Trusting our workforce to make the right calls in this time of crisis

By Sally Hopper | 06 April 2020

We pride ourselves on having exemplary relations with our staff, and the ongoing nurturing of those along with the continuous harnessing of clear lines of communication would not be possible without our motivated, flexible and engaged workforce.

At this unique and challenging time for any local authority, that sense of pride has never been bigger. Our staff have stepped up seamlessly to the huge challenges as we collectively respond to coronavirus.

Working with the unions, policies and working practices have been reviewed and suitably adapted at pace to enable changes which simply cannot be put on hold. Employees quickly grasping skills, which previously would have taken a few days or even weeks to master, have been learnt on the job to a competent and proficient level. This is a wonderful demonstration of our council colleagues’ dedication and aptitude at the most testing of times.

A great example of this has been the speed at which Microsoft Teams was rolled out across our entire organisation in response to the need for colleagues to work from home where possible.

Some of our services for the public, such as libraries, have had to close until the pandemic no longer poses the threat it currently does. However, much thought and creativity has gone into continuing to promote and ultimately provide these services in various ways in the meantime. For example, we’ve moved some of our events and activities online. Significantly, our BorrowBox service, which gives residents the option of downloading eBooks and audiobooks, has seen a huge rise in activity with first-time users up by 332% in the past week and overall loans up by 43% in the same period.

A few weeks ago, and with the landscape associated with coronavirus constantly changing, as it still is, we quickly prioritised keeping our workforce reassured, just as we do with our residents. This is a time of real uncertainty and, in many cases, concern for people so it was important for us to set the right, calming tone among our staff.

Keeping in touch is imperative, and an instrumental tool in this process has been FAQs. These are updated on a regular basis to provide clarity and reassurance, while a managers’ guide and an all-staff ‘Looking after Yourself and Wellbeing’ guide were both produced, swiftly and to a high quality.

For us, like any principle authority, it is important to get key messages out to colleagues in a timely and effective manner. Just a few hours after schools’ closures had been announced, all staff were sent an email of reassurance including some anticipated FAQs they may encounter. Further to this, a specific school closure guide was created.

At Hertfordshire CC, we’re always striving to innovate and come up with ways to do things better. An all-staff ‘virtual’ video, featuring messages from various members of the senior management team including our chief executive Owen Mapley, was produced for the intranet for the first time. As I mentioned earlier, effective staff engagement is vital to us, and this video provided a personal and human touch which is important at any time but particularly right now when many staff have had to adapt quickly to starkly different working conditions, not to mention big changes to how they live. We wouldn’t be doing our jobs if anyone felt isolated or uninformed.

We trust our workforce to make the right calls at this time, and that is the golden thread which continues to run right through our response to coronavirus. To this end, I quickly made a strategic decision to turn our recruitment team into a redeployment hub once the full impact, or potential impact, of coronavirus was clear.

The hub has two main purposes – firstly, to redeploy as many of our displaced staff as possible and, secondly, to work with key partners, such as the Hertfordshire Local Enterprise Partnership, to support displaced members of our community by offering and enabling them to find paid employment.

Along with innovation, some of our council’s true values are kindness and compassion, and we’ve seen plenty of evidence of that in these times more than ever before. Working in the public sector is often misrecognised. One day, when we reflect upon the experience of working where we did at the time of COVID-19, perhaps this will be viewed by more as a career where what you do really does matter.

Sally Hopper is assistant director of human resources at Hertfordshire CC

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