‘I don’t think we’re going to see each other for a while…’
Most local government officers will recall where they were on 23 March. While the challenge ahead of us had perhaps not yet been realised, we certainly knew we were in for a bumpy ride.
In Hertfordshire, an emergency cabinet update report was nearing completion, staff were told that they must work from home and the nine-month roll-out programme for Microsoft Teams had been reduced to four weeks. Over the following months our incredible staff rose to the challenges they faced with professionalism and dedication.
Following roughly two months of dedicated ‘response’ work, the county council stood up a dedicated recovery board in May with a number of workstreams that would ensure our best chance at successful recovery from the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Workstreams included workforce, workplace safety, finance and commercial, and finally, ‘Shaping our Future’ – our new programme to design how we hope to work, as an organisation, post-pandemic.
The workplace safety workstream, led by our head of prevention, was responsible for ensuring that our sites could be deemed COVID secure – with our chief executive signing a pledge to confirm this commitment.
At Hertfordshire we are passionate about equality and diversity and responded to the realisation that for BAME colleagues, COVID proved to have a disproportionately adverse impact on them. We did this in many ways, but one specific way was to hold a dedicated question and answer session in June which was very well attended. Thinking about our staff with access needs, we arranged staff from our disability staff networks to visit our main sites, prior to them being signed off as COVID secure, to ensure that they were able to use the new layouts. This provided an invaluable insight and allowed facilities management teams to make the necessary adjustments.
Conscious that most of our staff had not seen their workplace for several months now, the recovery board arranged for a video to be filmed of our COVID-secure offices for staff to see. This provided reassurance to colleagues who did need to come into our buildings to work, but also emphasised the need for most of us to stay put at home. We needed to keep our sites as clear as possible for those that needed them.
Looking after our staff has been on the minds of our senior management teams throughout the pandemic. The mental health benefits of spending time with colleagues and a change of scenery from our homes continue to be missed by many. With this in mind, the recovery board commissioned PTSD support for any staff who feel they need it following the traumatic experiences they may have experienced during the pandemic.
Furthermore, the spike in domestic abuse cases across the United Kingdom throughout lockdown was staggering, and our duty of care, as a major employer, was more important than ever. The ‘workforce’ workstream of the recovery board developed a domestic abuse sub-workstream with the primary task of equipping our HR service desk colleagues with the necessary skills and knowledge to respond to domestic-abuse related calls.
Throughout the first couple of months of the pandemic our group of senior managers (leadership forum) met via Microsoft Teams several times. However, this didn’t provide us with the necessary insight to know how our staff were really feeling. Yes, we were keeping them safe from the virus as much as possible, but their mental wellbeing was certainly on our minds.
Our directors commissioned a series of virtual events, later branded as HCC Live Events. Staff were asked questions via Slido on how they were feeling, were provided with key strategic updates and were then asked to split into small groups to discuss their mental resilience in a safe space. Directors also made the effort to make these sessions fun. For example, I asked all attendees to hold up a thank you card for someone they are grateful for while our director of environment and infrastructure asked everyone to pose with a silly hat that they had around the house! The findings of these events will be used going forward to inform our decision making and the feedback from attendees was very positive.
Our attention is now turning towards the winter and having gained so many insights and experience from the past few months, we will continue to do all that we can to support our staff and residents.
Scott Crudgington is director of resources at Hertfordshire CC