24 June 2020

How are you coping in lockdown?

Sheena Widdowfield


How are you coping in lockdown?

The pandemic lockdown has had a profound effect on all of us, both at work and at home. Opencast head of learning and culture Sheena Widdowfield reflects on how best businesses can we look after their people.

Since going into lockdown, a big concern for many companies has been ‘how can we look after everyone in this new environment?’ I shared that concern, wondering how we would possibly know everyone was okay and our people were setup for success.

The first week of lockdown was a whirlwind across the management team. Making sure everyone in the company could work from home with their equipment; managing client expectations; checking how we could support people with children and other commitments and trying to predict the future on what this meant for the short to medium term for the company. Meanwhile, our consultants kept calm and carried on, providing their usual exemplary service to our clients.

I have to admit I was apprehensive about the whole approach in the beginning. This was mainly because having our whole workforce working from home was not something we’d ever tackled before. But when I think about it practically, and with the benefit of hindsight, I needn’t have worried in the slightest.

On reflection, we’ve been working remotely for years and we’ve done it exceptionally well. As consultants, we have nearly a hundred people across at least five different sites, meaning we should be used to this setting of contacting colleagues over email and MS Teams. And it turns out we are.

In my role looking after learning and culture, I’ve found the need to be more creative with my approach. For learning, I’ve sourced online accreditations, virtual conferences and free online courses that you would usually have to pay for.

In the early days of lockdown there was a temptation to put learning and development on hold, “until we get back to normal.” However, we really don’t know when that will be and what it will look like. So instead of delaying, we’ve kept adapting.

From a cultural perspective, my main focus has been bringing people together as much as possible through virtual socials and common interests, being completely transparent in communications about the progress of the business and any ongoing impacts of COVID-19. Our whole team have made a point of generally checking in with people to ensure they are okay with their work and, importantly, their wellbeing. We have a unique culture at Opencast and I wanted to ensure we maintained that, despite the circumstances. In addition, we have onboarded a number of new people to the business during this period. For them in particular we have taken extra efforts to make sure they feel included and engaged.

While the COVID-19 outbreak has been a worldwide tragedy of epic proportions, I notice people being kinder, more compassionate and more understanding of each other’s differing situations. More so than ever before. People live in so many different environments: some live alone, some with parents, some with small children, some in flats with no garden and some with housemates where there is nowhere private to work. Having that context can help you understand how someone may struggle with the pandemic and its ramifications more than others.

Sometimes we have conference calls and a child is being fed off camera – a parent feeding their child with their left hand while making notes with their right. Somebody is dialled into a meeting while they’re walking by the river, giving their dog a walk and getting some much-needed fresh air after spending most the day inside. A piece of work can be completed on an evening when the children are in bed and the deliverable can get the attention it needs.

Humanity has taken a shift, and it’s wonderful to see. We get paid to work and create a value output. If we’re delivering that output, does it matter whether we do it from our sofa, our garden, first thing on a morning or last thing at night? We’ve seen a huge cultural shift in our company, our industry and across the world. It’s enlightening to see, and let’s hope this is something we manage to hold on to in the rush to get things back to how they were.