Six months in and work has changed immeasurably. We now do so much online and our connections with clients which were already strong have only got better. We have pivoted, reviewed, become smaller and leaner, remained business-focused, and ensured our sustainability and scalability (as much as we can) – all of which followed our own advice to others.
I was in Vienna for the weekend of 13-15 March 2020. It was touch and go whether I should have made the trip in the first place. Media reports of an approaching pandemic were a melee of information and scaremongering, misinformation and denial. By the Sunday it was clear public opinion and government policies were shifting. There was a risk we wouldn’t be able to get safely home. It was time to bring forward the flight and get back to home and work.
It was time for a plan – and then another one.
There was surprise and a palpable sense of relief on Monday afternoon when I arrived in the office. We sat down and looked at what might happen. Using our best guesses and a weather eye on the worst-case scenario. We scoped out how live training events, field work and projects could be put on indefinite hold. We agreed what we could or should be doing in the office for ourselves and what we ought to be saying to clients. We got it about right. Although by the next day things had moved on so rapidly, we had to review those plans and redraw our strategy. We talked about what we needed to get through this. Like many, we were contemplating a few weeks inconvenience. This is the moment people starting to work from home if they could. Office based support staff stayed on. By the end of the week, their work had slowed to a glacial pace and we sent them home on paid leave.
Things started to stop.
We waited. The world started to shut down. Events, training and projects were postponed or cancelled with no clear plan about what might happen next. The team kept in touch through tele-conference calls, at some point these turned into pretty unsuccessful video chats. It was great to connect, but often there wasn’t much to update.
We kept on working from home, doing what we could, and taking leave or time owed back. Of course, we were all staying indoors. We were balancing doing what was needed at work with useful occupations at home. Cooking, cleaning, getting around to those jobs not yet done, and box sets and reading of course.
Entering the online world.
One of our key projects (TALK Derby) moved to online and remote delivery. The funder, DfE, sensibly set out the expected parameters of what should happen next so we had good assurances from that point. And the package of Government support exceeded our expectations. I cried with relief upon hearing about the Job Retention Scheme. That made a huge difference to our survival. With schools and early years and childcare providers closed or focused on essential services for keyworkers and vulnerable children, our income had stopped.
We decided to get onto the front foot by tentatively converting our training offer to online delivery. We started to get to grips with the technology as well, taking advice from others a little further down the line than us. We were determined to be ready, willing and able for when the enquiries started again. And we were.
Making sense of guidance, briefings and tools.
Then we started noticing the reams of guidance issued by government. And we took the time to read and scrutinise it. We know from experience that having this time whilst having to do the day job would be a real challenge for local authority early years teams. This was especially the case as they were also at home, adjusting their delivery and supporting the sector. So this is when we spent our own time producing analysis and summaries of guidance. We were reading it, so others didn’t have to. We were able to highlight the key points, the pertinent actions, the updates and revisions, and shared our views and opinions to guide actions.
We also developed briefings and ideas. All for free and sent out to our mailing list. I must say I have never written so much – briefings, programmes, analysis, opinion pieces, blogs (by the dozen), magazine articles and chapters of books. We also developed models and tools, I worked with an illustrator to give them a bit of morale-boosting ‘oomph’. We did things like ‘getting smaller to be sustainable and grow again’, ‘approaches to change’, ‘parental childcare preference use change’, ‘factors affecting providers’ and ‘childcare sufficiency assessment within a COVID-19 context’.
A community together.
All this investment promoted a massive response. Our inboxes and phone lines were full of gratitude, requests, questions and I have to say quite a bit of reaching out just to unite on a personal, social and community level. Not since I set up the business 20 years ago had I experienced such energy and connection. The sense of community and comradeship was very strong. It started to feel natural being online with colleagues and clients. Suddenly a ‘phone call didn’t seem enough.
Our early adopter clients like Oldham started talking to us about what we could do to help their work through this. We workshopped the context and challenges and revisited what traditional support might look like, and what must change this time around. It was a creative process – I really loved working with Jenny together on this. Hempsall’s also started bringing together clusters of 6-8 LAs together for online idea sharing and updates. We were in this together and it showed. As a result, we developed the ‘Finding Your Way Through’ programme of information sessions, business workshops and one-to-one support – all online for LAs to commission. So far, we have delivered the programme in 12 LA areas and growing.
One member of the team returned from furlough – a great relief. Because those training requests (things like safeguarding in particular) and commissions had started to come in, they went live and felt good. In contrast, we launched a Business Future review. A necessary but painful process that resulted in three redundancies and one reduced role. Our infrastructure had to respond to how everything had changed for now and most likely for the future to come.
Hempsall’s Coffee Breaks.
In June and July 2020, we held 30 online LA early years meetings, clusters and networks. As we all got used to them they were starting feeling like a regular feature of the week. Attendance was steadily growing and requests were coming in thick and fast. In July we launched Hempsall’s Coffee Breaks. These one-hour free sessions pick a topic (things like health and wellbeing, provider business support, business sustainability, sufficiency planning) and hear short input from Hempsall’s or LAs. The remainder of the 60 minutes allows for discussion and questions. Now, Coffee Breaks attract up to 120 attendees each time. They have become an invaluable and unique opportunity to get together and focus on the day’s issues, with other people also tasked with the same challenges.
What next? Networking, schools, sufficiency and more.
We have recently started a national programme called ‘In The Region’. It is regional networking for LA early years teams – about two hours at a time. The first two sessions are free and then we ask LAs to fund subsequent meetings. They are rolling out now and we expect a full programme across the autumn. Everyone has a chance to provide a brief local update and then the remaining time is given to discussion and questions.
We will also be launching our dedicated programme for schools getting to grips with their early years provision in this changing context. We aim to help them understand changing needs, demands and preferences, and to develop models of delivery that meet the needs of schools, families and the local childcare market as well.
We are enjoying working with the Local Government Association (LGA) on special webinars and action learning sets all about sufficiency and sustainability. With hopefully more collaborations to follow. There has been a growing demand for our childcare sufficiency assessments, and we have been working hard on how they should be delivered with COVID-19 in mind.
Our Finding Your Way Through programme is under constant review and is adapting well to the new issues we find each week and is anticipating the challenges ahead throughout what will be a testing and long autumn term. We relish the opportunity to do more of the out of school sector and anticipate there will be greater need for one-to-one business support for providers moving towards the spring term. That seems like enough for now.