I’m Monica Pabualan, and I manage staff engagement at the NHS South West London Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG). We reopened one of our offices in July after being closed for 17 months. Staff have rated their first day experience with 4 or 5 stars, and 98% of respondents said they felt the organisation had done enough to prepare them. It’s great to have such positive feedback, but I know it’s only the beginning of a new way of working for us. If you’re embarking on a similar journey, I thought I’d share our experience with you – of what we’ve learnt, and what we’re planning to do next.
Who we are and what we do
The NHS South West London CCG is responsible for planning, commissioning and buying most of the NHS services used by just under 1.7 million people across six diverse boroughs: Croydon, Kingston, Merton, Richmond, Sutton, and Wandsworth. And over the past year, we’ve worked with our system partners to lead and coordinate the South West London NHS response to Covid and deliver a successful vaccination programme, rolling out over 1.8 million vaccines so far.
As you can imagine, it’s been a very challenging year for our 470 members of staff. However, we’re fortunate to have a strong leadership team who are committed to making South West London a great place to live and work.
Prioritising safety, health and wellbeing
In March 2020, we closed our offices and launched a ‘New Ways of Working’ programme to support staff to work from home. Senior managers held one-to-one assessments with their teams to check their wellbeing and to make sure people had the equipment they needed to do their job effectively. We also launched a staff intranet and organised regular ‘all staff’ virtual meetings to keep them connected and up-to-date.
In South West London, we always aim to make evidence-based decisions, and so we carried out a pulse survey in June 2020 which reported an increase in productivity, meeting attendance, and quicker decision-making. However, it was clear we needed to do more to support the mental and physical wellbeing of our staff.
Making the most of our new staff intranet that was once considered a luxury but is now an essential tool, we gathered all the support available including HR, Employee Assistance Programme, and support programmes provided by NHS England, as well as Improvement’s London and national teams. We also invited people to join a variety of conversations and to share their top tips for working from home. Who knew house pets would be such a popular topic?!
In addition, we formed a Staff Health and Wellbeing Network and they were responsible for organising a number of wellbeing events including: mindfulness, walking, reading, crocheting, dancing, art, and even a few bingo games which provided a nice escape from reality. Our network of Mental Health representatives also arranged monthly mental health trainings and weekly drop-in sessions for anyone who just wanted to connect with colleagues.
However, working from home didn’t suit everyone and so for those who were struggling and met the exemption criteria were able to work at the office, which was set up with safety measures following all government guidance such as wearing of face coverings, socially distanced desks, and regular cleaning.
Planning the reopening of the office
In April 2021, with people getting vaccinated, the rate of Covid cases and deaths falling, and government guidance on safety measures easing, it felt like the right time to have a conversation with staff about how we would like to work and use our offices in the future.
During a two week engagement period, we learnt that working from home has been an overall positive experience with 98% of respondents reporting they felt safe working from home; 97% feeling they were very productive working from home; 91% who indicated they have access to the tools to do their job; and 75% who said they have a better work-life balance.
Staff felt supported over the past year, with 96% highlighting they felt trusted to do their job. The top three sources of support included line managers, equipment to work comfortably at home, and health and wellbeing information on the intranet.
In terms of using the offices again, the majority of staff felt comfortable about reopening the office with 86% of people adding that connecting and collaborating with colleagues was what they most valued about being at the office, followed by the ability to go out for lunch and have a clear divide between work and home life. Additionally, 46% expressed their desire to work flexibly from home 3-4 days per week. However, staff had concerns about public transport and the risk of getting Covid.
It was also suggested that we use positive and forward-looking language such as “reopening the office” as opposed to “returning to the office” or “back to the office” which was similar to “back to school”, and made it seem like we were coming back from a long holiday which of course wasn’t the case.
A few months following that in June, senior management made the decision to reopen one of the offices on 19 July and have staff come in twice a month on their collaborative team days. Despite the government lifting all restrictions on Freedom Day, senior management chose to listen to staff and agreed to keep the safety measures in place.
We wanted to ensure everyone’s first day went as smoothly as possible and giving them the reassurance that their safety, health and wellbeing came first – by providing clear instructions, and sharing as much information in advance as possible. We also considered colleagues who may have had to travel a bit further to an office that wasn’t their usual base, and also any new starters who would be meeting colleagues for the first time since joining the organisation.
Here are some of the things we provided:
- Regular updates through our staff channels
- A dedicated area on the intranet for all the information
- Induction sessions held over MS Teams
- First Day checklist
- A rota for team days so people can plan ahead
- A desk booking system, training session and manual
- An office handbook on how to use the office facilities
- Maps and directions to the office and information about the area
- Videos and floor plans of the office
- Fire evacuation procedures
- Pin badges for first aiders, fire wardens, and mental health representatives
- Refunds for parking fees for those who preferred to drive to work instead of using public transport
- Direct letters from line managers
- A proposed agenda and team building activity
- Free pens and maps of the area with compliments from Love Wimbledon BID
- Ushers on the day providing a warm and friendly welcome
First day feedback
According to the desk booking system, a total of 232 people checked-in to the office between 19 July and 6 August and all staff were invited to give their feedback to help identify any improvements we could make going forward. The results were very positive with:
- 98% of respondents saying the organisation did enough to prepare them in their return to the office
- 73% of respondents rated their first day with 4 or 5 stars
- the majority of respondents enjoying seeing their colleagues face-to-face
- proper handling of safety measures particularly on the clear desk policy, clean kitchen facilities, and hand sanitisation
- improvement sought on clarifying the purpose of future team days, removing the one way system, and providing more hand wipes.
Over the next few months, we will be addressing the above areas and will continue to listen and learn from our staff as we plan how we work together and use the office and other sites in the future.
We hope our approach to a new way of working will help fulfil our aim to make South West London a great place to work, and to also meet one of the aims in the NHS People Plan which is all about giving people greater choice over their working patterns, enabling them to achieve a better work-life balance, and helping the NHS remain an employer of choice.
If you’re an organisation looking to reopen the office but are not sure where to begin, here are some of my top tips to ensure that it all goes well. I appreciate all companies are different but the key thing is to engage with your staff. Only through engagement can you build trust in truly supporting your staff to do their best work in the best place:
- Appoint a project lead and team – set your purpose, objectives, timelines, and key principles to help guide your decisions.
- Engage with your staff and find out what matters to them – provide a survey, let staff respond anonymously, or run a series of drop-in sessions and focus groups.
- Analyse the feedback and share your key findings and recommendations with senior management.
- Share the results with staff and test the recommendations with them (note: you may need to repeat this step a few times)
- Once the majority have agreed, plan and deliver your recommendations and make it a positive and perhaps even an enjoyable experience for your staff.
- Keep listening, learning and improving.
Feel free to connect with me on Linkedin if you have any queries. I’m always happy to help and equally happy to learn from you.
Author: Monica Pabualan – SWL Communications Manager at NHS South West London CCG