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  4. Closing or Staying Open: the role of voluntary sector Local Infrastructure Organisations (LIOs) during the COVID-19 pandemic in England

Closing or Staying Open: the role of voluntary sector Local Infrastructure Organisations (LIOs) during the COVID-19 pandemic in England

This is the third post in an occasional blog series written by Dr Daniel Haslam. You can the first which focussed on the overall role of LIOs, and the second which focussed on getting and sharing information

Introduction

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic the decision to close buildings or to keep them open has been something that many organisations have had to grapple with. For some, the availability of (mostly technological) alternatives led to the conclusion that there was no way they could justify face-to-face delivery of services. Others felt there was no choice but to stay open.

For Local Infrastructure Organisations (LIOs) the decision was often not clear-cut. The variety of support and services that LIOs offer meant that each organisation had a different set of circumstances, tensions, and dilemmas to consider.

Tensions and dilemmas

One of the important points that emerges from considering how LIOs made the decision to close or stay open is that often there is no single ‘right’ answer. Additionally, leadership in this context is often about navigating the tensions involved in making choices within this context. For LIOs, the decision to close or to stay open was wrapped up in a variety of other concerns such as linking with community responses, pressure from public sector partners, and work with volunteers. We’ll look at some of these in more detail in other CVSL blog posts.

The idea of tensions and dilemmas in the practice of leadership is something you will find in our FREE courses on leadership in the voluntary sector. The ‘Developing leadership practice in voluntary organisations’ course in particular explores issues in practice and ethical considerations. Ethics was also the subject of a recent CVSL webinar delivered by Dr Nik Winchester which is available to watch Issues Made to Matter: Ethics and Leadership in the Voluntary Sector - YouTube

Closing or staying open

In our discussion with LIOs during the COVID-19 pandemic we discovered a variety of different responses. Although none of the organisations we spoke to closed altogether (i.e., ceased to offer a service either face-to-face or at a distance), some did speak about LIOs they knew of who had taken that decision.

Each of the LIOs had grappled with tensions and dilemmas in relation to the decisions made – protecting staff, offering ongoing support to service users, leveraging new technology, funding etc. – but all felt that they had made the right choice and had a sense of pride in relation to how the organisation had adapted to the new situation. We’ll explore some of these tensions below.

A focus on staff

A focus on the function of staff roles was emphasised at times:

“I suppose, for me, it’s we’ve got a whole team that definitely don’t want to work from home, can’t work from home. So, our volunteer centre, we’re really clear that actually they needed to be in. The only way they could do it was to be in. It wasn’t fair for one person to take all that home, if you like, and work remotely.” Interview 42

But this was balanced in relation to a duty of care - to keep staff safe:

“So, making sure we’d got enough staff in the building to make sure we can cover whatever’s coming in, although the building’s been closed for visitors, because we instantly locked that off because of keeping the staff safe.” Interview 42.

Practicalities, equipment, and procedures

Some organisations lacked the procedures and/or equipment to successfully move all staff to home working. One organisation that did close their office and move to a remote mode of delivery had been working towards this for some time and therefore was able to transition relatively easily:

“So, we designated a day which was mid-March, for we would do a test run and we would see how’s it going to work if we’re all in different places, is everyone going to get paid? What’s the.. Is the system going to hold up? What’s going to happen? So, we’ll do a simulation day and we’ll run that each week until it…Anyway, of course it was 17th March, or 16th March and of course, that day was the day that we closed our office. We actually shut then…

…But there was this period where it felt are we being melodramatic?... We’re not sure but it feels important because we weren’t really hearing from the council or health in particular, there weren’t those messages coming through.” Interview 86

The lack of clear information and guidance from official sources identified in this quote – and the vacuum that created - points to another reason for variations across the country: organisations had the flexibility - often led by necessity - to make their own decisions.

Pride in adaptability

Several interviewees praised staff teams for being flexible and continuing to work in a committed and enthusiastic way, despite significant change. Some found dynamics changing within the team:

Actually, I have to say that [staff group] have been the stars. They’ve just got down and done it. We’ve still got little niggles, but nothing to what it was. Now, it’s actually people I didn’t think would, that caused the most, which is interesting that dynamics change with different things. Interview 42.

Some of the decisions made did meet resistance amongst staff with a few even leaving as a result.

As the pandemic progressed, organisations began to open up and more staff returned to offices, integrating new ways of working into existing practices. It remains to be seen how long the legacy of COVID lasts and whether any closures are fully reversed.

Conclusion

It’s clear that LIOs have experienced a variety of dilemmas and tensions during the COVID-19 pandemic that have impacted on decisions of whether to close their buildings or keep them open. Many are continuing to adapt and integrate new ways of working as we enter 2022.

All LIOs interviewed adapted in some way and decisions to close seem to have been primarily motivated by concerns around staff safety, mediated by the availability of alternative ways of delivering. Most services themselves were either adapted to comply with social distancing regulations (shopping projects for example) or moved online (befriending, funding support etc.).

Of additional importance for LIOs is the relationship they have with their funders and other partners, particularly in the public sector. Most of these organisations moved to online meetings and events which meant LIOs had to adapt, regardless of whether they themselves had shifted to remote working.

This notion of being between communities and the public sector – ‘in the middle’ – and the pressure that results will be the subject of a future blog post so keep an eye out for that!

 

14th January 2022

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