I started my new role as Head of Engagement at EKFB just two weeks before the whole country was forced to find a new way of working under lockdown. Building a team was high on my priority list, but how was I to go about that in this new virtual world? And how could we keep up a programme of engagement when everyone is staying at home?
It would have been easy to have gone into panic mode.
But by working with my new team and a bit of perseverance, I have sourced, interviewed and recruited five new Engagement Managers and now have a team of seven tasked with delivering community engagement remotely. Only one of my team has ever visited their patch!
Here’s what I learnt along the way…
Start where you are: I was fortunate to have great people around me, particularly a team member who knows the entire EKFB patch and many of the key stakeholders intimately. I was also able to recruit a team with a huge breadth and depth of skills and knowledge.
So how do you get to know your patch and your stakeholders and then engage without physically seeing or meeting?
You adapt, you learn, you prepare and you plan.
Adapt: clearly we had to deliver our work virtually. So rather than cancel stakeholder meetings, we offered Skype or Teams. Encouragingly, most were receptive to a new way of working, even if many initially insisted on talking when their microphone was on mute!
Six weeks in and we have received feedback that “engagement has improved”. As another stakeholder said “it’s so easy to have a short regular Skype meeting to catch up, because proper parish meetings take a lot of planning”.
Learn: appreciating what we do well and where we could do better has been key. We have a strong relationship with parish councils and it was important for me to understand why - reassurance, patience, empathy and honesty were the words that sprang to my mind from the first three meetings I attended in a back-seat role. We will use these four words as a focus for future engagements.
Prepare: we’ve taken advantage of not being able to get out-and-about and used our time to carefully prepare for the next six months. We have been engaged in researching and collating new contacts under the nine protected characteristics in the Equalities Act 2010 – we’ve made initial contact with Italian and Ghanaian communities to name just a couple. We have also been researching online presence by our communities along the line of route – we’ve collated the most popular community websites, Facebook pages and newsletters, all of which are potential new avenues to reach out to the community.
Plan: I think I’ve written more plans, project briefs and terms of reference in the last month than I have in the previous two years. We now have a project plan for an outreach community bus that will also provide an on-site training hub when not in use for community engagement. Finally, we have just commissioned a virtual exhibition having had time to carefully review a range of providers. The time-benefit of being in lockdown has saved the taxpayer around £6000 in the process.
So, we may not have been ‘out there’, but we’ve been fully engaged, very focused and achieved a lot. Let’s continue to use lockdown as a learning experience not a barrier!