In this interview blog Director of Coaching, Zoe Lewis caught up with Nadira Hussain, Director of Leadership Development and Research at Socitm to learn about how they have led through the pandemic.
ZL: First of all, tell us a little about Socitm.
NH: We are the Society of Innovation Technology and Modernisation (Socitm). We are a membership organisation that works with digital leaders across the public sector and specifically local government. Our vision is to be the preferred network for professionals who are shaping and delivering public services. We have a key focus on collaboration, ensuring that we're working in partnership where possible and on sharing good practice.
We are keen to attract not only the mainstream digital leaders, but also others so that we can have that broader reach and responsiveness.
ZL: How have you responded to the impact of the pandemic at Socitm?
NH: Even though we're not on the frontline as such, as a support organisation, we have been pivotal in providing steer and guidance to our members and the sector in terms of the challenges that they bring to us. At the beginning of the pandemic, we were keen to deploy practical help in response to the challenges our members were presenting to help respond to the situation. It was paramount that we demonstrably put together a robust response and offered tangible support.
To do this we pulled together an advisory hotline and an online email service, which triaged the calls and these were then diverted to experts or resources.
To assist with this, we held fortnightly meetings of our practitioners to discuss the types of issues that they were encountering and highlighted the solutions that they were considering or adopting in response to the issues. This forum enabled all participants to share their knowledge and know-how and enabled the society to collate that information and publish it on a newly created resource hub.
ZL: Tell us about a couple of specific challenges that the pandemic created for public sector organisations?
NH: We had to decide how we deliver public meetings in a virtual capacity, because the law and regulations that had been established in 1972 were predicated on having physical meetings. There had been no other guidance offered since then about how these public meetings would be facilitated in a virtualway. The Covid-19 regulation was passed to enable the change from physical to virtual public meetings. Once again, experts across the wider sector came together to determine a suitable and practical solution to this requirement, including the consideration of technology platforms, culture and etiquette and rules of engagement.
The phenomenal pace at which we have had to deploy technical equipment has been another challenge. We went from a few hundred staff working from home in any given organisation, to thousands working from home simultaneously. Previously, staff delivering technology-related change programmes in our organisations have had to meticulously plan and deliver these complex change programmes over a defined predetermined timeframe, usually anything from 6 to 18 months. In the response to the pandemic, the technology deployment has happened in a matter of days and weeks!
Moving out into the community, from a social care perspective - vulnerable adults and children, shielded people, children with special needs, have all been catered for from a local government perspective.
From creating online forms to enable residents to seek help, to being provided with data from central government and beyond, we have been able to support the outreach requirements for the most vulnerable in our communities, ensuring that we have been able to provision food parcels, medication and support where needed.
ZL: What principles have you followed as you’ve worked through this?
NH: From Socitm's perspective, we have been talking about the tasks of ‘reset, reform and recover’. We follow a methodology which is simplify, standardise, share, and we now have a fourth S, which is sustain. The application of these mantras is to ensure that we are able to build on the good practice we have collectively experienced, signal the positive outcomes that we have achieved and move forwards to continue with working in a more digital and agile manner to implement greater benefits for the communities that we serve.
We apply a lessons learned approach and we have seen such improved productivity and positivity in terms of our outputs, so we would want to continue practices that are serving people well.
This has been a phenomenal opportunity for us as a sector and certainly as a profession to demonstrate that we can draw on the skills that we have within our resource banks and deliver great results through collaboration. We have demonstrated our credibility, and through this we have built greater trust and hope to be acknowledged as a trusted partner. I think that's absolutely fundamental.
ZL: How have your employees responded to the changes required during the pandemic?
NH: People have understood that it's all hands to the deck. Our workforce has very much contributed in any way possible ‘to get the job done!’. They haven't been precious about, "But my role is..." and we have seen people have contributed in in any shape, way or form without any issues.
People have asked “How can I help? How can I use my skills and expertise to respond in a positive way, given that we are dealing with a crisis situation?”." People have been very versatile in their approach.
Secondly, the initial findings from our Covid-19 ICT and Digital Impact Survey has indicated that there has been a shift to home working from 5% to 82% - that's huge and people have coped admirably in making this happen. We have also noted that 43% of respondents report increased productivity through embracing ICT and collaboration tools and platforms.
From a leadership perspective we encourage flexibility and for people to take breaks, empowering them to identify how they can work around their personal commitments and get their work achieved within that.
We've created ‘virtual kitchens’ and opportunities for groups to come together to talk about their day in a very informal capacity. And we have taken the opportunity to ensure that people do feel that they can reach out, talk about their personal issues, health and wellbeing, work objectives and targets and anything else that is pertinent to working differently.
ZL: How has this impacted how you lead your people during this time?
NH: The model has completely been changed. We’ve moved from focusing on presenteeism and managing people where we can physically work with them to not being able to see them regularly in an office setting. I’m sure this has been quite daunting and difficult for some managers to accept; especially as they grapple with the concept of performance management – meeting objectives and targets, ensuring that staff feel connected and as part of a team, etc. – the brave new world of virtual leadership. In response, we have commissioned a development programme specifically to guide our leaders through leading virtually as opposed to co-located. We need to consider that people and situations need to be led in a different way to some of our previous practices and supporting our leaders and our people in that transition is important to us.
ZL: Has the organisational culture had an impact during this time?
NH: That's a really interesting question! I think generally people that work in the public sector do so for a reason. They want to be connected to the communities, to the public, to the most vulnerable people and genuinely want to make a difference. On the whole, the ethos and mindset of wanting to help and support already exists. We have seen such a massive call to action from our people to go over and above the call of duty and beyond during this crisis. Not only have our staff been versatile in terms of their personal role and responsibility, they have plugged gaps at an organisational level and nominated themselves for volunteering roles too. We have seen that our workforce has demonstrated that the public sector genuinely wants to help people in communities to the best of their ability.
ZL: What other changes have you noticed?
NH: Due to the context, people who were previously naysayers in terms of using the technology and digital practices to deliver good public services have seen first-hand what can be achieved if you give people the space, trust them to get on with the job and believe that things can be done differently. I'm hoping that positive cultural change can be derived from some of this too in order to change some previously unchallenged mind-sets.
Staff and the communities we work with have been phenomenal and I’d like to see us embed the lessons that we’ve learned along the way; there should be no turning back!. There are many positives and we have delivered some tangible benefits for both our workforce and for our communities at a local level;developing and building on those to move forward will help us progress beyond the period of this crisis.
ZL: Nadira, thank you for taking the time to share your experience of leading through the pandemic, it’s been great to hear about the journey you and your teams have taken to support some of the most vulnerable in our communities. We wish you well as you move forward from the current situation.