Derek Walker, Chief Executive of the Wales Co-operative Centre, outlines how the organisation adapted to advice to work from home.

When you draft a business continuity plan, you hope you’re never going to need it.

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But the Covid- 19 pandemic meant many of us did and, luckily, ours had been updated in January. Our social enterprise clients required urgent business advice, and our digital inclusion support was in more demand than ever, as many people were struggling to shop, find information, access health services or socialise online.

We acted swiftly.

On the evening of 16th March, immediately after the Prime Minister’s statement, we insisted that everyone worked from home. Our SMS cascade worked well so that no-one came into their office base on that Tuesday morning without specific permission. By the time the Prime Minister finally ordered a lockdown a week later, we had all been working remotely for several days.

Systems to agree expenses and invoices electronically, without hard copies or wet signatures, were put in place overnight. Our external IT support agency was on hand to provide advice and ensure our systems didn’t fall down and our business continuity plan contained an explanation about how to direct the reception telephone remotely.

We quickly found that many colleagues were unable to work effectively on their small laptops.

These are fine for a short period or when docked into a work station in the office, but not when you’re hunched over the kitchen table for hours at a time. So we offered everyone a separate monitor, keyboard and mouse, making a big difference for many colleagues.

We invested in new video conferencing facilities a few years ago and were considering adopting Microsoft Teams. But we hadn’t yet taken that decision, as we wanted to weigh up the options and organise a full training programme. There was, however, no time now to deliberate and prevaricate, so we simply got on with it. Like the rest of the country we now use a variety of video conferencing platforms with barely a problem and without any formal training.

What we hadn’t properly considered, however, was any potential data security issue from using different video conferencing systems. For example a growing number of companies are telling their staff to stay off Zoom due to security concerns and yet that is the platform used by many of our clients, partners and stakeholders.  The need to keep communication channels open was urgent and so we simply ‘went with the flow’, using whatever platforms were required in particular circumstances.

A few weeks in and we’re now playing catch up

We’re now considering questions such as:  How do we manage our cyber security when the systems our organisation uses are different to those used by clients and wider stakeholders? Do all systems have the same security issues?  Can we protect our colleagues and the organisation by providing guidance about how to use these systems and what to share?

This lockdown is difficult and depressing. But one upside has been the boldness with which many organisations have acted and the way people have pulled together. Welsh Government and other funders have been incredibly supportive of the need for us to work differently in these exceptional circumstances. My colleagues have acted swiftly to respond to the needs of our clients, irrespective of what was written in project plans, and our funders have been happy to agree these changes retrospectively.

Whilst the period of the immediate crisis is hopefully coming to an end, we now need to prepare for the longer term. Things could become even more challenging as we try to sustain the well-being and mental health of our colleagues over an undefined length of time.

One sentence in the guidance from an organisation in New Zealand captures how I feel and helps give some perspective:  “we are not ‘working from home’, we are ‘at home during a crisis trying to work.’”

Derek Walker is CEO of the Wales Co-operative Centre