Lockdown has been an odd phenomenon. For some life changing; bringing sickness, job loss and economic hardship. But for many who have not faced illness or job insecurity it has seemed like a groundhog few months of back to back Bank Holiday Mondays.
It has been at the same time all-encompassing and a whole lot of nothing. During all of this employability organisations have had to rethink their services and look afresh at their clients and I want to argue that there are silver linings in what we have discovered about our clients and ourselves.
Phase one: What do you need right now?
The speed of the change, the impact of closing all offices in less than a week and the whatever-it-takes approach were hallmarks of the national emergency. For us this led to the impossibility of face to face meetings, the removal of conditionality and the abolition of wet signatures taking away a cornerstone of most employability programmes. In its place many organisations took on a new role.
In the first couple of weeks, when nothing was clear and no-one knew what was happening, it seemed that advisers changed to one question when we spoke with people – ‘What do you need right now?’ With very few jobs available and most people confined to their house it was about putting people in touch with food banks, organising school meals vouchers, helping people with young children get through the day. This opportunity to be of direct service to people, of making them feel like they had a connected friend really built trust between staff and their clients. I have heard many providers say that they have had the chance to do what they always wanted to do which was to stop having to ask so many questions that feel intrusive and irrelevant and be able to listen to what people want to say. On a recent IEP Fellows call Gareth Matthews FIEP spoke passionately about the fact that contact time had increased exponentially during lockdown and that clients had engaged in a way they had not before.
Phase two: Resilience
As people got use to the new normal we started to challenge and surprise each other. Technology which had been beyond many people now started to become de rigeur. Facetime, online Zoom calls – words many people had shied away from - were acceptable because their children were now online all day and as home-educators they wanted to know what they were doing. Advisers spent time helping people to think about how to spend their time more productively.
Phase three: What’s next
As we move out of lockdown many organisations are being creative. In my own we have produced homemade Lockdown Tutorial Videos using the Zoom record facility (Check it out here) and others are running IEP training for their staff to make sure they are ready for the coming deluge. Our candidates are asking for more too – in the first two weeks after we launched our online training programme 40 women joined up.
New Working Practices
We need to argue with our funders to maintain our new support methods as options for our clients. The idea that the best support for everyone comes from face to face meetings, especially for those who find it difficult to attend sessions due to childcare or disability can be challenged. We can show we can offer people more support if we can connect with them more often and focus on helping them at home rather than drag them across town. Virtual groups can be just as empowering as real ones and we can now organise them with confidence. Interview practice can be done on zoom and CVs can be written together on shared screens.
Allowing people to manage caseloads in ways that suit their clients will free up time. For Staff teams working from home has to become a more widely available option. If you can do it during lockdown when you are also home educating and managing on one trip to the shops a week you can do it when the world moves on. Shorter working weeks should also be considered, a more flexible work option will also lead to a more diverse work force.
Keep up the good work
Another positive that we need to continue is the collaboration across the sector on policy. Sector gurus like Tony Wilson FIEP have shared their knowledge of the labour market and given us an understanding of how the pandemic will impact long term on people and organisations. Collaboration will help us come up with solutions as we move out of lockdown.
As part of the G4S supply chain I am part of the Senior Managers weekly best practice call for Covid-19. What has come through loud and clear is how committed everyone is to the wellbeing of both their teams and customers. As we leave lockdown let’s make sure that the lessons we have learnt here are not forgotten.
Liz Sewell FIEP, Director, Belina Get Ready for Work
Liz is the Director of Belina Get Ready for Work and runs their GRoW Programme which was Highly Commended for Innovation at last year’s ERSA Awards, supporting hundreds of women across London to get ready for a job or start training. Liz is a former CEO of the Lone Parent Charity Gingerbread and a previous director of the IEP.