So here we are. Almost eight weeks have passed since we hit the big red button and decided to go 'virtual'. As things stand, the business is starting to normalise on a day-to-day basis, however we are still in the midst of an emergency response in some areas. The daily figures on resident deaths have started to increase, and we know that the lag in reporting means that this figure is likely to go up significantly. But to us these are not figures, they are people, our people, in our community.

There is a very diverse profile of people living in our community, a significant proportion of whom live in sheltered-type homes. When put alongside other vulnerable residents and those who are in the shield category, there are several thousand people that need to be protected. The number one priority for us from the very start therefore had to be to help stop the spread of the virus.

Tough decisions

Tough decisions need good people, good information and inquisitive minds. Early on it was clear that protection was going to be the most important focus. Who in our community could we protect, how could we stop the spread of the virus and not unnecessarily infringe on the rights of individuals to live their lives how they want to? It was obvious that our priority lay in shielding our sheltered schemes as they represent almost a third of our homes, and they presented the single biggest risk in a similar vein to that of care homes. Using the same type of commercial disinfection technology as the airline industry, a protection programme was put in place. Access to blocks was changed to be centrally controlled and not available to individual households, in this way health screening could be carried out at the main entrance and only essential visitors allowed into the main communal areas of the blocks. This policy, though, comes at a price, one that requires frequent justification, regular communication and rationale to keep the community with you. Ultimately, we knew that we were doing the right thing, and saving lives was our priority.

Making tough decisions means being able to constantly reassess and review them to ensure that the underlying basis of evidence remains credible. This is scheduled through the Emergency Response Team (ERT) which still meets at least three times a week, this being a reduction from the daily sessions that we have had to have during the first six weeks. The complexity of issues that we are faced with every day has meant that these sessions typically last between two and four hours each. The actions and decisions that emerge from each one have then had a profound effect on the work that needs to be done across the business. The temptation at the start of this crisis was to stop delivering everyday services, concentrate on the emergency response, and shut down non-essential parts of the business. Uppermost in our minds though was that we needed to continue providing services exactly as we always did; after all, the work we do is frontline essential work. Isn’t it?

Government guidance and restrictions

Despite our intentions, the government soon set out guidance and restrictions which meant that there were some things that would have to come to a grinding halt. So planned maintenance and most letting activity were suspended to prevent unnecessary travel. However, non-urgent repairs carry on, caught in a fuzzy grey area, where the government would not direct the sector to stop, and where legal and regulatory liabilities become scary areas to navigate. The ERT are taking careful decisions, looking at guidance, governance and risk. Decisions are made trying to look at the big picture and thinking not just about today, but tomorrow and the future when things would start to return to normal. Having the right people in our main team has become crucial. Having energy, skills and experience from all areas of the business has allowed for effective decision making and getting things done for the benefit of the community and for the business.

Volunteer squad

Having a singular focus with re-designated key roles for ERT also allows staff in other areas of the business to step up at a time when they are needed, so organisational capacity can be used to its best. But how do we know that this is working for the organisation? Red Kite review and measure capacity and outcomes, knowing that across the board we do not have wasted or unused resources. The average utilisation figure is 106% across all teams, with the minimum being around 90%. Knowing this means that we can ensure that following our strategy and action plan, we are doing the very best we can for the community throughout the crisis. Staff are really passionate about stepping up to the plate during the pandemic, despite working at capacity, more than a third of staff wanted to do even more. So the ERT set up a volunteer squad to provide support services in the community where it was needed and was not being provided by others. It was clear to us that our efforts would be best served in supporting the community infrastructure where we could and not trying to duplicate it. So our volunteer activity became focussed on gap filling to ensure that our residents had all the support that they needed.

Our volunteers have found great ways to serve the local community, through deliveries of food and medication on the ground for those who live nearby, or over the phone to vulnerable people who want to have some human contact during the crisis through our Tea & Chat initiative. Staff have also been able to signpost and provide access to entertainment packages for households, to keep people busy, learn new skills, have a sing-a-long or play online games to distract from the boredom brought about by the lockdown.

As well as looking after the community, there are a number of other priorities that form part of our emergency response, crucial areas of risk that demand serious attention and ongoing support. Chief amongst these has been the development of our ‘virtual’ culture, lifting the hard fought for ways of doing things and its mindset and transposing them into the cyber airwaves (or cloud if you will). It takes a typical organisation so long to develop its culture or identity, you can’t afford to suspend it or allow it to deteriorate for any length of time. The fallout in terms of wellbeing, values and direction will all determine what shape we emerge in, once this is all over.

Our virtual office

We operate from our virtual office now, Microsoft Teams. When we introduced this software a few years ago, it was another tool, infrequently used and little understood. We used this as part of our emergency response, and simulations process, but not in everyday use. Now this is our most important tool, it is our business, our culture and our office. We will not be moving away from its benefits anytime soon. We are finding new ways to replicate our ‘real’ world in our ‘virtual’ reality, our Creative Gaps and our Team Briefs are back, and we have explored how we can recreate the structure of individual teams, so that it is as though people are sitting next to each other in the office.

Moving to an online business has involved a combination of efforts, focusing on a number of fronts. It would have been easier to look at service delivery and communications with residents and withdraw from other non-essential business activities, for us this was never going to be option. To do this would have risked allowing events to control the way that the organisation will emerge at the end of the crisis, rather than adapting, improving and strengthening the business and coming out the other end better than you went into it.