Long reads

How are people teams responding to coronavirus? …Wiltshire Council

17 Apr 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

Wiltshire Council serves the unitary authority of Wiltshire, providing local government services to 435,000 residents. It is also the biggest employer in Wiltshire, employing 4,600 staff, and is responsible for schools, social services, rubbish collection and disposal, county roads, planning and leisure services.

Impact so far

A large percentage of the council’s staff – 4,000 out of 4,600 – have a laptop and can work from home, reports director of HR and OD Joanne Pitt. However, a significant proportion are also key workers, many of whom are required to continue providing services in person. Around 2,000 fall into this category, including social workers, mental health professionals, family key workers, teachers, occupational therapists, care support workers, commissioners, highway technicians and engineers, parking enforcement staff and those working in waste operations.

The council has also seen a strong need to redeploy staff to a few critical areas particularly in demand currently. These include putting together care packages for vulnerable community members, staffing phone lines checking in on such individuals, supporting an increased demand for care services given higher hospital discharge rates, and transporting bodies in the event of ‘excess deaths’.

In terms of quickly mobilising around the crisis, Pitt says the council has been able to draw to some extent on its experience responding to the poisoning in 2018 of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military officer and double agent for the UK's intelligence services, and his daughter Yulia Skripal, in Salisbury. “We were in quite a good position in terms of responding as we had a critical incident a few years ago,” says Pitt. “So we already had a structure and mechanism in place in terms of how we respond to a significant emergency.”

Managing staff redeployment

One of the first actions the council took in response to the outbreak was to establish an online wellbeing hub for those who’d been sent a letter identifying them as at risk or identified as vulnerable by a list provided to the council from the NHS, and so people could identify themselves as such. It was critical the organisation quickly enlisted enough staff to keep in touch with these people. “So over the first few weeks we had 75 staff volunteering to cover shifts to make calls,” says Pitt. “These were staff doing their day job but also volunteering to cover weekends and part of the day where they would down tools and go help. Of those, 37 were HR and OD staff.”

These staff were put on seven-day rotas to make sure this service was provided at the weekend. “The feedback from those staff is they’ve loved doing it,” says Pitt. “Some of the staff volunteering have made arrangements to go visit those people at the end of all this and have a coffee. In terms of workforce response, it’s been outstanding.”

Staff unable to work from home or to continue their normal jobs, such as leisure centre and pest control workers, have also been redeployed to put together and deliver care packages. And the council has retrained some people to provide domiciliary care. “We have an in-house reablement team – they provide support for people to stay in their own homes when they’re older,” says Pitt. “But for the purposes of the situation we’re in now, they're now a domiciliary care team because hospitals are discharging older people – particularly older individuals – at a rate of knots and when they’re discharged they become our responsibility. So we have retrained some internal staff to provide domiciliary care.”

In terms of pay, Pitt reports that changing people’s remuneration in line with new responsibilities would be unnecessarily fiddly at such times, with staff happy to be flexible given the unprecedented circumstances. But employees have been told pay will be adjusted up in future, with HR carefully tracking where this needs to happen. The council’s trade unions have been highly supportive on this matter, and on temporarily changing people’s job descriptions, says Pitt.

Recruitment drive

As well as redeploying existing employees, Wiltshire Council has recruited new care staff. It has recruited 30 so far, with the advert still live. “These are people not working because they are self employed and perhaps unable to get anything from the government, or who’ve been laid off,” says Pitt. “Interestingly we’ve had over 90 applications and we usually struggle to recruit for this kind of work. And quite a few people who we’ve recruited have expressed interest in staying on at the end of this which is really positive.”

The idea is to over resource at the moment, ready for when peak demand hits in terms of number of hospital discharges, says Pitt. All new recruits have been interviewed over video – something Pitt is hopeful will carry over into normal hiring, particularly for volume recruitment, once the crisis is over. Staff have been put through a condensed training regime of two and a half days instead of five and a week’s shadowing.

Working from home wellbeing

While the council already had flexible working and hot desking in place, working from home every day will feel very different to occasional remote working, Pitt points out. “People have to understand they need to function almost as if they’re going into the office, so we’ve put in place loads of advice,” she says. “We’ve got a wellbeing portal called Flourish and there’s lots of additional information going on there… we’ve got a competition where we’re trying to get people to complete certain numbers of squats…”

Other wellbeing initiatives in response to coronavirus have included financial advice through this portal, in recognition of many council staff’s partners potentially having lost work, and 96 extra councillors appointed for the council’s wellbeing hotline.

Positive communication has also been a must, with the council’s CEO posting two video blogs a week and all other directors posting one so far with more to come. It’s important to strike the right balance between lots of up to date factual information as the situation progresses, and positive, celebratory messaging, says Pitt.

“Staff are concerned about their annual leave, what happens to their pay… So it’s really important we keep the information flowing – but also that we keep the messages positive.”

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