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How are people teams responding to coronavirus? …London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

19 Jun 2020 By Siobhan Palmer

With many employees’ priorities turned upside down by the Covid-19 pandemic, the university put bureaucracy on the back burner

The organisation

The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) is a research and teaching institution focussing on public and global health. It employs 3,300 staff worldwide, with core hubs in London and at Medical Research Council Units in The Gambia and Uganda. Almost half of the organisation’s workforce is based in the UK. 

The impact

As a facility focussed on studying and treating disease and infection, the coronavirus pandemic naturally had an immediate impact, not just on the way LSHTM staff worked, but also on the nature of their work.

“A lot of our research focus has switched to Covid-19,” says Kessar Kalim, director of HR. Many of the School’s academic and scientific community are playing important roles in the global response to the pandemic, with a number of representatives on the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE). In addition, some clinical staff are supporting the NHS response, and the School’s director, Professor Peter Piot, was appointed as special advisor to the president of the European Commission on the response to Covid-19.

Remote working

Transitioning to remote working came with extra challenges for LSHTM, as the process also involved moving all lectures and teaching online. The school has decided to keep all teaching digital for the remainder of this term and the first term next year.

“In terms of next year, we've had to think very carefully about our commitments to students [...] That's a challenge for the whole sector,” Kalim says. “At the moment, we’re planning for teaching in the spring and summer terms in 2021 to be delivered flexibly on an online and on-campus basis, depending on the progress of the pandemic, national guidance in the UK and overseas and the situation of staff and students” 

While Kalim says, as an organisation, the school was “somewhat unaccustomed” to home-working, being forced to make the transition has put them in a better position now and for the future. 

While a few select laboratory and IT staff have gone back to work, in line with government guidance, the majority of employees are still working from home full time, and expect to be doing so for the foreseeable future.

Supporting the NHS

As the LSHTM workforce includes clinically and medically trained professionals, a big consideration for HR as the pandemic spread was allowing staff to support the NHS, with a number being released to support the development and running of the NHS Nightingale hospital in east London.

At the time, says Kalim, bureaucracy was not a priority. “There was a national pandemic,” he says. “We just said, ‘do what you need to do to support the NHS and support the national effort. We will worry about the bureaucracy and the admin for you’. This allowed our specialist staff to focus on what they do best and to support national and international efforts, not worry about filling in forms and bureaucratic hurdles.”

While emphasising that allowing staff to support the pandemic response was the priority, Kalim admits it was a big task for HR, with some colleagues inundated with “a decade's worth” of queries in the space of a couple of months.

The high-trust model

The School’s senior leadership team took a similar attitude to bureaucracy when it came to supporting parents and carers during lockdown. “When schools closed in March, we immediately sent a message to staff to say ‘don't worry about booking carers’ leave, don’t worry about booking annual leave or unpaid leave, do what you can to manage your work and personal lives – we know you will do your best’,” Kalim explains.

“It’s a high-trust model – I like to think of it as empowering people,” he says. People don't need forms or step-by-step guidance to run their personal life, says Kalim, and he believes working life should be similar. “People should be able to make their own decisions. The guidance and policies should be frameworks of support for staff, but not act as bureaucratic barriers.”

Staff wellbeing

Kalim says mental health and wellbeing was an immediate focus for the organisation when staff moved to home working. “All managers were encouraged to ensure that they were meeting at least weekly with their [teams], even for an informal arrangement,” he says. Staff across different professional services teams also collaborated to build a ‘virtual community’ of staff and student support, whose offer included a virtual ‘buddy’ scheme, mindfulness sessions, an online parents and carers group, and virtual coffee mornings for new starters. 

On top of these wellbeing provisions, Kalim says clear communication was important in supporting staff. While many LSHTM employees may be virus specialists and very informed about the pandemic and safety procedures, Kalim says “people still value simple and clear messages”.

“We've had to... ensure that our local messaging is absolutely clear on what we expect around people coming into the office, not coming to the office, their home working arrangements, childcare, furlough, and a whole range of other issues,” he says. A regular online Q&A panel with the organisation's leadership has proved a success, Kalim says. The positive feedback from staff has been such that the School are considering making the panel a permanent fixture. 

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