Long reads

How are people teams responding to coronavirus? …UK Export Finance

5 Jun 2020 By Maggie Baska

The agency’s focus on business continuity planning and home working drills prior to the pandemic has been incredibly valuable

The organisation

UK Export Finance (UKEF) is the country’s export credit agency, a government department working alongside the Department for International Trade as part of its strategy and operations. The organisation, which was founded in 1919, works with 70 private credit insurers and lenders to help companies in the UK access export finance. It currently employs 340 staff in the UK and eight staff overseas. 

The impact so far

Though no-one could have predicted coronavirus, UKEF had been planning for such a crisis long before anyone had heard of Covid-19. Shane Lynch, the organisation’s director of resources, explains that UKEF identified business continuity planning as an area of focus in 2018, and a new incident management team was set up in 2019 to prepare for various scenarios.

“Throughout 2019, the team ran quarterly role plays where we would ‘war game’ specific scenarios, including preparing for a flu pandemic,” Lynch explains. “We’d be locked in a room for an afternoon, and the head of security and resilience would come in and say there had been a pandemic. From that, we would start planning how we would react to that scenario.”

By doing these exercises, the teams were forced to think in detail about how they would respond and what small, practical things they would need to do to help staff work from home, Lynch says.

Working from home trials

Even after running these ‘war games’, UKEF was of course still not fully expecting the coronavirus pandemic or subsequent lockdown restrictions. It began preparing for the disruption caused by this outbreak specifically at the beginning of 2020. “Communication was a big part of this,” Lynch says. “We were talking to staff to make sure they knew what our business continuity plans were, that they were familiar with them and to have everybody test their readiness to work from home.” 

As part of a remote working trial run, staff were instructed to go home and work as they would at the office and identify any issues that arose. Each division in UKEF was also instructed to test every process it could and see if it could be done remotely, which highlighted a number of pinch points. 

This highlighted the organisation was still heavily reliant on paper documentation that needed to be physically signed, so needed to digitise these. On top of this, some staff did not have fast enough broadband to support some work functions, and UKEF also needed to distribute technical equipment such as keyboards or adapters. 

Mental health

From the start of the pandemic there has been a focus on staff wellbeing that came all the way from the boardroom. UKEF put a wide range of support and interventions in place, including signposting to its employee assistance programme, sharing counselling and emotional support through podcasts, and directing staff to e-learning modules on resilience. 

“We also do ‘ask me anything’ sessions where staff can ask questions to senior managers. These questions can be HR-related, but they can also be just what we’re watching on Netflix or me introducing my dwarf hamster Bruno to the workforce!” Lynch says. 

Recruitment and onboarding

While other organisations have halted recruitment, UKEF has completed 21 UK hires and more overseas during lockdown. The organisation is also preparing to recruit in countries including Malaysia, the Philippines, Egypt, Morocco and South Africa. “Before the lockdown, the vast majority of our recruitment was done face-to-face, even when we were recruiting overseas,” Lynch says. “This was the first time we migrated to fully remote recruiting and onboarding of new staff.”

Though he was not “particularly worried” about recruitment being disrupted by the lockdown, Lynch was worried about onboarding and the induction of new hires. “There’s so much you get to know in those first few weeks or months, like meeting new people, building up your networks or understanding our organisational culture,” he says. “I did worry that it would be more challenging to implement through a digital induction.” 

But the organisation now conducts onboarding successfully through a series of half-day sessions over video conferencing. “We also have presenters come during these sessions to take questions from new staff on anything they're curious about,” says Lynch.

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