Things have been changing, not only because spring is here; we have a government roadmap to ease restrictions, and a vaccination programme that is meeting its schedule. For the first time during the pandemic, it feels like progress is being made. However, as we move out of lockdown, we are reminded that this is a global pandemic and things are not quite the same in other areas of the world, and especially on our own doorstep in Europe.

A year ago, Red Kite published an exit strategy; it enabled the business to slowly open up again, and was also dynamic so it could move backwards if things changed. It turns out that this was a necessary mechanism, as we moved into a second set of restrictions and then into a third lockdown at the end of 2020. In preparation for the release and publication of the government’s roadmap in February, we completely rewrote our own exit strategy, to work in sync with the plans set out by the government. This time it is a one way process that not only incorporates the criteria set out by the government to move between its steps, but is overlayed with our own criteria to ensure that we can move through each phase, confident that it is right to do so for our residents and our staff.

What are we moving towards though? It is what we term our ‘new normality’, it won’t be the same as pre-pandemic, it never will be. When we get to step 4 of the roadmap, we will be in a scenario that we never imagined over a year ago; a hybrid working model, a mixture of services being provided by staff working remotely, and some working in a Covid-secure manner in the office and out in the field. Social distancing, wearing masks and enhanced hygiene regimes will all become our normality for the remainder of this year. It won’t feel natural, but it will at least see us back in the heart of the community again.

Once the world is vaccinated, when the virus subsides and the threat level lowers sufficiently, we expect the people can be people again, masks reserved for perhaps crowded environments and morning commutes. Our working model though, that is still up for grabs. We have learnt a lot in the past year, about ourselves, about what makes a business culture, about our relationship with our customers and the bits that make it all work and make us feel like humans. Remote working has been a necessity, but also a huge experiment across the country, this would never have happened without a crisis on this scale. It tells us a lot about how things can and will work in the future, and also about the things that are important, the visibility of colleagues working alongside each other being vital in team development, and the ability to meet our residents face to face being essential for rapport building.

So, we will test, refine and develop our long-term working model. Red Kite is more than a housing provider, it is part of the community and that is important to residents, staff and our Board. This means remote working can only be a part of how we operate, never a complete answer. The ‘new normality’ will also be a test environment, learning how to get the best out of flexibility, exploring digital solutions that benefit residents, but also working alongside being physically present in the community. All that we have learned about using technology to run services remotely needs to be stretched to enable a flexible working model that allows participation for individuals (residents and staff) remotely to work seamlessly with groups of people working together in an office location. This will be challenging.

How we set out to reintegrate our new remote world with the physical office environment is going be key. Although evidence strongly suggests that people have missed physical interaction with colleagues, volunteers and others in the community, there will be anxieties about breaking out of our own bubbles formed over the past year and unlearning some of our embedded routines of social isolation and wariness. This will present some real mental health challenges as we get used to the ‘new normality’.

In any business, people are its best assets. For Red Kite this is especially true, our staff, volunteers and Board members all create our culture. We have demonstrated during the pandemic that we are able to keep our culture alive virtually, although to develop it has proved more difficult. Now we move towards a position where we can test our hybrid model; time will tell how this supports our culture and relationship with the community.