Long reads

How are people teams responding to coronavirus? ...Unicef UK

23 Mar 2020 By Jenny Roper

People Management finds out what employers are doing to tackle the logistical, financial and staff wellbeing implications of the global pandemic

The organisation

Unicef UK is one of 36 Unicef National Committees based in industrialised countries. The third sector organisation works in the UK to champion children's rights, win support and raise money for Unicef's work with children globally. Current campaigns include on international issues such as HIV and AIDS, climate change and water and sanitation, as well as domestic campaigns on child poverty and breastfeeding.

The impact so far

Of the UK arm’s 320 staff, six have so far had to self-isolate. In terms of impact to the charity’s income, the knock-on effect to corporate donations could be serious, given the challenges businesses in many sectors currently face, says Martyn Dicker, director of people. “It’s probably a bit early to say but the reality is that in the UK we’re a £100m income organisation and although our income is quite diverse, one reasonable part of that pie is through corporates,” he says.

The organisation has only just moved into the phase of looking at what the workforce implications would be in a situation of seriously reduced income, he reports. “We’ve kind of gone from initial business continuity and wellbeing considerations to thinking about: what does this mean for our business?”

Initial response

“I formed a Covid-19 response team of people who could help me quickly pull together guidance as the situation escalated,” says Dicker of the organisation’s response early on. “I looked for a representative team across the various parts of the business. It was at the heads level – people who would have a good enough sense of what the reality was on the ground in various scenarios. So what would happen if we weren’t able to get into the office and process donations? They were senior enough to get a sense of the priorities but grounded enough to know what it would mean in practice.”

Workforce implications, financial impact and opportunities for the organisation overall are all addressed as one by this team, Dicker says. “People think of our work internationally but we do have core work protecting the UN convention of the child in the UK so we’ve pulled together guidance on what parents can use to keep kids entertained now schools have closed,” he says regarding the opportunities for the organisation to help out.

The response team meets every other day, with conversations increasingly taking place between this. The team has put a rating system in place, going up to four, which means everyone working from home and prioritisation of critical business. Mid-March the organisation was at a two rating, but it is now at four, which means the office is closed and all staff are working from home, with no external meetings in person. “We said from the start what we’d do as a result of each rating,” says Dicker.

Comms strategy

“As the government is finding out too, there's a need for really regular briefings and updates. Almost just over communicating it,” says Dicker, adding that the organisation had been holding regular live-streamed Q&A sessions with employees. 

The working group is invaluable for sense-checking all communications before they’re made, he says: “My working group has helped feed into the mood on that. Initially [in early March] my advice would have been that those not in vulnerable categories can maybe work from home a bit more than usual [but other people should still come in], but they were saying ‘that’s not the mood, that’s not where people are at, there's a real nervousness there’.”

Dicker highlights the importance of HR practitioners taking a moment to carefully scrutinise the information their communications are based on. “Quite early we did the environment scanning, with advice on travel to a certain area for example,” he says. “It’s important to be choosing your sources really carefully.”

Home working 

In early March the charity ran a forced office closure to test the charity’s cascade system of alerting staff to stay at home. “We were probably quite quick on that. We probably had 90 per cent of people off,” Dicker says. “I sent a test by mobile in the morning and people had to respond to it to show they’d got the message. That was really useful as it showed me there were areas where the cascade fell down. We then changed it.”

Most staff can work fairly easily from home at Unicef UK. But that doesn’t mean careful thought isn’t needed around this, says Dicker: “What was interesting was, after the test, some said it didn’t feel that unusual, and some said it was quite nice, quite productive. Others said ‘it was fine but I’m really nervous if it becomes the norm’.”

A key danger is staff not switching off properly, he says, particularly given potentially higher workloads for some as a result of Unicef UK’s coronavirus-related campaigns: “I think at our organisation people care so deeply about the mission you have to keep reminding people they shouldn’t just be ploughing on if they’re not well. Burnout is a real risk because people care so much.”


“We’ve said we’ll continue to pay as normal where staff are self-isolating or looking after children now schools are closed,” says Dicker. “We’ve got a really engaged workforce so the reality is they’ll all be working, just at different levels depending on their individual circumstances.”

Regarding a potential income hit to the charity and the need to look at its wage bill as a result, Dicker says this is a conversation for further down the line once the financial impact is clearer: “Like any hopefully responsible employer we wouldn’t want to rush into this. We’ve got a very talented workforce and want to do our best to protect their jobs and treat them well – they work incredibly hard for us.”

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