The coronavirus forced a lot of new changes for all of us. Not everything’s been easy, of course, but we’ve found some silver linings. For Tops Day Nurseries, we’ve found that some of our adaptations to COVID-19 have had unexpected benefits for the company, for our carbon footprint and our general sustainability.
Since COVID-19, here’s some of the ways we’ve changed our operations — and what’s here to stay.
Going remote with meetings
2020 has been the year that our meetings went digital.
Prior to COVID-19, all our nursery managers used to travel up to 120 miles to our head office in Southbourne, Dorset, once a month. This used to take up to six hours of travel time for some of our colleagues, causing childcare issues and a certain amount of stress.
These all stopped immediately, of course, under the lockdown. We now have Zoom meetings which are more frequent, but shorter — and of course much more sparing of both time and fuel. We will never go back to those monthly managers’ meetings now.
The same was the case for our nursery administrators, maintenance team, and chefs, who didn’t meet as often, but were faced with the same travel and time challenges. We found this could lead to poor attendance, delays and cancellations. Communications are significantly improved across the company, with our board meetings, Head Office team meetings and 1:1 meetings now online rather than face to face.
The nursery teams also used to meet once a month for 90 minutes after work. Although travel wasn’t such an issue because staff were local to each nursery, sorting out childcare was still an issue. Staff such as cleaners and drivers often used to skip the meetings, but are now more able to attend by using their phones for a Zoom meeting.
Those on maternity leave and furlough have also been able to attend Zoom meetings to stay in touch with their colleagues and friends, which has really helped to keep our morale high during such a tricky time.
We organise some digital meetings for colleagues in other nurseries too, such as the Ofsted Big Conversation. This was certainly not without its challenges, but it did enable Ofsted Lead Inspectors to attend without long travel times and costs, and opened up easier attendance to more local providers. Again, we might just find this digital approach is our go-to as we move forward.
We’ve also relied on video calls to stay in touch with parents at home, again saving time and being less intrusive than visiting people’s homes.
Another alternative for us during the pandemic is to use the garden for essential fresh air face-to-face meetings. That’s a pleasant change, and it’s great that the wifi works out there too.
A new approach to training
Since COVID-19, we’ve taken steps to move more and more of our assessment online. For example, we’ve had assessors listening to our managers at meetings for their Leadership and Management qualifications, and have also led questioning and answering over the phone.
Just as the virus struck, we subscribed to an international training organisation providing short course online training. It’s professional and interactive, and colleagues finish off their courses successfully by passing tests at the end. The system also allows all our policies to be viewed and marked off, so we can be certain everybody’s read them.
Unfortunately, some training was still off-limits — Paediatric First Aid requires a physical presence, for example, so that was off the table. But at least the theory has been done. All in, our team have never done so much training as they have during these last few months.
Communication with parents
Using Whatsapp, Facebook Live, and Zoom with parents has definitely increased communications, even allowing us to run some digital parent committees. Of course, these were all around before the pandemic, but COVID-19 pushed the timetable forward for many people and added the impetus to make things happen.
Signing children in and out of nurseries always used to be written into printed registers, but this is one element we haven’t yet changed. I know some organisations have gone to using fingerprinting, barcodes and QR scanning for sign-ins and sign-outs. We haven’t yet taken the leap, but COVID-19 has us considering these as options in the future.
Work communications with colleagues
We used Facebook Live to hold Q&A sessions with colleagues, which was especially big during the start of the lockdown. Now that things are more stable, we hold these once a month.
When it comes to coordinating our teams via email, another thing we learned during the lockdown was to use colleagues’ existing email addresses. We used to give new staff members new email addresses, but they wouldn’t always remember to check them. We’ve found that using these existing mailboxes causes fewer emails to go adrift.
Our payslips have been online for years, but we needed some work on our software solution to handle furlough, and then furlough and holiday through to payroll. With NI & Pensions to be excluded in July and then percent deductions through until the end of October, it’ll continue to need developing.
We have managed to upload our returns to HMRC ourselves, but it did involve working some weekends, and a lot of stress for the payroll team. I’ve heard many others have had to hand over significant figures to payroll accountants to upload furlough claims for them.
Some groups of staff have organised quizzes on zoom, and just made time to chat, because spending so much time at home can be isolating. Others have made time to practice meditation or yoga online together, and some have found ways to share their interests in photography, cooking and church services. The flexibility really is enormous, and we’ve found it’s a good way to keep everyone together.
Dealing with the challenges
There are of course downsides to massive change like this. For us, some of the biggest challenges have been:
- Trying to work while looking after children at home
- Rearranging part of your home as an office
- Upgrading furniture and IT equipment to be fit for purpose
- The blurring of the lines between work and not-work causing confusion and burnout.
- Worries about GDPR and security, including uninvited guests in a Zoom meeting.
Some people started lockdown using their work tablets and laptops on their sofa, but now that home working has become a regularity, we are investing in desks, chairs, docking ports, and large screens. The idea is that colleagues can take these home, in order to feel better-equipped and more comfortable in working from a home environment. This has of course been good for our suppliers, as we’ve had to pay more for these equipment upgrades and stronger internet.
I personally find Zoom meetings can get tiring, because I miss the social hints from body language and small talk. Plus I find I’m talking too much, which is a downside for me as well as my colleagues!
Some colleagues do come in for one day a week, now that lockdown is easing and the offices are set up to enable social distancing. I miss my large white board to jot group problem solving onto, but there is software around to help with brainstorming, if you have the patience to play with it.
I worry about buying extra equipment, too. I don’t want to waste existing equipment and I still see that there is not enough circular economy in the supply and re-use of IT equipment, nor into the ethics of using non-renewable resources to make it. But pragmatism has had to dominate this for now.
Amidst all the challenges, new things to get used to, improvements and new strategies, it’s fair to say that whichever you look at it,the way we run our nursery businesses has changed forever. As we move back into an increasingly normal world, it’s about choosing which things we want to keep, and which things might be best left the way they were, or which will be a blend of the old and the new.
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