“Staff have quickly grasped skills that would have taken days or even weeks to master”

7 Apr 2020 By Sally Hopper

Sally Hopper shares how Hertfordshire Council’s HR team has responded to the virus, including turning its recruitment function into a redeployment hub, and trusting staff to make the right calls

Our staff have stepped up seamlessly to the huge challenges we face as we collectively respond to coronavirus. We pride ourselves on having exemplary relations with our employees, and the ongoing nurturing of those along with the continuous harnessing of clear lines of communication would not be possible without our motivated, flexible and engaged workforce. At this unique and challenging time for any local authority, our sense of pride has never been greater. 

Working with the unions, policies and working practices have been reviewed and suitably adapted at pace to enable changes that simply cannot be put on hold. Employees have quickly learned on the job and grasped skills that previously would have taken a few days or even weeks to master. This is a wonderful demonstration of our council colleagues’ dedication and aptitude at the most testing of times. A great example of this has been the speed at which Microsoft Teams was rolled out across our entire organisation in response to the need for colleagues to work from home where possible.

Some of our services for the public, such as libraries, have had to close until the pandemic no longer poses the threat it currently does. However, much thought and creativity has gone into continuing to promote and ultimately provide these services in different ways in the meantime. For example, we’ve moved some of our events and activities online. Significantly, our BorrowBox service, which gives residents the option of downloading eBooks and audiobooks, has seen a huge rise in activity, with first-time users up by 332 per cent in the past week, and overall loans up by 43 per cent in the same period.

A few weeks ago, and with the landscape associated with coronavirus constantly changing, as it still is, we quickly prioritised keeping our workforce reassured, just as we do with residents. This is a time of real uncertainty and, in many cases, concern for people. So it was important for us to set the right, calming tone among our staff.

Keeping in touch is imperative, and an instrumental tool in this process has been FAQs. These are regularly updated to provide clarity and reassurance, while a manager’s guide and an all-staff ‘looking after yourself and wellbeing’ guide were produced, swiftly and to a high quality.

For us, like any principle authority, it is important to get key messages out to colleagues in a timely and effective manner. Just a few hours after school closures had been announced, all staff were sent an email of reassurance including some anticipated FAQs. Further to this, a specific school closure guide was created.

At Hertfordshire County Council, we’re always striving to innovate and come up with ways to do things better. An all-staff ‘virtual’ video, featuring messages from various members of the senior management team, including our chief executive, Owen Mapley, was produced for the first time. Effective employee engagement is vital to us, and this video provided a personal and human touch, which is important at any time, but particularly right now when many staff have had to adapt quickly to starkly different working conditions – not to mention big changes to how they live. We wouldn’t be doing our jobs if anyone felt isolated or uninformed.

We trust our workforce to make the right calls at this time, and that is the golden thread that continues to run right through our response to coronavirus. To this end, I quickly made a strategic decision to turn our recruitment team into a redeployment hub once the full impact, or potential impact, of coronavirus was clear. The hub has two main purposes. First, to redeploy as many of our displaced staff as possible. And second, to work with key partners, such as the Hertfordshire Local Enterprise Partnership, to support displaced members of our community by offering and enabling them to find paid employment.

Along with innovation, our council’s values are kindness and compassion, and we’ve seen plenty of that in these times. Public sector jobs are often underappreciated. One day, when we reflect on the experience of working where we did during the Covid-19 outbreak, this will perhaps be viewed more as a career where what you do really does matter.

Sally Hopper is assistant director of human resources at Hertfordshire County Council

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