COVID-19 has broken the mould in how we now work – working from home in the midst of a pandemic is very different to working for an organisation which has made a deliberate choice and planned for agile working. The challenge for us here at the West Midlands Combined Authority has been to switch from our traditional and largely office based employee engagement solutions to supporting staff and managers in what is completely uncharted territory.
From the start, our priority has been to both inform and support. We knew at the beginning of lockdown that staff needed frequent, consistent and up to date information, so we published regularly updated FAQs and management guidance in line with Government guidance.
We launched a weekly webinar, led by our CEO, Deborah Cadman. It has continued every Wednesday since – a chance for everyone to drop in over lunchtime and hear from their leadership team, outside speakers and experts. Employees can ask questions and comment on what they’ve heard and we answer – as best we can – everything that’s asked. We also use polls and other engagement tools when relevant to get a valuable temperature check on how the organisation is feeling. Webinars are recorded and posted on YouTube, so that no one need miss them.
With gyms and parks closed, and conscious that we wanted to encourage staff to take regular exercise, especially during lockdown, we launched a programme of online exercise classes ranging from yoga to zumba with a daily class for staff to enjoy. And we supplemented this with a series of webinars on topics like diet and nutrition, sleep, mindfulness and resilience. We also published a huge range of online resources aimed at parents and carers to help staff who were home schooling or supporting someone who was shielding.
Our trained mental health first aiders, who were available pre-pandemic, have continued to support staff who feel that they need informal but immediate support. We also took the bold step to change our employee assistance provider during lockdown to ensure that staff (and people in their household) can now access a trained counsellor, without going through an intermediary like HR or their manager.
Before lockdown we had run a menopause café, which met monthly as a support group, and we moved this online when we started to work from home. And before the pandemic we had done a lot of work to support staff who were living with domestic abuse; conscious that the rates had risen sharply in the West Midlands during lockdown. We reached out to staff to remind them of the support available including a small number of staff who are trained to support survivors.
As the lockdown continued and staff started to feel more disconnected with each other, we launched a virtual kitchen in Teams. It operates as a place where staff can drop in and chat to others, or swap stories in the chat function. It has really helped staff to stay in touch with colleagues who they don’t work with directly but would have chatted to whilst making a cup of tea in the kitchen. Simple but very effective.
As the year progressed and we started to think about the support staff would need over the colder winter months, we published advice on tax relief and on how to keep fuel bills down. We reminded staff about the savings to be made through our Reward platform and we invited in a local money advice charity to run some webinars on managing financially through COVID.
Over the summer we surveyed staff to ask how they were coping and we are about to survey them again. We will use that data to review and refine our support offer even further but we know already that our staff have really valued being able to access wellbeing and mental health resources. Some 85% of staff reported feeling trusted and empowered to work remotely and the same percentage felt they had the right level of support to continue to work from home.
When we had lived 100 days of the pandemic, our CEO wrote to all staff to thank them for their fortitude and service, again a small but very welcome gesture and one which has helped staff feel that they are valued and cared for.
Next we are looking forward to our Extra Staff Awards. They will be held in mid-December and are a chance for us to thank and reward those staff who have really gone the extra mile. This year has been an extraordinary time and our staff have been extraordinary people.
Tracy Walters is head of human resources and organisational development at West Midlands Combined Authority