Here we sit in April 2020, we are in the midst of a global pandemic, we have not seen anything like this since the Spanish Flu in 1918. In our modern world we did not expect to see the uncontrollable spread of a virus killing thousands of people indiscriminately, pushing our health service to its limit. Governments around the world have been caught on the backfoot, trying to save lives and at the same time trying to stop the planet free falling into a global recession. If this sounds like the prologue to a novel, an apocalyptic thriller based on some imaginary world, unfortunately it’s not - it is our new reality. So how on earth do you prepare an organisation to deal with this situation?
Rewind the clock - May 2014, Red Kite was just 2½ years old. Still brimming with enthusiasm and energy, we trialled our very first remote working model. It was a virtual experiment to see how we would cope with running our teams remotely from home. It worked.
Virtual business model
So that surely begs the question, why has it taken us so long to move to a full virtual business model? Well to answer that, we need to look more at the prevailing mindset across our society than at Red Kite. Quite simply, the country wasn’t ready for it, and at that time the people didn’t want it. The significant difference now that we are in the middle of a global crisis is that society now needs it. Up to this point businesses in the UK, and particularly in our sector have focussed rightly on providing services in the way that our customers want them, even if on paper that doesn’t necessary tally with how customers receive services from other parts of the economy. A great example of this is seen with the Amazon phenomenon, an entire digital based retailer that services most of the country online very successfully. It is therefore true to say that necessity is the mother of invention, or in this case, deployment.
Since 2014 we continued to build on our technology infrastructure, so that it was even more flexible and robust and then gradually, we adapted our business to support more home working. Up to this point though, our technology was used more as a set of business tools than as model that unpinned our way or working for the future. So, although we have used this to good effect for things like video interviewing, virtual viewings in our lettings process and for guest appearances in office-based meetings, this has not extended to be our primary platform for our organisation. Until now.
Although our technological journey has been incredible, we have always been and will continue to be a people-based business. This underpins our credibility as a community-based housing provider, which has been hard fought for, and therefore vitally important for residents, Board members and staff. This overarching ethos has translated into how we have managed our business and our contingency planning right from the time we were formed in December 2011.
It has always been crucial for us to be in the best possible position to be prepared for whenever the worst happened, to protect our services and our community. So, we set out very early in our journey to identify all of the things that could probably occur over and above the typical events that you would expect. In the Wycombe area several homes are built next to flood plains, or the River Wye and are susceptible to major flood breaches, the topography also means that severe weather often forces the town to come to a full stop. To cope with this, we developed a robust emergency response process, with dedicated roles and procedures that we have had to use often over the past decade. However, none of this on its own enabled us to set out a full plan for dealing with a global pandemic.
It has however helped us to think about alternative scenario planning, which has been used to good effect in our approach to carry out regular full-scale simulation events. These simulations consider how we cope with random and multi-layered scenarios that test our crisis response. They have involved up to a third of our employees at any one time, being monitored remotely, scored and assessed for improvement. This has provided an invaluable bedrock on which we have been able to base and deploy our reaction to the crisis we now face in 2020.
There was however one last piece of the puzzle that helped shape our ability to respond quickly and effectively to the challenges of Covid-19, and unbelievably that was Brexit. Mid-2019 the picture for negotiating the sensible exit of the UK from the EU was looking bleak. There was every chance that we were facing a ‘hard Brexit’ and the fallout that this would bring with it. Our emergency team developed mitigation plans looking at multiple scenarios and implications, using a basis of being on a ‘war footing’. Little did we know at the time, this would be a transferrable framework for dealing with a global pandemic. So over time we have become prepared.
Back to the reality of early 2020, the emergence of Covid-19 started to cause serious concerns for public safety. The Executive Team were monitoring events both globally and nationally, planning for the eventuality that we would need to deploy our emergency response. In March 2020 a week before the UK Government officially started its lockdown restrictions, Red Kite had already activated its response, and moved entirely to remote working. Incredibly, less than 48 hours after initiating the process, our contact centre staff were working as usual from their own living rooms, and the business was already focused on delivering as many front line services as possible to our residents.