Time to take stock: COVID-19, service delivery and staff safety

By on 14/10/2020 | Updated on 14/10/2020
DWP has been tasked with keeping many of its buildings open throughout the pandemic to service vulnerable people in need of welfare support. (Photo by JJ Ellison via Wikimedia Commons).

Citizens have rarely been in such need of assistance from their governments – with millions dependent on new economic stimulus, benefits, medical and public health services. But governments must find ways of meeting people’s needs without exposing their own staff to the risk of infection.

Those watching a recent Dell Technologies webinar – now available on demand by completing the form below – heard how the UK Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) geared up to process an additional 2.9m benefits claims and kept offices open throughout lockdown while keeping staff safe, and Dell’s private sector perspective on business continuity and staff wellbeing.  

The DWP has undoubtedly been one of the busiest government departments since coronavirus reached UK shores. It employs 85,000 people and, pre-COVID, provided services to up to 23 million citizens including through its Jobcentre Plus branches, where over a million citizens a week go to speak to frontline staff about welfare payments or get help finding a job. In total, the DWP operates 800 buildings across the country.

“To keep that going in normal times is a huge operation,” said Craig Varian, director of estates, finance group, at DWP. And when COVID-19 hit, “like any other organisation that has a delivery model based on face-to-face interventions, we had massive operational issues to deal with overnight”.

Between March and September, he explained, the number of claims the department had to process increased by nearly 3m. Catering for increased demand involved moving scores of civil servants into critical roles such as public enquiry handling and transitioning a large portion of services that would previously have been done face-to-face to being done remotely, either digitally or by telephone. But it had to keep the lights on too, with more than half of its workforce required to continue working from offices.

Craig Varian

“Throughout the pandemic we’ve had to keep our doors open for the most vulnerable people who can’t access services digitally or through telephony,” Varian explained. “So there’s been two types of operation: getting thousands of pieces of digital equipment out to colleagues to enable them to work from home, and making our buildings COVID resistant for those who needed to be in the workplace.”

The latter involved implementing social distancing measures; installing screens on every desk; ensuring an adequate supply of hand sanitiser; and employing 1,000 additional cleaners. While, on the digital side, Varian said there has been a “huge shift… probably in six months we’ve done more than we’ve done in several years”.

Rob Rance, UK channel lead for CSG group at Dell Technologies, reiterated that across the board COVID-19 has accelerated digital programmes. “Projects that were meant to take six, 12, 18, 24 months have been shrunk right down – people have been tasked with making them happen,” he said.  

‘A new way of thinking’

Going forward, Rance believes it isn’t inconceivable that around 40% of UK workers will continue working remotely after the pandemic’s over and that those who do work from offices may only do so two or three days a week. That will require a new way of thinking, not least about the technology needed.

When lockdown first came into force, the focus was on enabling staff to work remotely. For Dell, this involved bolstering broadband connections to handle virtual private network access, which had never been tested on such a scale before. “You might think, ‘you’re Dell, you should be able to do that’. And yes we should. But it’s still been a phenomenal job enabling that,” Rance said. Now the focus, for any organisation, is on optimising people’s home-work experience.

“The most common thing I’ve heard from customers is that whatever strategy they had, a new one’s needed,” Rance said. “We need to look at that; there’ll be a massive review to work out what needs to be done next, to look at our technology gaps and to fill them.”

The DWP is already on that journey. Varian explained that the department had been moving towards facilitating more digital interactions between staff and citizens but that “what the pandemic’s done is to absolutely expediate that and show us what is possible”.

He gives the use of tablets as an example. Six months ago, they weren’t used at DWP. Now thousands of Jobcentre Plus front-of-house staff have been issued them and they’re being deployed to thousands more. “Potentially, in the longer term, that will enable us to do more work in the community,” Varian said. “There’s a huge amount of work at the moment to look at what opportunities this brings us.”

He added: “Face-to-face interactions are seen as the most effective way of getting people back into work, and ‘levelling up’ and being part of the community is absolutely critical to the government’s agenda and what we do. It’s about using technology to enable that.

“Channel shift opens up a huge number of possibilities. The pandemic’s meant it’s happened by accident but it’s pushed us into a new way of working. Previously we had a more static model; it’s revolutionising the way we operate.”

Workforce wellbeing

Aside from technology, the transition to new working practices will require protecting staff from a wellbeing perspective. “People will be working from home more often, sometimes from one-bedroom flats where they live alone, and that can be really hard,” said Rance.

To ease the feeling of isolation, some teams at Dell have introduced ‘weekly wind-downs’. During these virtual meetings “we keep things light-hearted, we don’t talk shop, and if people want to have a beer, they can have a beer,” Rance said. “It’s a basic human instinct to want to interact and I think that’s what people have been missing, so for colleagues that live alone in small apartments, these chats and things like online yoga sessions and quizzes, have been a real lifeline.”

Rob Rance: “People will be working from home more often, sometimes from one-bedroom flats where they live alone, and that can be really hard.” (Photo by Oladimeji Ajegbile via Pexels).

There have also been efforts to cut the number and length of meetings. “When you’re at home it’s all too easy to get caught up saying ‘yes’ to video call after video call and before you know it you’ve been working from 7am through to the evening without even having time for a snack,” Rance said. “At Dell, the message to staff has been ‘yes, we’ve got a business to run but your health, wellbeing and mindset is key’.”

There has been a similar approach at DWP. “The focus on wellbeing has been a really big push from a management perspective,” Varian said. To get an idea of workforce morale, the department ran surveys that were taken by between 60,000 and 70,000 of its 85,000 employees. What it found was that people were suffering in different ways.  

“There were people who were anxious about using public transport to get into offices at the height of lockdown, particularly in March and April when there were some really concerning figures coming out, and then you had people being locked down at home for long periods who felt isolated,” Varian explained.   

Like at Dell, remedies included encouraging people to have informal chats with their colleagues, mindfulness sessions, and mental health awareness.

For DWP permanent secretary Peter Schofield, the health and safety of staff and customers has been paramount, Varian said. “At the very beginning we opened up a coronavirus hub on our intranet, we set up hotlines to the health and safety team so people could phone if they had any issues, the leaders organised as many staff calls as possible, and we provided open forums for discussion.”

When the modelling was being created at the start of lockdown, Varian explained, those responsible for continuity planning looked at how many people could potentially be infected if there were an outbreak in the department. “There was awareness that if a certain number of colleagues were ill at any one time, that could impact the economy.”

To ensure it is getting the best advice and guidance, DWP teams and leaders have links to Public Health England, the Health and Safety Executive and to government scientists, and sit on the board that advises COBRA, so it is “well connected across government in terms of understanding the best practices,” Varian said. “The challenge was to work out how to operationalise it”.   

“We probably haven’t done everything perfectly,” he said, “but what we have done is to communicate what we’re doing, get feedback and iterate. There’s the whole piece around offering reassurance and support but also holding our hands up if we haven’t got it quite right and adjusting quickly.”  

Looking ahead

And there will likely be many more adjustments to come, not least to the DWP’s estate and workplaces themselves.  

Unlike most other UK government buildings, which remain largely empty, DWP has not only retained scores of people in its buildings but is looking to increase the size of its estate. This comes after chancellor Rishi Sunak announced in August that there would be a recruitment drive to employ an additional 13,500 ‘work coaches’ to deal with a likely increase in claimants, as the pandemic’s impact on the economy starts to bite. In the short-term, Varian explained, that will involve borrowing underutilised buildings from other departments such as HM Revenue & Customs.

Looking further ahead, the pandemic offers an opportunity to accelerate the ‘levelling up’ agenda and to recalibrate office space. “There are two huge government estate strategies: one is moving people out of Whitehall and London to the regions, and the other is about utilisation of space and ensuring we get the greatest value for money,” Varian said. For DWP, that means that offices could be reorganised to offer more meeting rooms and collaboration spaces and fewer desks because “people can sit at desks at home”.

“I see that trajectory continuing over the next few years,” he said.

Rob Rance

Rance reiterated that “without a doubt” more people will be working from home indefinitely. But he had a word of warning: “They’ll need to be the right people. I don’t think you can take a blanket approach and say, ‘you’re going to work from home from now on’ because it’s not right for everybody. There’ll be a need to get the balance right.”  

The pandemic came as a shock to us all, but from crisis comes opportunity. Rance and Varian agreed that further change is afoot, and that get it right and the lessons learned from COVID-19 will result both in more flexible working practices and improved services.

“Some of the things we’ve achieved in terms of keeping the lights on and doing what we needed to do have been extraordinary,” Varian concluded. “Now it’s about looking at the positives that have come out of this experience and thinking about how they’ll influence the way we operate going forward.”  

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