Black swan: six things to consider as furloughing impacts your charity team during the pandemic

15 Apr 2020

A blog by Kevin Lelland, head of development and communications at the John Muir Trust and a Trustee of Scottish Environment LINK

It’s the black swan of our time. Few of us could have imagined how our lives and society could change so dramatically and quickly by an insidious pandemic that affects all of us and especially the poor, vulnerable, key workers and those who have lost loved ones to Covid-19. For government, businesses and charities alike decisions have by necessity been taken quickly.

For those who can, work from home has been implemented and where the ability to sustain a job role is hindered by personal circumstances or ability to work, the UK government has supported individuals and organisations with a furlough scheme (at the time of writing, until the end of May 2020).

It’s a situation that all of us within the Environment LINK network are getting to grips with and dependent on the current state of each our organisations there are difficult decisions being made that aim to support staff, continue to fulfil the purpose of our charities and all while we try to assess how to secure the long-term health of our organisation when the future is so uncertain.

What is clear is that almost all environmental NGOs will now need to start thinking about what a streamlined organisation looks like in the coming months and what it (and we as a collective) can now achieve for nature, people, communities and the environment during the rest of this year.

As we embark on this next stage here’s six aspects those who manage teams will need to consider…

1)      Transparency. It’ll be important to lead the transition to a streamlined team based on values and virtues first. Any decisions made on furloughing and the rationale used will need to be communicated clearly with all your team. Share with everyone in your organisation the need to deal with each other, more so now than ever, with respect, candour, fairness and consistency. Set the example and aim for transparent work methods and communications that seek input across all colleagues as appropriate and ask and expect for comment and ideas without drama. This is a stressful time in which each of your team will be affected differently, but many aspects of work can remain calm and measured.

2)      Team work. Make sure regular team meetings and one to one meetings with line managers are a top priority. Ask that they have a clear purpose and agendas that result in positive actions. Encourage active listening and that colleagues seek advice from each other, address uncertainty, give due praise and provide encouragement and support. Look to foster trust by making sure people are clear on what is expected of them, with adjusted roles in place and explanations on how that contributes to the streamlined team. Consider investing more time and energy on internal communications during this period, thinking not just about modern technologies, but also how to strike a balance between process and culture. Look at ways to keep those on furlough informed of what is happening in the organisation and look at how you can also support them to have an option to stay in touch with colleagues in a personal capacity, for example, through work based social media groups. Think about who is best placed to support and champion your desired messages and behaviours inside the organisation.

3)      External communications. Look at what you can communicate externally, thinking carefully about volume and frequency with a focus on values-based messaging and the tone of voice that is most relevant to society right now. For the environmental sector values such as unity with nature and health and well-being as part of nature should come to the fore. Be aware of how you communicate any short-term gains or ‘case studies’ we see for the environment as a result of the pandemic, it’ll likely be more effective to focus on the long-term systematic changes our planet needs to make. Are your messages framed to be positive and inclusive and do they balance emotive messages with facts? You can also look at where there could be advantages by increasing investment in specific tactics and or brand awareness especially if timed correctly and as a result of a clear opportunity to address an increased understanding in society of the need to shift behaviours as a result of the pandemic.

4)      Positioning. Consider where there will be opportunities to position your organisation and its work as a result of the pandemic. Like any major disruptor that emerges in society, it’ll be those who act, react and interact with the situation as is, not as was, that will go forward, meet their objectives and be supported by people in the future. We may find that if society changes the way it operates due to the pandemic, so too will some charities need to change how they fulfil their purpose. Make space to consider where you might need or want to change what you do, start to think through the rationale and narrative of that now, and the pace at which you can realistically do this given the immediate focus on the current impact on your team and finances – you can go too fast and too slow. Be clear on what resources and activities you need to prioritise. Identify and share with your teams where this could be an opportunity to instigate long-term cultural and operational changes and seek other ideas. Many of us are already being forced to pilot and test new ways of home working, what else might be ideal to test or pilot at this time?

5)      People. Our people make our organisations what they are, often providing the voice that connects our charities to nature and people by providing the insights into the issues we care about and changes we want to see happen. Be empathetic to the situation your team finds itself in and look to find solutions with them while being clear about the challenges and difficult decisions the organisation is facing as a result. With such upheaval in general and in each of our personal circumstances, it’ll be important to think about and share the critical roles everyone is still able to play and how to motivate people in the long-term, even if in the interim some people are furloughed or asked to work reduced hours. Furloughed employees can undertake work-based training and or local volunteering. Some of them may wish and need support to take-up these options.

6)      Measurement. Recognise where existing performance indicators are no longer valid. Pay attention to putting key metrics in place during this temporary period and do that with the team who will deliver them. SMART targets will be more important than ever. While getting graphs going up to the right and measuring your effectiveness and efficiencies will remain important, have a clear narrative for the team around the areas where you might reasonably expect ‘performance bumps’. Look to avoid what is known as Simpson’s Paradox where an upward trend can appear in one group of data, but disappears when several groups of data are combined.

Finally, be kind to yourself and others that are having to make difficult decisions, recognising there is no precedent to support or guide many of the conversations we are having. Reach out within your network for advice from those who are grappling with the same challenges. There’s an African proverb that says, if you want to go fast go alone, if you want to go far go together. The latter is very much the attitude I see within the Scottish Environment LINK network and one we should foster during these difficult times.




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