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Finding potency in a remote world

Blog posted by: Juliette Kumar, 20 May 2020.

Juliette Kumar

When COVID-19 struck, like many NHS strategic organisations we abruptly left the offices and went to work remotely. During these anxious early days and weeks we let go of many ideas which we had thought of as ‘normal’; plans and expectations for the year were put on hold or discarded, and we had to quickly reinvent and reimagine our working lives whilst at home.

Things changed daily and we tried to be agile and respond; we flipped to digital where we could, and found new value in our position in the system as the connectors of health, industry and academia.

From the start we took care to look after each other whilst maintaining relationship with the wider system. I felt many emotions, including worried, guilty, anxious and vulnerable. We are still on a journey of adaptation and I want to reflect on what has emerged in the disruption and what I have discovered that has helped us move forward.

1. Remote working has many benefits, but some struggle

I had to call an IT colleague for some help about four weeks into lockdown; whilst I was on the call I asked him how he was. ‘I’ve not been outside in four weeks’ he said, ‘I live on my own and just getting deliveries’. I told him to make sure he got outside and that he should probably get some vitamin D.

People are diverse in how they live and in what they are dealing with in their personal circumstances. Everyone has a different story to tell in terms of what they are doing and how they are coping with working remotely.

It’s really important to check with everyone and to provide an opportunity for them to process and make sense of this new way of working.

Daily check-in calls with my team started as a formal record of attendance each day, no agenda.  Now, it is common to simply ask ‘is everyone okay?’ and to see where this takes us. These check ins are less frequent now, three times a week for half an hour, but they are valuable and we are comfortable enough as a team to allow the discussion to emerge, to focus on the here and now, rather than strictly business objectives.  Our wellbeing is important and these check-ins allow us to get a sense of how we and our colleagues are coping during these times as well as fulfilling an important safety check.

2. Maintaining culture in the newly remote workplace, it takes work

Our Friday Jam session is a beloved cultural ritual where we have time to reconnect with colleagues we don’t often see. We continue to hold these meetings over Zoom, using the time to receive updates, share learning and continue conversations about wellness and remote working. 

We also use the Jam to run focussed and facilitated sessions on a number of important topics, including practicalities of remote working. Early on, it was important to give key messages and permissions about working remotely - you need to be your own supervisor and don’t overwork; to make sure that staff knew they could get equipment from the office to make remote working safer and more comfortable; and to explore how people might juggle work and home schooling (they must be kind to themselves - and their kids) and how we support each other during this time, for instance separating the work space from the rest of the home space.

We continue to review how to maintain the best of our culture while taking time to acknowledge what has changed, and what we need to let go of forever.

This process of acknowledgement and sense-making is allowing us to collectively mark any losses and take steps forward.

There are new emerging cultural rituals; we have set up a coffee club at 3pm every day, an online space for anyone to just ‘drop in’ for a coffee, replacing the lost face to face opportunities in the office.  On Friday afternoons we hold a community circle, for restoration and connecting as a team in our online remote world for anyone who would like to take part.  On an ad hoc basis we hold an evening community art class run by our unofficial artist in residence Karla. These give us opportunities to have fun and be playful.

3. Navigating the new network and accessing digital spaces created by the system and ourselves

Forcing functions is an aspect of human centred design that prevents an undesirable action from being performed, for example at home the washing machine door is locked until the end of a cycle to prevent accidental flooding or at work there may be a software programme where we are unable to move to the next programme until we complete a tick box.

There has been a cosmic ‘forcing function’ on the whole system that has provided the final push over the top for everyone to embrace digital tech. In the new digitised way of working decisions are being made; meetings and MDTs are being held; patients are being seen remotely, and events and workshops are being organised. 

I am hearing from various clinical and managerial sources that video-conferencing is enhancing clinical team working as there is no need for everyone to physically be in one place.

Meetings are more democratic and efficient as there is no more grand standing - people take turns to speak, the chat function provides a place for views of those who are anxious about speaking in a public forum; and there is a sense of gratitude for not having to sit in traffic on the M6, M56 or M62 for hours on end.

4. Even in the digital world, clear is kind

For my organisation, the move to online and digital working was culturally smooth, if not technically. At this time, it is important for us to have a digital operating model to make sure we are clear about what platforms we use and why. There are many platforms with different purposes, and just like the many face to face meetings we used to go to, it’s not just about the space, it’s about the culture and community within the space. It is important to be clear about which space is used and for what purpose, as even in the digital world, in the words of Brene Brown, ‘clear is kind’.  

As we are adapting to this new normal, we are taking time to discover our potency as leaders of innovation, digital technology, transformation, culture and patient safety.  We are reaffirming our purpose and quickly regaining a renewed sense of balance as we bravely move forward.

Disruption brings opportunities to shake off old habits that are not serving us well, to take new risks, to innovate and reinvent ourselves and to become a better, more socially and environmentally conscious organisation. 

Juliette Kumar
Associate Director of Education and Improvement


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