Never have these questions been more important than now. Our world as we knew it has been turned upside down by a global pandemic, and no one could have prepared for all the challenges that came as a result, from both an individual and a business perspective. For me, and I know my colleagues will agree, the last few months at the CSA have probably been the most challenging since I started here, which was just over seven years ago.
We won’t know the full impact of the pandemic on businesses for a while yet. We also don’t know what impact the work we have carried out as a result will have had. However, what I do know is that I have never seen a time when membership engagement has been so high. As much as I do not wish this crisis to ever happen again (ever), it has definitely given me and my colleagues a new sense of purpose. It has been a challenging time, it still is, however these challenges have been good ones; they have made us more aware than ever before of what we can do for our members. We have also had to adapt to a completely new working environment and up to now, I think we’ve done very well considering. And our responsibilities don’t just end there - we are a main provider on the Register of Apprenticeship Training Providers (RoATP) and we currently deliver apprenticeships to over 200 apprentices.
So, what have we been doing? How have we helped our members, my colleagues, and our apprentices?
The work we’ve been doing for members has not been entirely new to us as a trade body. We’ve lobbied harder than ever with important stakeholders including government. We’ve invited a government representative to join one of our weekly Zoom calls with members to meet them and hear first-hand what they are experiencing. We’ve surveyed our members on behalf of government departments to gather data and give feedback on the incentives offered to businesses. We responded to calls for businesses to help the frontline and put forward a number of our members who were able to provide call centre seats for this important work that had to be relocated due to the crisis. We’ve liaised more frequently with our industry regulators. We’ve engaged and liaised with members’ clients (our Creditor Members) to see how the supply chain has been affected, how they are coping, and how that might affect our members further down the line. Linked to this, we’ve rallied other trade bodies representing our members’ clients to ensure our views were aligned and ongoing actions are joined up.
We’ve done a lot in a short space of time, and the work we’ve done has been carried out faster and more efficiently. It’s been more detailed and in-depth, but at the same time educational and digestible, because there are a lot of important decisions being made by people who don’t necessarily know a lot about our industry. Not only that, but these stakeholders are not just looking at our industry but all the other industries across the country – it was important that we put the effort in to be front of the queue when decisions were being made.
We’ve created important member resources and used our communication channels to make sure members are aware of them and get access to what they need as soon as it’s available. From an events perspective, and even though our normal face to face events have unfortunately had to be postponed or cancelled, in 12 weeks, we’ve held more than 20 virtual members’ meetings. These have given members a platform to ask us questions and share insights with other member businesses about what each business is doing. It also gives us a chance to show members what we’ve done each week and what is available to them. Considering these meetings are completely new to us as an organisation they have been very positively received and we don’t see them stopping any time soon.
From an organisational perspective, we adapted pretty quickly to the new norm, which now sees all of our people working from home. We had a slight advantage because some staff already had this capability, however, the shift to all staff working from home was one that we weren’t necessarily prepared for. That being said, with a combined team effort and giving credit to everyone’s flexibility, we managed to get every person set up at home within a matter of days. Technology has also played a big part in this, which I’m sure it has for all businesses.
The mental health and wellbeing of our staff is something we take very seriously at the CSA, and we have recently produced an anonymous survey to ask everyone how they are feeling about the current situation and the changes to their working patterns. It will also ask them what we as an organisation are doing well and what we could be doing better. We hope to use these results to ensure all staff are supported appropriately and effectively as much as possible during these strange times. Home working assessments have also taken place as well as reminding staff of our working from home HR policies.
We are also reminding staff (and our apprentices) that they have access to an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), a confidential service designed to help deal with personal and professional problems which could be affecting home life, work life, and/or health and general wellbeing. A number of CSA staff are already trained on mental health awareness including stress management, and the Association has two trained mental health first aiders. Technology playing its part yet again, we offer 24/7 access to wellbeing guidance via an app called ‘Health e Hub’.
We’ve placed a great emphasis upon keeping in touch while we’re all working from home. We hold regular departmental meetings, and we’ve even set up a voluntary social WhatsApp group. We run weekly team socials and all departments have been encouraged to take the reins each week and provide some form of entertainment (quizzes)! Birthday club also continues to ensure no one misses out on a card and a present on their big day (although sharing cake is now off-limits).
With a country-wide lockdown in place, and businesses focussed on adapting to new ways of working, you may be forgiven for thinking that training would be the last thing on people’s minds. However, for us, the last few months has brought a new level of focus as we continue to engage with employers who see the ongoing importance of developing skills within their workforce.
Again, technology has played a big part for us to ensure we keep our level of service to our apprentices at a high standard. There is a huge amount of face-to-face interaction when completing an apprenticeship, and our Learning and Development (L&D) team, and our tutors have had to adapt accordingly. All interactions are now taken online via video calls and so far this has been well received by all involved. Our tutors have also been busy prepping existing learners for their end-point assessments and supporting them with their showcase portfolio and professional discussions. It was always hugely important that we continued as close to “normal” as possible, especially for those apprentices who had worked so hard to get to this stage of their apprenticeship. Thankfully we’ve managed in a way that has seen only slight delays and we look forward to celebrating the achievements of our next set of qualified apprentices in the coming months.
The introduction of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme brought about many questions, especially for apprentices who were furloughed. Was training ‘work’ or could it be exempted? The Department for Education pushed back and thankfully it was agreed that apprentices could continue to train while furloughed. Many of our apprentices in this situation have taken advantage of this time to study.
Safeguarding our learners has also seen an increase in activity. The current situation has meant that learners have found themselves, in some cases, being moved into the frontline, due to the nature of the businesses they work for. We have seen examples of learners becoming involved in the set-up of one of the Nightingale Hospitals, and in other areas, the packing and delivery of emergency food parcels. Naturally, this proximity to operations that are in direct response to Covid-19 has the potential for people to become more vulnerable both physically and mentally, and we take our safeguarding responsibilities of our apprentices very seriously. As part of this, and as mentioned above, our apprentices can also benefit from our recently launched Employee Assistance Programme (EAP).
In amongst all the other adjustments that we have had to make, the L&D team has also been able to launch two new training courses. There was, of course, some trepidation about launching during a pandemic, but we were confident the demand was there, despite the unprecedented challenges facing businesses. The development and continued expansion of courses is crucial, especially at a time when more and more businesses can take advantage of apprenticeships.
We recently launched our Level 4 Counter Fraud Investigator Apprenticeship and at the same time our remote Debt Collection Diploma in partnership with The London Institute of Banking and Finance (LIBF).
As we journey through these uncertain times, as an Association we remain optimistic. We are all moving towards what we now refer to as “the new normal” however, I have no doubt that our members, my colleagues and our apprentices (and their employers) alike will fully embrace this change and strive to succeed.