Using digital technology to support vulnerable residents during lockdown
Blog by Tayeb Mirza. Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council
As a supervisor for Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council, I normally help residents with their council tax and benefits enquiries in person or over the phone at our contact centre based in the old town hall.
But when the coronavirus outbreak struck, we had to act fast to help our residents and set up a Help Hub to support vulnerable people during lockdown.
Blackburn Town Hall was closed in line with lockdown measures so my team and I had to set up working from home so we could still speak to residents and help them with their enquiries over the phone.
I was redeployed from the Council Tax and Benefits Team into the Help Hub to provide support services, information, advice and guidance for residents – from arranging food parcels and prescription collection to putting people in touch with mental health and wellbeing support.
Another supervisor and I had just two days to get the system up and running so that the Help Hub team could work from home dealing with incoming and outgoing calls, speaking to people who have been sent a letter from the NHS telling them that they needed to ’shield’ at home.
We go through the letter with them and ask questions to find out what they need help with. For example, they may need assistance with collecting their prescription or they may not be able to go shopping so we organise a food parcel for them.
There were 14 advisors redeployed to the Help Hub so we had to quickly get new laptops for them and train them to use a telephony system which was new to them.
Training would normally take place in person at the office but as we are all working from home, we installed Microsoft Teams to provide the training remotely and comply with social distancing.
This allowed us to present our screens to ensure staff could see system actions rather than just listening to what needs to be done and were able to speak up if they wanted to go over it again.
When the staff went live on the phones, I supported them by remotely listening to their calls and providing support via Skype while on the call. By utilising the systems at our disposal, this enabled me to ensure the staff were supported.
As we had very little time to set up the Help Hub, we also used Microsoft Teams as a collaborative platform, for example, drawing up a list of potential questions that residents would ask and creating a support guide that staff can easily refer to in one place rather than sending lots of emails.
We have set up a team chat so we can effectively communicate any changes to the team so that they are kept up to date as guidelines on Covid19 are constantly changing so it was important for us as a team to be in the know so that we could relay the latest advice to residents.
Microsoft Teams has enabled us to do video calls so we can see colleagues. I feel this is important as you can see from body language and facial expressions how someone is feeling. We also use Skype to contact staff from other areas of the council.
Working at the council I feel we have always valued finding better ways of working while utilising digital technology. I feel everybody has adapted fantastically to the change of working from home and using the resources available to them while providing a quality service for the residents.
Looking back, the main challenge we had to overcome was a lack of time. The Help Hub contact centre was set up in a matter of days from scratch including recruiting staff for the service and training them.
I feel that we, as a team, really pulled together under difficult circumstances to ensure residents of the borough were supported in their time of need.
We have certainly become more digitally focused. Going forward, I believe this is a good way of working. As there is uncertainty around getting back to ‘normal,’ people may continue to work from home and this provides the option of working more flexible hours.
Personally, I have enjoyed the new way of working and will be using the systems a lot more when I go back to my previous role as I feel it offers more support to colleagues in the sense that any files sent can be easily accessed and we can keep in touch constantly throughout the day.
I feel the experience as a whole has been beneficial in terms of adapting to new ways of working and I have a real sense of pride knowing we have supported so many local people at a time when they were feeling very vulnerable.
Our residents are still receiving a good service and we have had many compliments from people who say we have gone above and beyond to help them by sending food parcels or collecting prescriptions and have rung us to say thanks.
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