Even before Covid19, a lot of our lives, passions and pastimes were online. In an increasingly virtual existence, many of our workplaces are now almost entirely online too. In teams of people with differing skills and motivations, moving business online can pose a significant person-shaped challenge. Small enterprises like ours, existing on a limited budget, have a huge amount to gain by automation, creating systems, using cloud technologies and systematising routine tasks. That the whole team are on the same page is not a given. There is a potential for huge risks and harms to a team when things move too quickly. There’s no such thing as a digital native and as such any new system poses a threat to our short-term efficacy as well as a person’s motivation, satisfaction, self-esteem and ability to do their job. This will probably always be the case. Because it’s likely that new technology will stay ahead of even the most switched-on user.
Having incorporated Your Own Place in 2013 and being a fan of Apple as well as efficiency in things, I sought from the outset to ensure that technology in the workplace was an enabler rather than a barrier. If my team is reading this, they won’t all agree that this is always entirely successful. However, even when it’s a bit clunky, usually due to a constrained budget, our technology is purposeful and ultimately supports us in the most important aspect of our work – to achieve (and to prove we achieve) our mission sustainably.
Tools, platforms and systems
At Your Own Place, we’re entirely cloud-based. Thanks to so many accelerator programmes and the inspirational people I’ve been lucky enough to happen across over the years, we have adopted platforms and ideas that I hadn’t even heard of. Below are some examples, the first being Wufoo. Loathing as I am of Word forms (the team will hear my exasperation when I’m sent one to complete) we use Wufoo for all our referral and application forms, including job applications and some questionnaires. With the magic of Zapier, referral forms are zapped to Trello, where, as a team, we can all have oversight in real time and shared accountability. One of the most significant benefits of cloud technology is of course business continuity – especially in a small team.
We’re a creative bunch and make good use of Canva for our social media and now for our interactive and appealing Zoom workshops too. Further to that, our use of Infogram makes our reports extra special. They even download to PNG for social media, to PDF for sending as well as become interactive via a URL. Behind the scenes I have a love of E-days for HR purposes. On top of this and via BrightPay the syncing of payroll with payslip software as well as banking with Auto Entry and Quickbooks is a joy when you’re a bit of a Jane of all trades and not a finance one. There are no spreadsheets in sight!
Trello, a brilliant collaboration tool or virtual whiteboard if you will, remains my greatest love. Not a single team member, even after the induction grumbles, doesn’t grow to depend on this incredible tool. It’s the only place I can imagine being able to manage and oversee such a fluid and complicated set of interventions, people and workflow. We’re grateful for some partner portals too that do things like generate volunteer applicants via Voluntary Norfolk as well as mentee referrals via the Norfolk Community Advice Network (NCAN) referral system. Lamplight is our simple and not always user-friendly cloud-based platform (with no app yet sadly). It’s where we capture all the demographics, outputs and outcome data to measure impact. For now it serves our purpose and moving across to new databases is both a large piece of work and would have to have a cost-benefit.
Additional week-to-week evaluation narrative observations are captured on Trello and photos and media carefully and safely filed for future use in marketing and managing impact folders accordingly. Naturally all these platforms sync to our work iPhones. In normal times and even now, we’re on the move a lot. It seems nonsensical to have to wait until you’re back in the office when you quickly have an idea you want to tag a colleague in or an important safeguarding update that needs capturing whilst fresh. When report-writing season is upon us, everyone is grateful for all these systems and approaches.
On top of the systems there’s our five social media channels, the team’s individual Twitter accounts (and scheduling tools) and newsletters via Mailchimp too. To say that I had planned this approach at the start would be overstating my competence. More likely I had a vision of the outcome I wanted. This vision was shared accountability, collaboration and creating an organisation in which we could all tell the story of the high quality impact we had. As a helpful baseline, what I had was an awareness from working in the public sector, of the consistent underuse of the technology that is not only available, but often free and at times, beautiful. As a tiny social enterprise, we can avoid hefty procurement processes and simply try new ideas. Don’t tell the team, but I think HubSpot might be our next investment…
So far so great. But of course in reality it’s messier than this. Some platforms and apps are free and some, given our current team size of seven, we now have to pay for. And we all know that ‘free’ platforms are rarely free when considering staff time, so user experience is vital. Conversely, using the cloud and Macs mean that admin time for maintenance is miniscule – a must in a micro enterprise without tech support.
There are other staff costs too. Some people struggle – and that’s understandable and OK. Patience, appropriate challenge, accountability and a lack of blame are vital. Where there is struggle, there’s time devoted to communicating its purpose and a shared understanding of the value of the systems. This is undertaken proactively and starts in recruitment and induction with transparency about the expectations of working at Your Own Place.
Lots of systems means lots of changes. Changes to interfaces, upgrades, safety implications, changes to payment plans and functionality, changes to policies and regularly changing passwords. None of this is cost neutral and it’s important that the benefits outweigh the deficits.
This brings us to recruitment and the skills we now need in the team. Whilst we are explicit about the skills we require during recruitment (and have a values-based approach, rather than qualifications-based), digital skills don’t take precedence over our core skills currently – those of working with people. They do feature in all job descriptions though. As a social enterprise and someone who is perhaps a little disenchanted with some of the historic aspects of the wider third sector, I’ve made an active move to recruit from a variety of sectoral backgrounds. I will argue strongly that the sector, at our end of the size spectrum anyway (and perhaps not just our size) is not strong on technology and most of us are not even beginning to use its full capability. Recruiting from outside our sector then, from the private sector, has proven invaluable in the digital skills mix brought to the team.
Going into lockdown was an entirely different story. The skills needed by the team both increased and changed overnight. Not only were there the relationships with our own community to maintain, there was our own wellbeing, staying a team and figuring out a sustainable way forward. Zoom became a way of life. We upgraded immediately and from then on it was in use all day and every day from our spare rooms (if we were lucky enough to have one). The strain and stress of introducing new cloud-based systems, just when you think you know what they are and how they work, is not to be underestimated in a small team without a designated tech lead. A pandemic is not the time for big decisions (who do you collaborate with, what new services and systems do you invest in etc), except of course it was the only time for big decisions.
Using the Strategy Triage Tool I cited in the last blog, and as a team, we worked through it together. The mission, our end goal and our people always determine the approaches and in this case the new tools we needed. Ultimately they are just highly sophisticated tools. The biggest challenge I would argue was not the tools, but the pace we had to move at. Not everyone can move that quickly – even outside a global pandemic. We had to have time out and to allow people to vent and cry. These were not so much growing pains or even technological pains as changing quickly pains.
Embedding digital & resilience culture
We’ve a ‘high support’ and ‘high challenge’ culture. Thanks in part to the ‘high support’, we’ve created a safe enough environment to do the really important ‘high challenge’ bit too. The pain of challenge is hugely mitigated by the asset-based approach we take across the board. We seek to make visible the positives in people’s behaviours and approaches in specific ways. This instils in them the self-confidence to repeat the positive behaviour and the resilience to know they can take the risks. No-one gets thrown under a bus if it doesn’t work out.
Thanks to this workplace culture and the driving force of the mission, team resilience has held up. For me personally, having purpose made a big difference to my personal resilience. I don’t think I’m alone in that. If culture is that important to team resilience, it’s worth investing in from the start. You can neither implement a values-led culture overnight in a pandemic, nor overnight outside a pandemic. Both a digital and values-led culture have to have their roots outside the crisis, making you better equipped to navigate it when it comes. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start now – this is a marathon and not a sprint.
What about that skills mix in the team? A godsend. Their different approaches, different skills, different mates they could call on and even differing degrees of flexibility and working styles meant that the internal collaboration was all the stronger. At times, team members gave up whole days just to sit with fragile colleagues and show them the ropes of a new system. In turn, team delivery became the norm, allowing one person to operate the tech of Zoom interactive presentations and another to do the ‘people’ bit. This has financial and resource implications in the long run, but in the short run was vital to getting through together and building confidence.
I write this as we enter possibly even more uncertainty and a second retreat from face to face delivery. What we do know is that there’s little doubt that our current shape and approach has huge HR ramifications, whilst maintaining the balance of what’s most important – people and values. Our new Board of Non-Executive Directors contains people with phenomenal digital skills and connections. This probably wouldn’t have been the case only a year ago.
We’re now digital for good. Whilst we will always be committed to face to face delivery for the purposes of relationship building, digital forms part of our present and our future. For people purposes, going digital means it has to be built into our staff wellbeing, staff development, recruitment and induction strategies. Maybe it will even become one of our core values?
I hope you’ll join me for blog three when I’ll be exploring the challenges of keeping people safe as we all jump online.