Long reads

How are people teams responding to coronavirus? ...Surrey Police and Sussex Police

7 Jul 2020 By Elizabeth Howlett

Collapsing traditional HR structures, rich data collection and revamped recruitment processes have ensured both forces remained operational during the crisis

The organisation 

With an HR team operating as a joint unit across its headquarters in Guildford in Surrey and Lewes in Sussex, the two forces have a combined 12,000 employees across their contact centre, headquarters and frontline officers. 

The impact so far

Unlike many other organisations across the UK that have shut their doors during lockdown, policing cannot stop in the face of a global pandemic. Working across both Surrey Police and Sussex Police force, the HR team was faced with the dual challenge of both organisations’ statutory requirements and responsibility to the public, but also ensuring the workforce’s safety and wellbeing. 

Adrian Rutherford, head of HR services, says: “This isn’t an organisation that can just shut down because of Covid. We can’t stop policing, so we have to make sure that the organisation continues.” He explains that “within policing there is a gold, silver and bronze structure” and that the bronze people lead, Angela Packebusch, was embedded into the forces’ command and control operation, Operation Apollo. 

“When the pandemic hit there was no question that there would be a HR bronze and they would be embedded and sit beside the operational police commanders,” Rutherford explains. Operation Apollo saw the traditional HR structures within Surrey Police and Sussex Police  “collapsed” in favour of a focused team of HR specialists (sitting under Packebusch), ready to respond to any changes in legislation and regulation following the daily government briefings. 

The role of data

Data played a critical role in the organisation’s contingency planning in the event a percentage of the workforce was struck down with Covid-19. “We had to very quickly make sure we knew what our deployment levels were,” says Rutherford. So quickly ascertaining how many staff were sick, shielding, self-isolating – and who of those self-isolating could still work from home – was vital. 

The HR team was reporting that data both internally and externally. “There was a big demand on the team to react and turn around that data at short notice, which took a lot of data to collate and pull together from the different forces,” Packebusch says. 

This rich data collection also helped HR keep deployment levels high and ensure officers could access Covid tests, which meant the team was never in the dark about who could return to work after an incident with the general public, given social distancing is not always an option on the front line. 

“Although we have done a lot of work around PPE [personal protective equipment ] and keeping officers safe, there will always be incidents where it isn’t possible to keep that social distance,” says Packebusch. “We did have a number of occasions where our officers were involved in situations with members of the public claiming to have Covid, so the need to have our officers tested was quite critical at the time.” 

Guidance and signposting 

Keeping abreast of the latest government guidelines and developments was a seven-days-a-week job for HR. An intranet page was created to keep employees up to date with the latest advice. 

Packebusch explains: “[The intranet page] had line manager guidance, personal guidance and FAQs so after each update from the government or policy change, we were signposting people to the intranet and we put the guidance on there in as simple a way as possible. Once we got that intranet set up that took away a lot of the initial demand [on HR] from people with the same questions.” 

She adds that Unison and the Police Federation were with them every step of the way. “It was important to liaise with both of them, and across both Surrey Police and Sussex Police force, so they understood what we were trying to do and we had their support and buy-in with policy changes,” says Packebusch. 

Indeed, some of the changes are likely to stick, says Rutherford: “In the early days we had to amend some of our policies and processes on flexible working, dependants’ leave, sick pay and attendance triggers. As we come into a ‘new normal,’ we won't be reversing some of those because the changes have worked really well.” 

Recruitment 

In September 2019 the government launched a national campaign to recruit 20,000 police officers, meaning Surrey Police and Sussex Police were going through a growth period when the pandemic hit. “We had ambitious recruitment plans for this year which we have had to continue, but we have amended the way we are recruiting,” says Rutherford. 

The College of Policing has helped smooth this process by transferring the National Assessment Centre programme online. Rutherford says interviews and training have been given a virtual makeover too. “We’ve had to look at how we interview because we didn't want to bring loads of people into a building so we moved to Zoom. We also had to look at the pre-employment processes such as fitness tests, medicals and biometrics,” explains Rutherford. “We put some guidance up as to what the standard is and asked people to self-certify they are at that standard. But we would test them once they came in.” 

Surrey Police and Sussex Police have successfully brought in over 150 new police officers in the last three months and continues to train them, which Rutherford and Packebusch agree is testament to the L&D team, who “know how important it is to continue the pipeline of new officers and train them to a high standard”. 

Rutherford says: “While we do still need face-to-face training and, at times, hands-on training with our officers, such as handcuffing and baton training which cannot be done virtually, we have put a lot of our training for new and existing officers on Zoom and other IT platforms.

“While they may be in their living room, we do make them keep the uniform standards that we would have if they were here. The only concession we made was that they didn’t have to wear their heavy boots because we were worried it might scuff the carpet and we would be in trouble.” 

In July, the numbers are set to increase again, with 100 officers due to start in Surrey Police and 40 in Sussex Police. To keep deployment levels up during this critical period, the course structure has been reordered so that if there is a shortage of available staff, officers will be safe to go out. 

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