When the Prime Minister announced the immediate COVID-19 lockdown measures on 23 March, we knew how much our communities and businesses would need us.
They expect us to deliver for them.. But the investments we have made in transforming in the past two years meant we were prepared. We had already been discussing our potential actions and were already implementing a strategy to minimise disruption to our services.
Some services had already changed or closed. We quickly took the decision to redeploy staff in those services to carry out new coronavirus related duties. Flexibility is a key staff value and redeployment and re-tasking have always been a key part of our business continuity plans, ensuring that in an event of any emergency crucial services remain able to function and support communities.
With the threat of under-resourcing business critical areas we initially completed a thorough skills matrix across the organisation. This work highlighted where staff had previous experience in an area or had transferable skills such as excellent customer service.
We divided the re-tasking into three phases; the initial phase identified staff who would require minimal training and could quickly be utilised. The second phase picked up staff requiring more detailed training but who were not starting from scratch and phase three identified colleagues requiring complete training. This was then reviewed and agreed at a strategic level, with the understanding that non-critical areas of the business would be reduced or stopped altogether in the time needed to address the crisis.
We liaised with staff and explained how we would be re-tasking them. The skills matrix encouraged the organisation to look beyond job descriptions and titles and allowed us to successfully redeploy staff in a wide range of roles. Before COVID-19 it would have been hard to envisage countryside rangers working in the crematorium, events planners answering residents calls to our wellbeing hub or an award winning sports grounds team delivering food parcels to those in need.
With the matrix complete we then considered scenario planning. For example, how many staff would we need to train if we lost 30% of the workforce due to COVID-19? Central to this planning was assessing council tax Support, business grants and benefits.
In recognition of the critical nature of these work areas fast-track online training was delivered and quickly resulted in a range of colleagues including strategic planners and people specialists having the ability and support to be able to assess potentially complex work areas such as business grants and housing benefit applications. We have also redeployed staff to support our homelessness service to boost support and get people off the streets by making emergency changes at our hostels, removing shared accommodation and creating areas for self-isolation.
Central to all of our planning was ensuring that our residents were supported through the pandemic. Our biggest and most immediate challenge was to help our most vulnerable residents. This was in the form of a brand new Wellbeing Hub which provided food parcels to those shielding, vulnerable, homeless and facing financial hardship. The hub was established by a dynamic team of staff from across the organisation.
With staff working flat out to deliver COVID-19 and business as usual services, it was absolutely critical that the well-being of staff was not overlooked. While all these urgent actions were taking place our People team established a staff well-being platform. In partnership with the Employee Assistance Programme, Care First colleagues are now able to access 24/7 professional advice around areas including mental well-being and working from home. On top of this we supported all our staff in developing personal well-being plans.
For all of us this has brought pressures and challenges. As someone with a young family I feel stretched and often torn, trying to meet their needs and support them and all the worries that come with that, whilst also ensuring I do my job and ensure that our organisation is there for our communities and businesses. Like many people, my children can often make unexpected appearances in important Zoom meetings!
But, in what for many will be a desperately sad and worrying situation, I am proud of the way our organisation – and particularly our staff – have come together to look after our residents, businesses and colleagues.
We are championing their great work under the banner SSDC Superstars internally and on social media. And this has only helped reinforce the message that we are all going to come through COVID-19 together.
Kirsty Larkins is South Somerset DC’s director of strategy and commissioning