18 May 2020
It’s often said that to see what values people *really* hold, all you need to do is look at how they act when under genuine pressure. The Coronavirus pandemic therefore offers all sorts of learning potential.
I offer a simple premise for my own workplace, a district council: how we’ve acted through the Coronavirus is a better indicator of what kind of organisation we really are than any statement of our corporate values ever could.
I’m a career communication professional, and in my 25-odd years in the public sector, working all over the UK, and from the NHS to policing to local government there’s been one really consistent challenge: major change. I worked in one hospital as head of communications for six years – but for four different NHS bodies, such is the state of permanent revolution in our health service. The logos on the payslips kept changing, but the underlying challenges didn’t, and those of our clinicians who weren’t used to this became dizzy.
One of the things I’ve observed in the 16* organisations I’ve worked in and with is that the values expressed don’t vary that much in content, although expressed in a range of ways and different words.
[* I can hold down a job, honest – averaging around 4 years in each permanent role. It’s just I’ve got round many more organisations as a consultant, peer reviewer and interim leader for the last 8 years.]
I’ve been in the UK public sector throughout, so this commonality of values probably isn’t surprising – and certainly isn’t wrong.
We’re all committed to public service – we all care about our staff – we all want to be flexibe and responsive to change, and so on.
Communicating these values can be pretty challenging to be honest – especially to staff. I’ve found there’s often a degree of either tiredness or cynicism amongst employees, and if I could reflect one most common response to the latest statement of these values it’s been something along the lines of ‘Great words – I’ll believe them when I see them reflected in actual leadership behaviour’.
I’d say that the Coronavirus pandemic has represented just precisely that kind of ‘significant pressure’, so I’ve been thinking about how my own organisation – a district council – has shown our values in real ways and actual leadership behaviours.
A caveat of course – I’m the council’s assistant chief executive – so obviously I’m marking my and my senior colleagues’ own homework. That’s why I’m reaching for evidence rather than just anecdote or my own perception.
But anyway, here are my observations:
- We say as a whole organisation, that we are genuinely committed to public service. In reality, during the pandemic, we kept virtually every existing service running (except for things like leisure centres, where the social distancing requirements of lockdown made that utterly impossible). Sure, we scaled back some service provision on a risk-assessed basis – for example, in the lockdown period, we didn’t consider that site visits were proportionate as we carried on otherwise to handle planning applications. Other services were scaled up massively, such as our benefit payments teams, which handled a huge spike in benefit claimants. The same people worked early mornings, late evenings and through several weekends in a row to pay out business grants to local firms desperately needing their support urgently. We also stood up brand new services quickly, like community hubs coordinating volunteers, delivering food parcels, shopping, medicines and the like to those who needed the help. Quick and dirty verdict: based on this unarguable evidence of service continuity and expansion, as a whole organisation, we really demonstrated that value in practice, and in spades. To see the thank you cards and kids waving from the windows to thank our bin crews has shown that the public recognised this too.
- We say that we want to be agile and flexible as an organisation. During the pandemic, we flipped within days from being an 80% office-based organisation, to one working 75% at home. We have 10-20 people a day rattling round a 200 desk office, safely socially isolated, and using specialist equipment or resources not readily transferable to home working. Everyone else is either still hard at work out and about on the streets (but with revised procedures and PPE determined by our risk assessments) or are working from home. It took us a while to get the optimal kind of hand sanitiser – who knew there were so many kinds! – but we managed all this with a minimum of fuss, including getting equipment like ergonomic chairs from the office to staff members’ homes where they were needed. Instant verdict: thanks to the unsung heroes of our IT team (praise be their name!), but mainly our staff themselves, this has worked incredibly smoothly – agility truly demonstrated. It was a basic test – and the evidence is that we passed it.
- We say that we honestly and genuinely care about our staff’s wellbeing. That has long included harder-edged health and safety procedures – we have an in-house refuse collection and recycling service, for example, and the last thing we want at any time is a lost limb or lost life from those operating heavy machinery. But it’s also for us long included an appreciation of wellbeing and mental health. During the pandemic, the health and safety assessments have been thick and fast – guided by national standards, but properly applied to our individual local circumstances, procedures and real-life risks on the ground. For a verdict on how well we’ve lived this, I think I’d really need to reflect objective opinions of our staff themselves as evidence. Happily, we have a monthly “pulse” survey in place, and in the latest 30-second/5 question survey (4-6 May 2020) they told us:
For those who have new, temporary working conditions, how are you finding things?
It’s a breeze – 24%; It’s OK – 58%; Not so good – 9%; It’s a struggle – 8%.
Without drowning you in statistics, let me also share that every month in this survey we ask our staff whether they would recommend to a friend or relative to apply for a job with us – a classic commercial proxy satisfaction indicator. The results to this have improved during the pandemic on pre-Coronavirus months.
You might have seen online a message from the Canadian Government to their civil servants, acknowledging that they weren’t ‘working from home’ so much as doing their best to work at home in extraordinarily difficult circumstances, where normality is accepted as being out the window. It sums up our own approach as an employer pretty well. We told staff that we’d rather that they did their best to work around childcare arrangements from home, than pretending that these were normal times, and that we wouldn’t measure hard work by presenteeism. As a result of that mature, honest and up-front conversation with our staff, delivered face to face by our chief executive just days before lockdown began, we’ve found our faith repaid. Our productivity has not collapsed in the slightest, and the odd school age child appearing and demanding attention in our video conference calls has been a common, welcome and humanising experience that has put smiles on our faces.
- We say that we want to work in genuine, open and respectful partnership with our stakeholders, because we achieve far more together. During the pandemic, this has been tested in extremis. I don’t think I can offer an objective analysis of how well we’ve done here either, and don’t have a handy and recent set of survey results to quote. But I can point at some proxy indicators. We have over 70 Parish Councils in my district, and hundreds of voluntary groups, many operating at a hyper-local level. We are one of eight councils in the county, and have close working relationships routinely with other public sector organisations including the NHS and the police. Our private sector in the area ranges from farming to world-class high-tech engineering hub centred around Silverstone’s Formula One track. The proxy indicators I’d offer in evidence of this value being lived for real during the pandemic are these: our whole-county, multi-agency centre for handling the pandemic itself has ridden the wave of challenges around PPE, testing and even (behind the scenes) things like ‘do we have enough mortuary space?’ quietly and without hitting the headlines around perceived or actual failures. I hesitate to suggest that the lack of being monstered in the papers is a measure of success in and of itself, but we all know that failures are more often trumpeted than successes. That our Parish Councils and voluntary sector just quietly and instantly reached out to those in our villages to check that they had support with food, medicines and loneliness left incredibly few gaps for the (slower to get off the ground) national or county-wide schemes, was an absolute tribute to how empowered and responsive our partners are.
We’ll have lessons to learn over our handling of the Coronavirus. No-one will have got everything right. As a challenge, it comprised the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity represented in the VUCA model of leadership all in one messy and vast, unwelcome package.
But my conclusion – as of 18th May 2020 at least, as we begin the baby-steps of moving from lockdown into the recovery phase – is that our organisation values have been demonstrated through actions.
Before the Coronavirus came along, we were already well along the road to my organisation merging in April 2021 with neighbouring councils; eight existing authorities in the county will be abolished, and two new councils will take over the responsibilities the very next day. I can’t overstate the scale and complexity of this challenge – well, I could, but that would make an article all on its own, so just take my word that it has countless thousands of moving parts, and involving thousands of staff.
This process added an explicit commitment to our workforce to our routine vocabulary: that we will make sure that every staff member is in the best position possible to make the most of the opportunities that this massive change will provide. Being part of a much larger organisation will obviously provide chances to gain new skills, wider perspectives, additional responsibilities, and straight forward promotions. Although most staff will simply be transferred into the new employer, for a minority it will be the moment to move elsewhere or into retirement – and we want to do what we can to make this an empowering choice rather than an enforced and unwelcome consequence.
This Local Government Reorganisation process carries its own significant weight of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity too.
Unexpectedly, but in a hugely welcome way, I can see the next 11 months of managing that transition to be smoother precisely because of our shared experience of the adversity of the Coronavirus pandemic. When our staff in particular ask predictable and entirely-reasonable questions about the future, but which at the time we simply can’t answer, we are in an even better position than usual to fall back on our shared and lived values, to give some reassurance that we will reach the right answers appropriately, together, and with integrity.
You should never waste a good crisis, and I do think that the Coronavirus has brought out the best of my own organisation, and its leadership at both an officer and elected level. Of the many organisations I’ve worked in, with and for, I feel as proud of this one as any.