Leading rapid change at scale: leadership, digital & connection during #COVID19
Laura Bunt, Deputy Chief Executive at We Are With You, reflects on charities' experience of the COVID-19 pandemic and how they are facing the daily challenges of a rapid transition to digital working while maintaining the connection with the community, colleagues and partners.
It’s the end of March, a moment which we might later refer to as ‘the end of the beginning’ of the coronavirus crisis. I am conscious that attempting to write anything about responding to this situation now may be hubris. So, this post comes with a huge caveat: we can’t possibly know how things are going to evolve over the next few weeks and months. All we can do is do our best in these challenging times and be grateful for the expertise and hard work of the NHS and social care teams in taking care of us.
We Are With You is one of the organisations fortunate to be part of the National Lottery’s Digital Fund. As a national service, we help hundreds of thousands of people a year to overcome issues with drugs, alcohol and mental health.
At the moment, our staff and partners are faced with innumerable challenges on a daily basis as they work hard to keep people safe in the context of coronavirus, particularly as many have underlying health conditions, may be homeless or living in poverty. Immediate pressures are making sure people can still get access to essential medication and safe equipment and helping people with social isolation that will impact on the relationships, routines and therapeutic care that support recovery.
Many charities, public services and companies are now going through a massive acceleration of digital transformation that in other times might have taken years. We’ve chosen to invest in digital skills, platforms and services over the past few years (with Lottery support) and in the last few weeks have worked at pace to support our staff and communities as they adjust to the new realities of social distancing and isolation. I’ve been impressed by how we embrace change, but that’s nothing in comparison to the overwhelming pride I’ve felt in the last few weeks as teams have fundamentally redesigned how they work pretty much overnight.
Supporting this rapid transition is a huge leadership challenge, not to mention when simultaneously trying to manage major funding, and health and safety risks for staff and clients. Part of our commitment to the Lottery was about trying things, learning and sharing our experiences, so in that spirit here are some things we’re learning about leading this kind of change.
Connecting with people
We’re all working out what it means to work remotely to a whole new level. Any large organisation relies on networks and relationships to get things done, and so helping people feel engaged and connected to the whole organisation means a lot of time joining the dots. This takes a lot of effort at the best of times, particularly in large, networked organisations where it takes time to get buy-in and develop clear processes for decision-making and routes for communications. It takes patience and courage.
I’ve learnt how important it is that people hear ‘me’ in how I write and talk to people, rather than anything that feels too corporate. We are all human and want to feel in touch with each other, now more than ever.
This matters across organisational boundaries too. It’s been inspiring seeing how charities and public services have been collaborating over the past few weeks, whether that’s to influence Government policy or build new networks for volunteering, fundraising and service provision. I hope this signals and encourages new coalitions and institutions that can help us share and learn together in future, such as the practical support The Catalyst are giving or the advocacy efforts of NCVO, Collective Voice and others.
Investing in teams not ‘products’
People are endlessly creative and resilient, and the best ideas often come from the people closest to the unfolding situations. Leadership isn’t about having all the answers; it’s about asking the right questions, supporting teams to work together and trusting that they will find answers themselves. The Lottery recognised this in the design of its Digital Fund, which allowed us to use the money to recruit and embed new skills and capabilities within the organisation without ring-fencing the money around specific products.
Having this internal digital and design capability working alongside subject matter experts and people who use or might use our services has meant that we’ve been able to move quickly and respond to the new context and priorities of coronavirus, rather than having to unwind detailed project plans and find new resources. Lots of work that’s been in train for some time has suddenly become more timely, whether self-help advice on our website, for example about managing cravings or relaxing at home, or opportunities to scale up online chat and an outreach service to support people if isolated.
Holding the ambition and vision — and making it real
Nobody can say how the next few weeks and months will evolve, but it’s likely that the world will look very different when we emerge from coronavirus. As we grapple with the day to day decisions, we have to keep an eye on the longer term and the implications for the future.
What precedents are we creating now that we don’t want to lose? What foundations do we put in place now that we can build on? What can we learn from how we respond today that will help us in future? We need to be adept at holding a longer term vision and ambition for how things could be whilst supporting the gradual, day by day hard work of change.
Some of how we’re responding might provide a pattern or prototype for future service delivery. For example, our service in Glasgow has started facilitating peer support groups online. How might we build on this and create new tools for people to self-organise peer groups in their communities? How can we provide infrastructure for peer groups and recovery communities to grow? How might this shape our role in future?
Bridging cultures, not imposing them
‘Digital’ teams tend to come with a whole set of new terminology and jargon. This may be different methods or ways of working, job titles or roles as part of ‘agile’ processes, and so on. Any organisation will have its own established cultures and language, and it can be hard being on either side of this scenario as teams try to work together and fit in.
My advice: find a shared language and common goals. In the past few weeks, our teams have demonstrated amazing agility, pace and collaboration, working in the open and sharing ideas on social media and internally to help scale and spread what different services are doing.
Shared challenges have brought a new alignment between digital and operations, as everyone is experiencing the same urgency and the same understanding that you can deliver at speed and then improve services based on feedback. This has helped us deliver together at pace, for example introducing online appointment booking in a matter of days.
Working within constraints
This is an incredibly difficult time for everyone. People we work with are going to face huge risks and many may struggle to get basic provisions like food and shelter. It is very hard knowing that we can only do so much.
However great our online support, people will struggle without physical connection. Times are going to be hard, money will be tight, and social distancing will take a mental toll. But I also know that it’s during these hard times that the compassion, ingenuity, and resilience of people shines through. will be all pushed to imagine different possible futures and to collaborate in new ways, and this creativity will keep us going.
We’re bringing together what we're learning from our grantholders about their response to the coronavirus pandemic. Visit our COVID-19 Insights page for the latest information.