You Become A Problem Solver Really Quickly
I'm relatively new to the Council. I work in the Community Services Team and my role involves working with Oxford’s twin cities. One of our twin cities, Padua in Italy, was at the heart of the news stories about Coronavirus. Early on we were hearing personal stories of people stuck in apartments, not being able to go outside who were quite fearful and worried, and more and more you could see it was coming to us quite soon. And then Coronavirus happened here, and suddenly I was at home working from my shed.
I volunteered to work in the Locality Hubs, or ‘Hubs’, as we were calling them. I didn't really know what that involved. I thought it might mean I would be going out leafleting or speaking to people or handing out parcels. We established five Hubs within the City and I was part of the East Oxford Hub. I'm not familiar with Oxford as I live outside the city so I was assigned as a ‘virtual support’. I would receive emails and would phone people and have a chat with them to see what kind of support we could offer. This was really a new experience as, being quite new to the Council, I didn't have a thorough knowledge of what different service areas did or how different departments could support residents. I was very much in a kind of bubble, aware of my own team but not really aware of other departments in the same way. So that was a steep learning curve, and it was quite hard to make the connections. But you do. You become a problem solver really quickly.
I think it's fair to say it was all quite chaotic at first. There was no planning what the day would involve or what you were going to do, it was just respond, respond, respond! In those first few weeks it felt really overwhelming and like a huge, quite scary, undertaking. I didn't really know what I was doing. I had no previous training to deal with this. It felt like you were kind of a Support Worker or Social Worker on the phone to people having to fix things and help people who were extremely panicked without having the relevant training to deal with it. I was working really early until late every night, answering calls, messages, emails, pings and all sorts of different new technology we'd had to take up. So I was having all these notifications going off at all hours, which was really overwhelming. You feel like you're in a wartime effort. You feel like this is something you just have to get over and strengthen yourself mentally to deal with. The first three weeks were the most intense for me, definitely - after that it seemed to get easier.
The skill that's been the most important for me has been listening. And that's what people have been wanting - just someone who they can phone who they know is going to listen to what they need, or what they're worried about, and try and offer some support, help or some advice and try and fix it as best as they can. The majority of requests were from people who were either experiencing health concerns or had been told by their GP to shield and not leave the house. They were worried and needing food urgently. Some people either didn't have access to the internet, couldn’t order online, or couldn't leave the house - so they were really panicked that they wouldn't be able to get food. So it was kind of playing a dual role of arranging emergency food supplies but also trying to be reassuring to people and say that this is a blip that we will get through and it's going to be OK and no one needs to go hungry. It would also involve offering advice about other worries - like housing, or children and childcare - people just wanted someone to talk to.
I suppose the structure of Oxford Together kind of evolved - we had systems in place, and the main phone calls were going through the Council phone line and then being triaged through Oxford Together. Within each Hub we had a collection of people from all different departments, which was so valuable because you could get feedback and insights from different people on how they’d been dealing with calls. So those meetings were the most important thing for me each week - just being able to have that time with colleagues to find out what they were doing and how they were handling things and saying, “Well, hey, did you know you can call so and so and they will be able to help with that? ” or “If you get a case like this, you can call so and so”. So very quickly, my understanding of the structure of the Council, of what support was available, and also what support was outside - what other voluntary sectors and Oxford County Council could offer - my personal knowledge grew.
Each day I would deal with anywhere between say 5 and 15 people, depending on the length of conversations. Sometimes you'd have ongoing relationships with that person and you’d have quite lengthy conversations. I would often assign myself to that person for a check-in call as well. It feels like we have done a really good job of reaching people when they need it and not letting people slip through the cracks. I really hope that kind of trust and relationship building that we've had can flourish and develop in the future because I think it’s so helpful and so powerful and so immediate to get that response on a phone from somebody. That doesn't happen through forms and things like that - you just don't get that engagement.
I think actually Oxford Together did a really good job of quickly coordinating things. It’s really well organised. I think I've moved from feeling really inexperienced, and ill prepared for this situation and feeling quite overwhelmed, to feeling actually quite empowered and like I have learned an awful lot in a really short amount of time. I also feel much better connected within Oxford as a City, and within the Council I understand people's roles more.
I've gone from absolutely hating working at home and feeling really isolated to actually really liking it and feeling like I can be by myself more. It's a really good feeling when you feel like you actually have made a difference to someone’s life or personal situation at the end of the day. It's increased my empathy. I think I've definitely experienced profound change.
I think we need to take these kind of lessons forward - of working across teams more, without so much hierarchy – adopting new initiatives really fast and dropping what doesn't work. And also build from the relationships we've made with residents - I think it's a model for the future. I also think it’s so important to work collaboratively across different departments and sectors and to build those relationships before you actually need them.
And the rest of it - the Zooms, the Slack, the Teams, all of these tools that we've probably not utilized before have just come into their own. Now I can't imagine working without them. It's just made it so much easier. You can now call someone from another Council and ask them for their advice really quickly, or ask them to join a meeting if you want to. You just couldn't do that before so I think the technology we've had to embrace, all at the same time, has helped massively.
I think the voluntary sector relationships have been great and we've got to know so many people in other areas that I personally wouldn't have known before or had a relationship with, and now I feel that I've got a contact who I can phone for advice or ask, “can we collaborate together?”. It's been really useful.
It hugely affected me. I felt completely isolated, Ill prepared, overwhelmed, overworked, and yet you can come through it stronger. And the more you can share those experiences with others and know that you're not alone and know that other people are experiencing them too - is really, really powerful.
Edited by Renata Allen