Kate Stephens: Lessons learnt in lockdown

In the pre-COVID world, one of the questions I was most often asked was, “What makes Smart Works so special?”.

Without hesitation, I would reply that it is the fact that every day, we have at least 6 women walk through our door, nervous, looking at the floor and uncertain, only to leave two hours later, with a spring in their step, head held high and ready to take on the world.  We get to see every day the tangible and immediate impact of the service our charity delivers, and that is a great privilege.

This means the decision, taken three months ago today, to suspend the face to face delivery of our service, was particularly difficult. It was unthinkable to us that we wouldn’t see the women we exist to help every day. But the circumstances left us no choice. I cried in front of the children that evening as I struggled to explain what was happening.

And yet, even as we were absorbing the shock of lockdown, we were making big and important decisions that were to lay the foundations for the coming weeks and months.  We have learnt some powerful lessons and now, exactly three months on from “lockdown day”, it is an important moment to reflect on what has been an extraordinary time.

Necessity is the mother of invention

Many of our initial, early decisions were driven by what we saw as necessity. We had a lot of young women who were booked into see us in late March and early April.  We simply couldn’t let them down and were determined to find a way to give them the advice and support they needed to secure their summer internships.  So, we immediately moved our service delivery virtual.

The team acted quickly, coming up with and implementing a solution including video coaching and wardrobe packages delivered through the post.  It seemed to work.  Our clients told us the service was still incredibly helpful, our volunteers relished the opportunity to be able to do something positive, and our referrers were so pleased that we were there, alongside them on the frontline.

This was three months ago today. We have continued with this approach of look, think, adapt over the last three months so that we can be there when we are most needed.

We are now offering an entirely virtual service and realising the potential that this has.  With travel to our centres no longer a necessary part of our service, suddenly our reach is genuinely UK wide, and available to any woman, wherever she may be. Without the push of the pandemic, we may never have made the leap to virtual.

Instead, in the last three months we have provided 430 hours of support to the women who need us. This includes 315 online appointments and 114 care packages delivered all across the UK.  Above all, there has not been a single working day in 2020 where we haven’t been helping women.

The importance of being nimble

I’ve been told off a couple of times by my Chair for overusing this word recently, but “nimble” so perfectly describes our approach that I find it hard to resist.  Perhaps the best example is our new offering of Career Coaching.  The staff team have dedicated hours of time to speaking with our referral partners to understand the needs of our community and how we can help.  There is a clear need to support those who want to work but who are struggling to secure an interview in the current climate.  As the economic situation changed drastically, we heard that securing a job interview is now just as difficult as getting the job. We saw this was something we could help with and were nimble in our response.  We started piloting Career Coaching sessions, where our coaches work with a client to help her to identify tangible next steps that will maximise her chances of securing an interview and employment.

We have delivered 120 sessions so far and the feedback has been incredibly positive, with some clients already coming back to us with a confirmed interview.

Strong bonds are formed during hard times

It’s not just our service that has changed. The way we interact and support each other as a team has deepened, despite not being together.

One of the things that makes the Smart Works experience so special is the energy that the team bring to work every day, whether staff, volunteers or trustees.  They’re not afraid to roll up their sleeves and get stuck in, always looking out for each other and our clients.

I didn’t want to lose that connection so one of the first things we implemented for staff was a daily zoom catch-up every morning, a 3pm virtual coffee break and a celebration each Friday, that has turned into a regular quiz night.  In some ways we’re closer now than before, we share tasks and have supported each other through the challenges we’ve individually faced. That energy I love so much has remained and it’s clear to me when we meet every morning that the team is still as committed to each other and to our clients as before. Not to mention that we all have a new insight into each other’s home decor that would have been unthinkable in February.

For our volunteers, we’ve been able to harness their skills to offer virtual coaching, come in to make up the wardrobe parcels where possible and where not, write good luck notes to give each package that personal, thoughtful touch.  On the first day we asked our volunteers to help with notes, we received emails from over 50 of our volunteers wanting to get involved, just a snapshot of the passion they have for the work we do.

During all this uncertainty, we’ve also learnt to communicate more with all our regional centres and with each other.  We’ve put more structures in place to allow these conversations to happen – weekly calls with the Chairs of our regional centres, fortnightly meetings with the treasury teams across the UK, all building understanding.  And I am personally so grateful to the endless time, energy and advice invested by all our trustees, and particularly our HQ Chair and Treasurer, to keep morale high and the CEO calm.

Never stop listening and learning

The world outside Smart Works has not just been about the pandemic.

Everyone in the Smart Works community has been deeply affected by the tragic death of George Floyd and the subsequent events taking place around the world. It was important for us to say to our Black clients that we hear and recognise their anger, sadness and pain and that we are proud to stand with them.  The team at Smart Works is thinking hard about our responsibilities to identify and challenge racism and discrimination.  We know it is our duty to get this right, and our focus now is on listening – to our staff, our volunteers and above all, to the women we exist to serve.

It was an important reminder to us that there are times when we must look beyond the service we are all so passionate about and recognise the wider issues that we are all part of, consciously or not.

In conclusion

We have learnt a lot during this time about how we can help women without seeing them in person. We’ve learnt how to be nimble and how to listen more. Our bonds feel stronger than ever and we’re finding new ways to expand our service that at the beginning of the year didn’t seem possible.

And so whilst we are longing for the day when we can welcome a woman into our centres in person, in the meantime, if someone were to ask me now. “What makes Smart Works so special?”, I would say without hesitation, our community.

Kate Stephens, Smart Works CEO