Lessons on compassionate crisis management
How schools and businesses adapted equally to COVID-19
After a number of staggered starts, recast timetables, weekly health and safety reviews, and many revisions to the content and delivery of the curriculum, some semblance of face-to-face care, teaching, and inspiration has been rediscovered.
It has been such a tough nine months for teachers, parents, carers, and children. I am lucky enough to be the Chair of an outstanding Multi Academy Trust in Tower Hamlets in London, and I have seen up close how hard people have worked.
In the first month dedicated staff made superhuman efforts to telephone children and families to find out what supplies and equipment every child has access to at home (often, devices are shared, as well as bedrooms), then support, inspire, and persuade – as well as teach. Beyond school, volunteers successfully fundraised and set up a food bank that provided over 500 families a week for several months with essential items that were unavailable due to poverty and/or access.
I am often struck by the parallels between schools and businesses. So much of this activity has been mirrored by the businesses I work with. The details may be different, but the underlying analysis and actions have a huge amount in common, offering leaders everywhere a blueprint for overcoming the unfolding pandemic and crises more generally.
Absorbing the shock and facing new realities
The values of all schools and organisations either shone through or were lost for a while in the early days of the pandemic – avoiding the latter meant being adaptable and headstrong.
The schools I work with were amazingly good at this. While they reeled like the rest of us, they also planned, held their heads high, and focused on the impact on diverse children. In business, great organisations did this with care and passion. They conveyed that they themselves did not know all the answers yet, but committed to listening, learning, and communicating with staff wherever they were working.
Carrying out equality reviews
Equality reviews have been crucial for schools and businesses adapting to the situation. They are essentially equality impact assessments of what the pandemic means for different groups of staff and stakeholders, and the appropriate actions required to ease the differential impacts.
This often meant offering greater flexibility for parents of young children who want to reduce or work flexible hours, or swiftly adapting and implementing services for those who were unable to leave their home for months. For many businesses and schools, it meant supporting staff affected by stress or depression.
Commercial adaptations were important too, just as changing the teaching methodologies were for schools. Some companies needed to adapt their product offerings, pricing, and business models, ensuring they thought about equality, diversity, and inclusion whilst doing so. Some organisations, EW Group included, were in a position to top up the pay of furloughed staff from 80 to 100% – bills, mortgages, and rent have not been reduced, after all.
The best organisations have also followed the best schools in thinking about how to do what they do best, but differently. For instance, this might mean delivering an online curriculum, learning and development opportunities, line management, or online informal coffee catch-ups.
I like the example of one of our clients who sent cake to different groups of staff every month, with the recipient staff responsible for devising a quiz for others – a nice bit of brightness during the dismal realities of April and May.
Attending to small things
While it was important to stay on top of the big, important issues facing them, the best-performing schools and companies ensured they remained in close contact with staff and stakeholders, particularly those who were made vulnerable because of mental health issues or who were grieving. Responding to their issues and concerns, this action often took the form of small gestures such as texts, calls, cards, or simply giving individuals additional space.
Hitting the dip
Some students began to lose focus and hope at various points in the first lockdown – a situation mirrored by staff in businesses. The ‘corona-coaster’ needed to be anticipated and planned for, and inclusive leaders needed to say and do things to ensure students and staff kept hope that light was at the end of the tunnel.
This often meant creating platforms and projects that might have never been prioritised before, though sometimes it meant exercising kindness and understanding the value of letting pupils or staff stand still and take a deep breath for a day or so.
Accounting for inequalities
Students who live in overcrowded, multi-generational housing without laptops and privacy have had a very different experience of COVID-19 compared to more fortunate students with access to equipment and their own space. This situation was mirrored in business; staff in low-paid work had a much more difficult, insecure time compared to white-collar workers with comfortable home offices. For both schools and companies, good leadership meant identifying these inequalities and working hard to mitigate them.
It is likely that the recovery – emotional and financial – will be a different journey too. This is a good time for organisations to ensure any outsourced contracts are obligated to pay a living wage, alongside increasing access to quality employee assistance schemes and proving additional time for teachers or managers to take care of their students or staff.
Black Lives Matter
The death of George Floyd and the racism that was so brutally exposed was addressed by good schools and companies in a thoughtful, considered way that got the balance right between listening, supporting, and committing to actions that would address systemic racism.
For many students, it sparked waves of anger, upset and shock, with many school students feeling the injustice deeply. Teachers and parents needed to help them through this emotional journey, which was overlaid on top of the COVID-19 one. Righteous anger, upset and bewilderment had to be understood, then ways of moving forward negotiated.
This tested all leaders. The most effective paused, listened to staff, listened again, and then committed time and focus and budget to say and do things that would result in measurable change. Some of the work that EW Group is performing now involves repairing some ill-thought-out, hasty responses to BLM, or the exposure of fault lines that previously remained unseen by predominantly white management. The best of these organisations have paused long enough to understand, think it all through, and then commit to major interventions that will result in systemic change.
Free Schools Meals
The intersections of schools, businesses, the third sector, and government policy were so clear during the recent discussions about free school meals. Marcus Rashford’s first campaign over the summer resulted in a change in government policy so that families with children who were eligible for free school meals (approximately 20% of all children across the UK) received school meal vouchers over the summer holiday. His campaign is ongoing and although the government decided not to extend the policy over the recent half-term holiday, many businesses across the UK have stepped up to support families in need over the half term whilst the campaign for government support continues.
The government has however just announced a change in policy, which will mean that there will now be a winter grant scheme paid to councils to provide support with food and bills again in response to Rashford’s campaign. His inclusive leadership skills are clear, ‘I am fully committed to this cause, and I will fight for the rest of my life for it because no child should ever go hungry in the United Kingdom’.
Marcus Rashford provides us with a powerful and inspiring example of how leaders can use their own experience and understanding to affect change. He spoke so movingly about how he experienced hunger as a boy, despite the best efforts of his hard-working mother. So much of 2020 has highlighted the inequalities within society and within organisations and so many inclusive leaders have moved decisively to reflect on what they can do and say to affect change. For some this has meant a complete overhaul of their diversity and inclusion strategy, a forensic analysis of their policies and processes, a refreshed approach to staff engagement, and building the capacity of their companies and people to understand how to positively tackle discrimination and prejudice and create more inclusive cultures.
Schools, businesses, charities, and governments are all in flux, and the connections between all aspects of life have never been clearer. Some see schools as rather closed systems, delivering a set curriculum, and only focused on exam results. In fact, they are as complex and challenging and nuanced as any business and often more so. Schools are often urged to be more business-like, and if that means using resources effectively and efficiently, many are. Businesses also have a lot to learn from schools too.
The test for us all is how we respond to the need to think through much more than usual: work, home life, relationships, and everything else. Students, teachers, and the rest of us all have to be adaptive, even if it is not our forte. We have to find a way through. Those with large homes and financial security have found it much easier, and if our jobs, GCSEs, or A-levels aren’t at risk, we are lucky. Some of the students who are now back at school are loving it – enjoying the buzz and the feeling of having got through a seismic event and learned things about themselves along the way – while others are having a tougher time.
It is the same for diverse staff in businesses. They are in such different states of mind and situations, that it will be a test for every inclusive leader to create a positive path forward.
EW Group has guided countless organisations through the last nine months, giving us an in-depth understanding of the diversity and inclusion challenges posed by the pandemic. As we go into a second lockdown, inclusive leaders are taking a deep breath and working out how to lead through the next phase of a global pandemic.