re looking at supporting some of our new franchise partners and getting their businesses set up, so that’s a big focus at the moment. So we’re looking at supporting the network to grow sustainably. We’re always focused on bringing in the right people into our sector who can build the right kind of business so that they look after our clients in the right way. That’s something that’s ongoing for us. We talk to people a lot and we are constantly improving how we recruit our franchise partners to come into our network.
We’re also looking at developing new services that respond to people’s changing needs. That is something we think about quite a lot as an organisation – the change in demographics of the people we are looking after. That has changed massively in the years that we’ve been operating, and it will change going ahead.
We are looking at whether a live-in care service is something that will benefit the network and it is something that we are planning to roll out across the business because I think there is a strong need. I think it’s about responding to choice and what people want from care. If you look back 20 to 30 years, people chose to go into retirement homes and no one does that anymore. So there’s a big shift and I think live-in care is an important part of that.
We’re also excited about the technology platforms we’ll be launching soon. We’ve always been very keen at adopting technology to help us provide care more safely and we’re constantly look ahead to what’s down the line.