Sustaining support through change

Children 1st Director of Finance and Corporate Services, Ian Harrington, reflects on the change and flexibility that has been crucial to supporting children, families and staff through lockdown.

My colleagues in the Children 1st Executive leadership team, Mary, Linda and Gary, have all written blog posts over the last few weeks, explaining how the coronavirus pandemic has affected their work. They talked about some of the things people associate with a charity like ours – our direct work with children and families, our fantastic fundraising and how we are influencing policy and practice. However, none of this is possible without effective support from corporate teams like Finance, HR and IT, so I thought that it might be interesting to get a view from Corporate Services.

Professionally it has been a very strange period for me. Even at a very simple level, those who see me on a daily basis would know my preference for wearing a suit and tie at work – something I have done for over 30 years. Since the 22nd March, I have taken to wearing a jazzy number from my small but select collection of Hawaiian shirts. More personally, while like everyone else I have become more used to Zoom, Facebook and Microsoft Teams, it does not replace being with those you love. On the positive side, the garden is looking at its best!

A different way of working

Most of Children 1st’s Corporate Services staff are based in our Head Office, and due to the nature of our work we have traditionally been very desk-based. The closure of our offices is our biggest challenge. This has changed the way all of us work, with the impact of the pandemic and lockdown requiring us to be more flexible.

However, the culture shift has been just as important – that we don’t need to all sit together to work together. My colleagues across Corporate Services have shown enormous flexibility in swiftly developing ways of working that have enabled us to continue to support the work of the charity. HR has moved to supporting our staff through technology rather than the traditional face-to-face methods. In addition, we have issued a great deal of advice on wellbeing and keeping safe in these challenging times. As the lockdown continues, this support will become even more important while we focus on good communication and connection.

Technology is key

None of this new and flexible way of working would be possible if we had not have had a radical new IT Strategy – investing in technology and totally altering our IT infrastructure and systems.

Over two years ago, we realised that our IT capabilities were not fit for purpose. We were using old versions of software on an aging IT network with no wireless functionality operating very old thin client devices on our desks. The development of our strategic priorities clearly demonstrated that our staff had to engage more directly with our children and families. We had to go to them, not them to us! This was not possible with technology that tied us to our desks.

Our IT strategy focused on 4 areas:

  • Moving software to the ‘Cloud’, making us more resilient and not relying on aging servers based in our Head Office.
  • Investing in our IT infrastructure – creating a faster, more stable network with wireless functionality in all our offices. Visitors can access our network and staff are freed from their desks.
  • Removing the thin client devices and investing in laptops for all our staff. Giving them the freedom to work wherever they need to.
  • New software – moving to Office 365, a more collaborative flexible way of working. Giving us the freedom to work in a connected and collaborative way, reflecting our values as an organisation.

We have been lucky. We have had the support of the Board and the whole organisation as we moved from rigidity to freedom. Our IT team has worked wonders especially over the last year. If the pandemic and lockdown had hit us this time last year, we would not have coped. However, by the end of December 2019 we had everything in place across the organisation to reflect our way of working.

The challenge, only a few months ago, had been encouraging teams across the organisation to find the time to engage with the new opportunities available. Well, not this year! Suddenly everyone has needed to become an expert in online collaboration, and IT have had to work very swiftly and efficiently to make sure all our staff get the support they need. This has placed huge demands on the Children 1st IT team and they have risen to the challenge supporting the whole organisation.

In addition, they have supported the children and families who we work with to access IT resources, which has been one of the biggest needs our frontline workers have identified. This has often meant us getting hold of IT equipment to supply to families, so we can maintain support even if we can’t do face-to-face visits.

Looking forward

Our next big challenge will be how to move back into our offices and what the new normal will look like! However, we know that this won’t simply be a return to how we used to operate. Working from home will be a much more routine part of our work. How we support and keep connected with staff will be key to the wellbeing of the organisation. Virtual meetings will be the norm, reducing our travel and the consequent impact on the environment. We will need to continue to learn how a new meeting etiquette operates.

Finally, I am amazed and proud of how the various teams in Corporate Services along with the whole organisation has responded to challenges of the pandemic and the lockdown. We are well placed to cope through the current crisis and keep working towards achieving our goals. We will get through this period and I am sure that we will continue to be there for every child and family in Scotland who need us.