Going digital or going bust

October 8, 2020

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By Rebecca White, CEO Your Own Place

This is the first in a new blog & vlog series ‘Our Digital Lockdown Journey’ exploring how organisations have managed to continue providing vital services when Covid-19 restrictions have meant traditional face-to-face work is restricted. We have partnered with Your Own Place to share their insights, thoughts and reflections on their experience of developing online services for the first time during the crisis and encourage others to get in touch with their learning. This introductory blog sets the scene under which Your Own Place is operating, explores leadership approaches to managing transition, how to consider inclusion, the need for flexibility and the importance of honesty, clarity, and focus. You can also view the accompanying vlog here.  

We all have a role in dispelling the myths about young people being digital natives. We know from The Tech Partnership, that even prior to the pandemic, as many as 300,000 young people lack digital skills and as many as 750,000 may be digitally excluded.  Just because you can upload a photo to Instagram doesn’t mean you can complete a Universal Credit application online. With a world increasingly online and as an organisation that thrives through face-to-face work, supporting people in multiple and accessible ways is one of our biggest Covid-19 as well as non Covid-19 challenges.

Your Own Place CIC is a young social enterprise that in normal times delivers face-to-face tenancy training, mentoring and employment support to prevent homelessness. We’re based in a real flat leased from Norwich City Council. At seven years old we’re still learning and finding our digital feet.  Do we want to be known as a digital organisation or one that just does digital really well?  In a world that is truly ‘digital by default’ it’s probably going to be the latter for now.  Moreover, as CEO founder of a mission-lead business funded in large part via the taxpayer, I truly believe it’s remiss of us not to equip the young people we support with the digital knowledge, skills and resilience to navigate the modern world safely and effectively.  And that also means sharing my experiences here.

Let’s step back a couple of years to easier times.  In 2018 Your Own Place took part in the Carnegie UK Trust #NotWithoutMe accelerator programme. Alongside five other organisations, we explored ideas to address digital exclusion among young people.  In short, we were successful in receiving funding to embed digital delivery into all our Tenancy & Independent Living Skills Plus (TILS+) training modules.  This work lifted the lid for us to explore at an organisational level, our digital competence and aspirations. It also forced us to ask whether, as a young organisation, we had the capacity, resources and wherewithal to go further.  The obvious irony being that as a sector we are on the same journey as those we support. Back then we had time to do this at our leisure. Today of course, we go digital or we go bust.

2020 was to be our year of consolidation, of social investment and to refine our business model – essentially, of being quiet and testing the idea so that we could scale. Things haven’t gone quite to plan.

Covid-19 hit us all like a meteorite in March. As so many CEOs of businesses of all sizes, I was faced with the big questions of team wellbeing alongside ‘can we pay people?’ and as a social business, ‘can we afford not to?’.  Whilst uncertainty reigned for all, as leader of a tiny enterprise, my aim is always to be clear and unflinching.  In reality this meant a short dalliance with a counterintuitive command and control-style leadership at the start of the pandemic.  One that people accepted, knowing it would be short-lived.

Following this short-lived approach the only way to move forward was together.  Akin to so many teams around the globe, we sat in grim Zoom calls asking the tough questions, providing a steer to each other and after the initial crisis, finding solutions.  In order to bring a bit of structure and objectivity to this process, we used a Strategic Triage Tool that we jazzed up a bit to make it less dry.

Going digital isn’t just about the people you support and being able to reach them (even if it was in the very first days and weeks of the pandemic).  First and foremost it’s about the team and their digital capability, it’s about your policies and platforms, about GDPR as well as having the right tech.  It’s about the tools you will use, narrowing the scope and how you will listen to and empathise with people who are not in the room.  And about whether you’ll remain the same organisation if the outcomes you measure and the outcomes themselves start to shift.  This can all seem utterly overwhelming and paralysing at any time let alone this time.

Against a total unknown, shared anxiety, personal tragedies and a dwindling budget, we had to be ruthless about our focus.  At one level the decisions are terribly simple when we let the mission guide us.  We asked the questions: who is Covid19 going to impact, how, how can we find out and how can we best support them with our current skillset, networks and capacity?  The answer to so many of these key questions led us again and again down a digital path.  In many ways this was the easy bit. What’s better about locking down than coming back up, is that it was totally binary.  There was only one way of reaching our people.  And that was online.  That then was our perfectly imperfect solution.

Whilst it may sound like a clear and straightforward set of decisions, we all know that this is the joy of hindsight. In reality multiple avenues could have been taken at this time and it took its toll on the team. As a team we quickly co-created a Plan B to give some shape and vision to our initial thoughts and findings.  This plan covers all aspects of what we do, including strategy, the business model, digital delivery as well as our plans for face to face.  We accept that this is already and will change, but in real time it adds certainty and structure to our ideas. We digitised our two core services, transforming them into interactive and creative versions of themselves, whilst collaborating with an elearning provider (one we had the beginnings of a relationship with) to develop a complete online eMentoring Training package.  This morphed quickly into a broader volunteer training package for sale to the sector.  Concurrently we worked hard to keep our existing community involved and less isolated.  We enabled those that were already receiving our support to continue receiving it through a pragmatic mishmash of whatever worked for them – text, call, social media, WhatsApp, Skype, Zoom quizzes, email and so forth.  On supporting our people, our main aim was to be flexible and responsive, rather than opt for one model at the early stage.

Alongside our day to day digital delivery, re-design and new online services, we ran a comprehensive social media campaign.  From the start we heard just how frightened and anxious many people were, with messages largely via the Internet, often causing more harm and anxiety.  Through our numerous social media platforms as well as some commissioned YouTube videos, we launched our #trusted campaign as somewhere people could go for up to date and trusted information.

As we settle into our Plan B phase (September 20 to March 21) things are changing again and the hard work and thinking, whilst still fraught with risk, is less a delivery risk.  Most importantly for now it means we can deliver all our interventions virtually and convince our investors, commissioners and funders that we’re still doing so.  Plan C will start in April 2021, when we can only hope, having written off our ‘quiet consolidation’ year that we can return to some longer term strategic planning and normal revenue generation.

Arguably our solution was to ‘get on with it’.  Whether HouseParty fun, Zoom quizzes, testing out online ideas or Thursday virtual drinks, we found ways to test drive new tools quickly, whilst keeping each other sane and in each other’s thoughts.

In this new blog series I will unpick what happens when necessity becomes the mother of invention.  In blog 2 I’ll explore the impact of going digital on the team, and the project paralysis of keeping people safe in blog 3. In blog 4 I’ll explore whether the outcomes will be the same when we’re all online and in blog 5 I’ll speculate when and how we will go back to face-to-face delivery.

Over the next four blogs and short vlogs, I’ll be telling a story of how we avoided the bust (for now) and enabled the digital.  These five blogs are designed to be insightful, honest, reflective and most importantly, useful for us all as we navigate uncharted waters.

I have mused whether as a CEO founder of a social enterprise I am better suited to adapting quickly.  My conclusion is that being small definitely aids quick decision-making.  The principles across business of all sizes surely remain the same.  To be congruent with our values and mission and being honest and clear about what’s up for negotiation. And doing all of this collaboratively. I wouldn’t have got through this any other way than with the team.