Long reads

How are people teams responding to coronavirus? ...Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust

2 Jun 2020 By Robert Jeffery

The trust’s OD team has helped supercharge the development of virtual outpatient clinics and empower staff to come up with innovative ways of doing things

The organisation

Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust is one of the largest NHS trusts in England, managing five adult hospitals and community health services across Yorkshire and covering 17,800 employees. Its organisational development (OD) team has a portfolio including improvement programmes, leadership and management development, workforce redesign, and diversity and inclusion, as well as service improvement and quality improvement initiatives.

The impact so far

As soon as it became apparent coronavirus would affect every function and service across the trust, Sheffield’s OD team changed its focus to support the organisation’s response and planning. Paula Ward, organisational development director, says: “We very quickly identified which of our projects or programmes were still going to be required, or were required to move at greater pace. We took a very considered approach.”

The advantage of an OD team with a broad remit is that it can flex in a fast-moving situation to apply the principles of OD thinking to the creation of new structures and ways of working, adds Ward: “I can deploy my team, with their vast range of expertise, where the organisation needs them the most.”

Digital working

Although most of the work the NHS undertakes is face to face by necessity, the shift to virtual service provision has been one of the characteristics of its response to Covid-19. In Sheffield, OD had already introduced improvement programmes to explore the potential for virtual outpatient clinics, though most of them were conducted by telephone rather than videoconference. It would have been “silly” to put the brakes on this innovation, says Ward – and indeed, in common with other trusts, Sheffield supercharged its efforts, so that today many specialist appointments take place online, ensuring patients still have the opportunity to speak directly to a clinician.

“It was something that would have taken many, many months to get going,” says Ward. “But because patients and clinicians were very keen, and we could dedicate resource to it, we’ve been able to install it at pace and at scale.”

OD to the fore

There are multiple examples, says Ward, of innovations and improvements of all sizes that have been possible because the support of the OD team – which includes doctors, nurses and therapists who work part time on specialist programmes – has encouraged fresh thinking or helped facilitate long-term development programmes. And during coronavirus, that ability to plan and execute across multiple departments has been vital.

At its heart, OD is about improving organisational effectiveness in any way possible, she adds: “The idea is that where we have any area that wants to explore how to be more effective, either because there’s an opportunity, issue or risk, we have a series of approaches and methodologies to support them.”

New ideas

One of OD’s key roles is to foster innovation from the ground up. Thanks to Sheffield’s ‘Give it a Go week’, any employee or team could come up with an idea to improve the experience of the trust’s patients or staff, with support offered for them to try it out.

“It could be a simple change or something very substantial affecting thousands of patients. We’re able to put it to leaders to promote it and help individuals and teams give things a go,” says Ward. “It’s really important that even when we need a command and control structure to manage instances like pandemics, we still find ways to innovate and seek to find opportunities to make things better.”

During coronavirus, nursing staff came up with the idea of a hotline for relatives to speak to patients unable to operate their phones inside wards, as well as the ability to download photos of loved ones. 

Facing the future

The principles of OD, on both a local and national level, will help the NHS through the difficult months ahead, Ward believes. In particular, that means embracing a ‘reset phase’, when trusts must decide what they keep from their new ways of working, which paused programmes to restart, and how to deal with a new healthcare landscape post coronavirus. 

It’s hard to know how that will play out, she adds, but one thing’s for sure: “OD can make a difference for any organisation in any sector, as long as it’s set up to succeed. That means a flexible and agile function that can adapt to whatever you need at a particular time. It’s been a privilege to be part of an incredible team that has responded to the challenges of Covid with innovation, speed and compassion.”

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