I came to Walsall in 2017 and what resonated most was the people’s sense of pride, resilience and community. This year has brought a new set of challenges and, as we adjust to living with COVID-19, the resilience of the people of Walsall has come to the fore once again.
The global pandemic has impacted us all in so many ways and as chief executive of Walsall MBC, I wanted to ensure we never forgot that while providing essential services to our residents, we are also a significant employer in the borough.
Thankfully, our workforce strategy had started to build agility into our work practices, helping us become a council that is digital by design. Over the past three years, the council has invested in technology to enable greater collaboration and this has enabled all of us (officers and elected members) to communicate with colleagues, partners and most importantly our customers. We have held cabinet and committee meetings utilising this technology, and most recently held our first remote council meeting on 14 September. Once members could see the benefit for themselves, we have found them keen to learn more and also use the technology to help them in their role as community leaders, producing videos for their constituents and sending thank you messages to staff and community groups. Harnessing technology also had a transformative effect in that our customers can see and take part in the council’s decision making from the comfort of their homes (and at a time that suits them).
While technology is important, I know that it is people who make local authorities work and serve their communities. Therefore, we have updated our agile working policy which, while needed in part as a consequence of COVID-19, is also driven by our recognition of the personal benefits of work/life balance choices for our staff. We want to promote a culture of autonomy, empowerment and trust, in which employees are motivated to achieve in a healthy and safe environment, wherever that may be.
But we also recognise that remote working can bring challenges. As lovely as it can be to meet the children, parents and pets of our colleagues while on Microsoft Teams calls, working from home is not always simple and straightforward for everyone. As a result, we carried out a workforce-wide ‘health check’ via an employee survey. We learned how staff were adapting to remote working and gained their views on how it impacts their work and personal lives. It also helped us identify concerns and anxieties among staff around returning to office-based environments in the future. We will use these findings to inform the council’s emerging reset and recovery plans as well as key HR policies for the future.
I want staff to feel supported, and I can contribute to that support for both their colleagues and customers. In my regular messages and videos to staff, I have shared my routines to ensure wellbeing; members and colleagues have also shared photos of their ‘office’ space, sing-a-long videos, and recipes to keep us going – we have a very talented workforce! I also regularly remind colleagues of our employee assistance programme and our mental health first aiders because the health, wellbeing and resilience of our colleagues are essential if we are to continue to support each other and our communities in the weeks and months ahead.
COVID-19 has shown us that office-based or fixed workplaces are not always necessary, or even optimal (a big thank you to all elected members and officers for making this work). Whatever the catalyst, by empowering our staff to take control of how and where they undertake their role, we unlock a range of social, environmental, economic and business benefits while continuing our primary purpose of delivering efficient and effective services for all Walsall people, communities and businesses.
Dr Helen Paterson is chief executive of Walsall MBC