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Podcast: Rising out of adversity

The last 12 months have been challenging for employers everywhere, but they have been doubly challenging for employers in Northern Ireland. Not only have they had to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown restrictions, but they’ve also had Brexit and the fallout from that to contend with.

The Open University (OU) recently hosted a podcast on these challenges. Talking on the Rising out of adversity podcast were John D’Arcy, Director at The OU in Ireland, and Kirsty McManus, Director at The Institute of Directors (IoD) Northern Ireland. Martin Couzins, learning expert and Director of Insights at Insights Media, chaired the discussion. In addition to talking about the challenges presented by Covid-19 and Brexit, Kirsty McManus and John D’Arcy also discussed the IoD Virtual Women’s Leadership Conference 2021, of which the OU is a sponsor. In its 14th year, the theme of the conference this year is Great Leaders Rise out of Adversity.

Although the move to lockdown life caused little disruption to The Open University’s students, because the learning is largely conducted online and remotely anyway, the organisation did need to shift its workforce to remote working. John said the process happened much more smoothly than expected. 

It’s been really admirable the way that people adjusted so quickly. The challenge for some of our staff has been in terms of capacity because we’ve had a real burst in student numbers, which is fantastic

John D’Arcy
Director at The Open University in Ireland

The pandemic and rapid shift to digital ways of working and learning has caused many people and organisations to rethink their approach to online learning. And a lot of people whose employment was impacted by COVID-19 delved into OU courses to learn new skills and further their professional and personal development. “The willingness of people to think about relearning and lifelong learning has become really really important,” said John D’Arcy.

Record numbers of people signed up to and completed OU learning courses in 2020. In Northern Ireland alone, 132,000 individuals accessed OpenLearn courses, for example. Those courses range from cyber security and AI to creative writing and business leadership skills. Microcredential courses have been hugely popular too. The OU has also helped a number of universities and colleges to design learning specifically to be delivered online.

John says the enforced shift to remote working may be temporary, but it has prompted the OU to think about how to work more smartly in the future. That includes considering the carbon footprint of people travelling to the office each day or to meetings, as well as employees’ work life balance. “We’re just beginning to develop our new five year strategy and one of the pillars of that strategy will be sustainability and the environment.”

For Kirsty McManus, the first six months of the pandemic was like running a 999 service for members. “We really had to roll our sleeves up and get into the nitty gritty of supporting businesses across a range of issues.”

The IoD helped members sort out financial assistance. It provided government support. It also had to negotiate with trade unions around what constituted a priority company and therefore, which ones could remain open during the first lockdown and which had to close.

And while doing all of this, the IoD was also grappling with the shift to remote, online working for its own employees. Previously a face-to-face operation, the organisation had to quickly pivot to online. Once that was achieved, the IoD discovered there were benefits to be had from operating in the virtual space. New and exciting opportunities opened up as geographic borders were broken down and as a result, the IoD has been able to reach a wider, more diverse audience.

What we find is that we now have a global platform where we’re engaging directors from across the globe in our courses, which has created immense advantages. With any crisis, there’s always innovation and opportunity.”

Kirsty McManus
Director at The Institute of Directors (IoD) Northern Ireland

The move to virtual has also opened up new possibilities for the conference, because of the removal of geographic constraints. The IoD has secured speakers that might not have been able to attend had it been a face-to-face event, including Erin Brockovich, Nadiya Hussain MBE and Dame Stephanie Shirley CH.

“The conference is tied in with International Women’s Day and the point is to take a moment to acknowledge and appreciate the contribution that women made in Northern Ireland society and to the economy,” said Kirsty McManus. “For us, that’s about role models – famous, great leaders that rise out of adversity.”

Out of Brexit has arisen opportunity for some Northern Ireland companies too, with a handful of big contracts being awarded to local players. As Martin Couzins said in his opening comments in the podcast, the twin factors of Covid-19 and Brexit have been very challenging for employers in Northern Ireland, but they have also been watershed moments that have created opportunities around change, learning and growth.

For more information on the IoD Virtual Women’s Leadership Conference 2021 can be found here

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