Will we return to face to face delivery?

November 24, 2020

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by Rebecca White, CEO, Your Own Place

This is the fifth in the 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 blog explores the question of what will be the ‘new normal’ and how might we blend offline and online approaches in the future. You can also view the accompanying vlog here.  

We absolutely will.  Because it matters and it’s what we do.  I’ve honestly little truck with those selling up their office spaces and saving money by shifting the costs to people working from home. The benefits to the planet are huge of course and flexible working done well can make a difference to people’s lives and work-life balance.  Whilst greenhouse gases and air pollutants saw a dramatic drop during the first lockdown (global daily emissions of CO2 fell by 17% at the peak of the crisis), the long term impact on global warming is miniscule unless we alter what we do from now on.  This isn’t a binary argument (are they ever?), but in our business I’ve never been more off the fence.

As many organisations, we are pondering this, whilst still faced with huge uncertainty.  For all the gains, successful ‘pivoting’, learning and impact we have had, this remains the biggest question as we enter 2021, revisit strategy and the business model and conclude what kind of organisation we are for the purposes of forecasting, planning and mission.


Before lockdown

Before this all happened, let’s not pretend everything was easy and normal.  Climate change was still an existential threat, huge inequality persisted, including digital exclusion. And at Your Own Place we were still a tiny organisation living largely hand to mouth trying to solve the intractable problems of our times.  So just before we get romantic about BC (before Covid19) and AC (after Covid19), we work in a really tough industry in tough times and always have.

99.9% of our delivery was face to face.  It’s entirely possible that this much didn’t need to be and that alternatives did and do exist that have now been forced upon us.  However, we must remain unequivocal about what we do and the impact we aim to have before commissioners slash spending further and tell us we can do everything remotely.

In my last blog I talked about how we achieve our outcomes if we’re doing it all differently. We looked at all the things we do to build trust, create effective relationships and good learning environments.  These are much harder (but not impossible) via Zoom.  In addition, in order to achieve our impact we must work with the right people.  This means, and we are committed to this, however hard it is, those facing the greatest disadvantage and barriers.  Digital exclusion, is just one of many barriers we must now consider and be innovative and values-led in overcoming.  There are many others of course. I would invite you to list them all because I would hazard a guess that face to face support is generally part of the answer to every single one.

Prior to these blogs you may or may not know that we attended an accelerator programme with Carnegie UK Trust (report out last week).  It was part of a project that led to a piece of work at Your Own Place to overcome digital exclusion barriers with young people.  As such, the challenges we faced in March this year were neither unexpected nor new to many of us in the sector. The reality however, is that we were not remotely in a position to tackle them at the operational and systemic level at which they needed tackling. If this was easy….


Going into lockdown

As lockdown struck, my genuinely wonderful little team set about not just supporting people with wellbeing calls and support, but designing guides to get people online, an upbeat reassuring social media campaign as well as creating accessible digital versions of every last bit of our delivery. All whilst I secured the cash.

As a cloud based and fairly digitally savvy organisation, we started from a good base.  However, aware of the digital exclusion barriers many people face, we were very nearly paralysed into inactivity.  Such is the mountain to climb in getting people online, it was very difficult to see the top and easier not to bother at all.  At one level, no matter how fantastically engaging our online offer was, we knew in our heart of hearts that it would simply exclude some people by virtue of the digital barriers they faced.

Of course, this remains the case with our face to face delivery too. But somehow, when you’ve only one option available, this reality becomes a lot more stark.

Because the truth is, that online delivery is just another tool.  As those that suffer anxiety have chosen to keep their cameras off, but still engaged, so people come to our training with their hoods up that slowly recede over the days. For many people it is exactly the virtual nature that works and for others, less so.  This is not a static situation and in reality, people may benefit from the best of both worlds.

Indeed, some people engaged during the last few months who we had previously struggled to get in a room, precisely because they could have their camera off, didn’t need to spend £5 on a bus fare and/or travel for two and a half hours on public transport.

Equally, we can find ourselves working with people face to face so desperate to get out of the house, our offer acts as some kind of respite and is duly embraced.

Like any tool, no one size fits all and we will all do well to remember this in our race back to face to face.


Going online

Before Covid19 (BC) I had always aspired to an online offer.  Knowing that this would give the business more geographical reach and increase our impact, it was something of an aspiration.  I’d briefly explored webinars and we had even delivered the occasional course via Skype for someone too far away for the costs to be justifiable for a 1-2-1 intervention. But I didn’t want to do it badly.

So without the resource, skillset or time, we didn’t pursue this, wanting it to be right when we did.  Then Covid19 happened and our hand was forced.  Through research and partnerships it has now happened – whether it’s our tenancy training, youth voice or mentoring training, it’s all currently moved online.

Early indicators are hugely promising (notwithstanding measuring outcomes – as discussed in last week’s blog).  Trainees and volunteers are engaged, completing the interventions and feedback along the lines of how much better ours is than most online learning, is encouraging.

For our volunteer mentors, trained recently over a weekend, fitting a mixture of self-directed and tutor-led delivery into their busy lives all without having to leave the house, is likely to increase our volunteer base and reach, including leading to a more diverse cohort.  With all this positivity about our online offers, shouldn’t we sound a note of caution about face to face always being best?

That some trainees as well as volunteers will prefer digital delivery is impossible to ignore.

And then there’s the cost to consider.  For now we are capturing the cost of not just devices, data and dongles, but staff time in delivering tech, the staff time on a total redesign of content (and systems and processes) as well as travel and support for people lacking confidence or the skills to use the tech when they have it. It looks unlikely that this new virtual delivery will in reality work out any cheaper. This insight will lend itself to a more nuanced conversation with funders and commissioners to avoid anticipated costs-savings and slashed budgets.


Why face to face

Hugging, physical contact, warmth and connection – what do they all have in common?  They form Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and build connection.  Whilst we’re not big huggers at Your Own Place, our ethos is of care, warmth and connection.

For now, despite in my last blog outlining all the great ways we can connect on Zoom, I believe that our basic human needs are best served face to face with the vast majority of people much of the time.  How much eye contact, body language and warmth is lost on Zoom?

We know that oxytocin is released through physical contact and we know the smiles and relationships that are created on our face to face courses. There are many soft outcomes that come about that are lost in Zoom – building social capital, meeting people that are going to be your neighbours and sharing a spontaneous joke over the making of a cup of tea. We have no intention of losing these things that we know are core to achieving our mission.


What next?

Early conversations with partners, commissioners and funders suggest a hybrid of delivery going forward.  It would be great not to have lost all this work and its many successes.  Ultimately any decisions will be made based on the impact, cost-effectiveness, reach and the appropriateness (including safety) to the lives of those we work with.

We will stay on mission and mostly, because we can, will return to face to face delivery.  We will return next summer for the buzz, the impact and the laughs.


Wrapping up this blog series

I hope you’ve enjoyed these blogs as much as I have.  We’ve covered a lot of ground and we don’t have all the answers. If we pause to reflect what we’ve all achieved I think we have such solid foundations to build and recover from.  Without denying the hardship many of us have experienced, there is huge opportunity for good in this imposed digital revolution.

All five blogs will be pulled together into a final report shortly.  Thank you for joining me and all your feedback.