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Unity’s lockdown experience

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Unity’s lockdown experience

Published: August 10, 2020

Unity Trust Bank HR Director Julia Tarpey shares her experience of operating through lockdown at Unity.

When lockdown first started in March, I felt that Unity was uniquely placed to support its customers.  Unity Connect, our UK Customer Service Centre enabled customers to speak directly to one of my colleagues, we aim for 92% first call resolution. I feel proud of this level of service and feedback from our customers confirms they really value the human interaction. At the height of the pandemic I heard someone on the news say, “It’s Time for Unity”, this struck a chord with me and I used this as the subject line for my regular emails to our colleagues across the business.

We invoked our Business Continuity Plan and rapidly migrated to home working in mid-March, just before the lockdown was announced. We had little time to prepare and it felt like a very sudden change to our way of working.  Pulling together and mobilising remotely enabled us to avoid furloughing any of our 115 employees.

My regular emails to colleagues were intended to provide reassurance and ensure we stayed connected during this challenging period. I wanted to ensure colleagues had a clear message and dispel any unhelpful rumours. I covered topics such as:

  • Management processes relating to Business Continuity – to reassure people that our Incident Management Team were meeting daily to review the situation and make any necessary adjustments
  • Explore our role as “key workers” and how to balance personal demands such as childcare and caring for the vulnerable
  • The need to carry on with our normal daily work activities as much as possible, wherever people happened to be working. Some colleagues were connecting from laptops and phones in India, USA  and Spain where they had been stranded on holidays when return flights were withdrawn
  • Encouraging our people to focus on the key deliverables within their roles and talk to their line manager about how they could adapt and continue to complete these activities remotely
  • Sharing the Government advice as it was evolving

I also covered personal disclosures about how I was feeling and how the situation was impacting me and my family personally. People emailed back with comments such as:

  • “Your notes like this are really important to keep us focused on what is normal/real. Being at home all day, we are more impacted by the news (real and fake) which can have negative impact on attitudes and mental health.”
  • “You are hitting the right tone in a really difficult time and doing a great job of keeping us informed and feeling we’re all still part of a bigger team. I feel you genuinely want to support everyone and provide some comfort that Unity is solid, is concerned about our welfare and wants everyone to feel proud of how we are pulling together.”
  • “Working to keep us all upbeat and connected throughout this difficult period.”
  • “Thanks for this personal note, really appreciate it and comforting to know everyone has their own challenges.”
  • “I just wanted to thank you for the continued positive and encouraging messaging. It’s really helpful, particularly in these times of very limited colleague contact.”
  • “Whilst I am missing being in the office with the team, I must say that everyone I deal with day to day at Unity seems to have adapted very well to working away from the office and continues to be supportive and responsive. It makes me glad to be working here.”
  • “Your ‘It’s Time for Unity’ messages always make me smile and feel better. Thank you.”

No one expects the ‘clap for carers’ to be extended to the banking industry but I shared the letter we received from the Treasury thanking us as key workers and colleagues really appreciated this recognition:  “Great to see the work of us bankers, in supporting organisations and the economy, recognised in the letter from the Treasury…

I encouraged colleagues to step forward if their new working conditions meant they had spare capacity,  colleagues were great at picking up tasks that they wouldn’t normally do and we encouraged people to speak up if they felt overwhelmed or needed more coaching to undertake new tasks. Working remotely removes that line of sight, it’s not always easy to see who needs help.

I encouraged staff to:

  • Share their best tips on home working, staying healthy, home schooling, supporting colleagues, thinking about their mental health and staying connected
  • Catch up on personal development, via our eLearning platform
  • Ensure we maintained our resilience – eating well, staying hydrated, getting enough sleep and taking exercise
  • Let me know if they (or anyone in their household) had been identified as ‘high risk’ so that we could do all we could to support them
  • Sign up for NHS Volunteering as part of their 5 days of paid volunteering per year and to find other creative ways to give back to their communities
  • Follow best practice in health and safety whilst working from home eg avoiding trailing cables from laptops, overloaded plug sockets or anything which could be a hazard
  • Take regular breaks and move around to help protect their back and to raise any concerns about their workstation with their line manager – some colleagues went back to the office to get their office chair and screen adjustments. I shared links on YouTube on how to work comfortably at home
  • Take holidays – even though many planned trips were cancelled, people were encouraged to use their annual leave. We also allowed people to review any decisions to buy or sell up to 5 days of holiday in the light of such different circumstances. Those with furloughed partners appreciated the option to take the cash
  • Take all reasonable steps to protect data that we would normally do in the office and maintain our normal standards, continuing to monitor, and to speak up about any poor behaviours or conduct
  • Represent Unity in all we do, both inside and outside of work
  • Find ways to stay in touch with colleagues to avoid feeling isolated and if anyone wanted to chat, to call/text/email me

Mid-April was a particularly low point – several colleagues had lost loved ones in the pandemic and it was challenging to support each other in a bereavement situation. From my own experience I knew that, even if everyone was healthy, getting along with the rest of the household, or if someone was alone, it could be really hard during lockdown. I reminded colleagues of our Employee Assistance Programme and other benefits that might be useful for health concerns, as well as free resources at MIND.


Our Phased Return to the Workplace

Encouraging people to come back to the office as lockdown eased represented another challenge. Whilst some roles could easily be performed from home, others were more difficult. We were concerned about the potential risks of managing confidential data and conversations with customers remotely; we had invoked continuity plans, but this was not intended to be a long term solution. We reviewed our offices in May to ensure they met the ‘COVID safe’ government guidelines and began a slow, gradual migration back to the office in June. We agreed a 3 phase approach, adhering to the government advice and taking input from our Health and Safety Committee. Line managers were in contact with each member of their team to discuss any individual concerns.

I personally returned to the office on 1 June after 10 weeks of working from home and shared the detail of the experience in my next ‘all colleague’ update. We produced a video and shared that on our intranet. This showed how our office had been set up to according to the Government’s new Covid-secure guidelines and our Risk Assessment was published on our intranet too. Everything felt squeaky clean and well controlled and it was lovely to see colleagues. Life was beginning to return to some normality.

Throughout the pandemic I felt it important to recognise that everyone had their own unique circumstances, and these should be discussed individually with their manager. Our CEO held monthly cascades by videoconference, each with different themes and different speakers, and with lots of recognition and the employee Q&A sessions. I really feel that our people have been a credit to Unity during this pandemic. It’s not over yet but I feel confident that we can weather the storms together and use this opportunity to shine. We are now moving to “Unity 4ward”!