Forum Central has hosted discussions with a large number of third sector organisations to find out how people are finding new ways of working as we recover from the Covid pandemic. We’ve looked at what has been successful, where the challenges are and how to overcome these challenges. 

The results clearly told us that this is not as simple as developing a one-size-fits-all approach and sharing it across organisations – this is an ongoing process that needs to be tailored to the size, resources and culture of each organisation. Read on to learn more about the different approaches and how your organisation can benefit from the work so far.

Face to face
In-person support, either within a building/centre, in a public place (park, heritage site, etc) or in someone’s home.
Online 1:1, group session, webinar/pre-recorded video, Facebook group page, etc.
People often describe hybrid working as changing between the two formats but in this context we mean specifically a format where people are taking part either face to face or digitally at the same time.
Switching between different formats for sessions. For example, one week support is face-to-face, the next week it’s virtual.
Phone/ Message
Telephone call, text, WhatsApp, instant message (WhatsApp, Facebook, snapchat, Instagram, tiktok, etc). Often used to complement the other four options, rather than the sole means of engagement.

Benefits of the new ways of working

Lots of organisations spoke about how much support, experience, knowledge and skills were developed online during the pandemic – and their keenness to build upon it to provide a more robust offer than they did pre-pandemic

We’ve heard of some organisations opening up their online groups/social activities:

  • Citywide rather than a particular area of Leeds
  • Regionally across West Yorkshire
  • Nationally
  • Internationally

With great success. This can be particularly effective at:

  • Bringing together people from demographics who form a small sector of the population, for example, peer groups for trans youth.
  • Bringing together people with niche interests (EG cult video games, the Self Reliant Group network, etc) 
  • Bringing together people of the same nationality who live across the world (e.g. online groups of Irish expats in different countries) 

Some organisations are working with partnered centres locally, nationally or internationally to put on a wider range of online events and activities. This can allow each organisation to diversify their offer without overloading their staff, and connect people with shared interests across the UK or internationally, which was particularly welcomed at a time where people were desperate for ways to connect with one another, and staff on the frontline were experiencing burnout. They can create a calendar of zoom links shared across organisations and everyone is welcome. 

People using services may experience many barriers to engaging with organisations face-to-face whilst juggling other responsibilities and demands on their time and energy. When their preference is accessing services online, giving a digital option can provide flexibility, dignity and improve outcomes, giving them support more tailored to their needs. 

Many members of staff are burnt out from the demands of working during the pandemic, on top of juggling many other demands on their time and energy. Giving them the option to work digitally (from home) is helping them manage their mental health and the wider determinants of health. It provides flexibility, dignity and increases autonomy in a way that is incredibly positive for many people and, anecdotally, seems to be decreasing instances of absences. 

Some examples of accessing services online/home working meeting accessibility needs for staff and people accessing services: 

With the current COVID risk digital or hybrid provides a safe alternative for people who are anxious about public transport and/or working/accessing face to face, or shielding themselves or people they care for.

It can enable people with chronic illnesses to work/access services when, on some days, it would have been incredibly challenging or impossible. Cutting out the return journey to/from a physical building can help them save ‘spoons’ (units of energy). 

People with mental health diagnoses including anxiety, depression and PTSD can find that going into a physical building some days is completely overwhelming – the option of homeworking/accessing services remotely allows them to function enough to engage on their own terms. Managers have found anecdotally that this improves productivity rather than reduces it. 

Some people with visual and sensory impairments, like hearing loss, found that, when the right conditions were created to take into account their accessibility needs, like high quality transcription, online BSL interpreters, or audio descriptions, they could engage more with online content than some face-to-face content. Some staff members found it easier to accommodate accessibility requirements within online events. 

People with sensory challenges, for example people with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), Autistic people who experience hyper-sensitivity, people with ADHD/ADD, can find some physical environments overloading and it affects their wellbeing/productivity/ability to engage. Examples include fluorescent lighting (the light and humming sound), high levels of background noise/conversation, the physical discomfort of having to wear headphones for long periods when you wouldn’t have to at home, etc. 

People with caring responsibilities, including people with children, those caring for relatives, partners or friends, found it gave them the flexibility needed to manage caring responsibilities and work/engage with services. 

People with executive dysfunction can find being in busy face-to-face environments incredibly distracting which can have a big impact on wellbeing and productivity/ability to engage with services. 

People with migraines can have a place to stop and rest that is dark and quiet if a bad migraine comes on, so accessing/working digitally allows them the space to do that. 

People with bladder or bowel conditions benefit from access to a private toilet when working/accessing services from home and it decreases anxiety around accessing a toilet. 

Some people with insomnia have found it increases the sleep they are able to obtain per night, both through not having to get up to commute to work/access services, but also by removing some of the anxiety around the time they have to wake up. 

Some people, including introverts and people with anxiety, can struggle with open concept offices/spaces as they can feel ‘on display’, and their work can suffer for it.

Stigma around accessing services can stop people going into physical buildings to get support. 

Some people feel more able to regularly get up, move and stretch whilst working from home without feeling self-conscious or worrying they are distracting people, which supports their musculoskeletal health, wellbeing and productivity. 

Working from home provides a safer, more manageable transition back into work for people who have been bereaved. Similarly, service users who have suffered a bereavement may find it overwhelming to access services face-to-face.

We’ve heard anecdotally that some people can feel unsafe travelling home after an emotionally intensive support session (e.g. therapy) – being able to close the laptop and be at home can be a huge help.  

Because of cutting out travel time, it means both service users and staff can have the time to connect with a wider range of people/resources than they would have otherwise, widening their reach. This could be increased access to colleagues across related organisations and webinars and training, or being able to support more service users in terms of staff time. In terms of service users, it can increase the amount of services and resources they can access, and increase the frequency they’re able to access them. 

Some people find it isolating and energy draining to work from home, and need access to a social office environment in order to maintain positive mental health. Similarly, some service users are accessing services, in part, for the positive effect social, face-to-face interaction has on their mental health.

It can be helpful for both staff and service users to have a divide between the job they do/support they receive and their home environment.

  • For some people, the journeys into the physical building can be beneficial to their physical health because they are walking, running or cycling.
  • For staff, it can help with work/life balance – the commute to work can help people gear up for the working day, whilst the commute home can help them decompress and ‘leave the job at the door’ when they come home. 
  • For service users, the different environment can give them a safe space to discuss issues or circumstances they wouldn’t be comfortable/safe talking about in their home. 
  • For some, the journey provides some headspace which helps them emotionally prepare on the way, and decompress on the way back. 
  • Face to face sessions can also help lift people out of the usual context of their lives, which can help them observe their circumstances with some helpful distance. 

Some people find when they work from home they work for longer periods of time without a break, as their breaks would usually be to socially connect with others. This can impact their musculoskeletal health and general wellbeing. Working in an office allows for people to naturally take breaks and have social time (for example, conversations by the coffee machine/whilst heating up their lunch) without these social cues some people forget to take breaks.

Challenges and ways to overcome them

Reaching and supporting people who are digitally excluded (limited digital literacy, lack of access, lack of confidence, etc)

How to overcome

  • Link in with 100% Digital Leeds for digital inclusion support. 
  • Continue upskilling people in IT citywide.
  • Ensuring there is a face to face option.

Lack of training around delivering online/hybrid models, there are ones for online therapy, but not more generally for community activities.

How to overcome

  • The need for training to support the new skills needed to facilitate a blended session/meeting – potential for VAL to support.
  • Bitesize video ‘how-tos’ would also be really helpful, that people could revisit easily.

Most online content isn’t accessible for people with visual or sensory impairments. Zoom meetings on different screens automatically excludes people with a physical or sensory impairment; having a non digital option is not digital inclusion.

It was also raised that British Sign Language will not directly translate into English as it’s a different kind of language.

How to overcome

Facilitator internet issues – freezing during presentations or group facilitation, or weak connection meaning the facilitator is routinely chucked out of meetings.

Ways to overcome

  • Script as much of the event as possible and have a backup facilitator who can take over without needing to heavily prep for the event.
  • Ensure staff have signal boosters at home/in the office to help support a better connection. 
  • If working in a hybrid format, and the face-to-face facilitator is freezing for online participants – a backup online facilitator can take the online group and stick to agreed timings.

Attendee internet issues – people accessing content missing parts of the session and struggling to catch up.  

Ways to overcome

  • Provide a hybrid model where possible – if someone has a temperamental internet, encourage them to take part face to face.
  • Encourage people to turn off cameras as a first point of call as it can help improve audio.
  • Record the session where appropriate so people can watch back what they’ve missed.

Issues with multiple people using paid zoom accounts – people can end meetings and chuck everyone out.

Ways to overcome

  • Create virtual meeting guidance that emphasises being careful not to end meetings in progress.
  • Use a shared calendar where people can see which events are going on.
  • If particular members are struggling with tech, give them 1:1 support.

When issues happen with technology (like previous three examples) people lose faith in the integrity of systems (staff & people using services) and it can be difficult to win back.

Ways to overcome

  • Be transparent that there were teething problems getting the tech right.
  • Outline all the changes you have made, and how it will ensure (as far as is possible) that those situations won’t happen again.
  • Give opportunities for people to engage face to face in future hybrid events – when they see things aren’t going wrong for online participants anymore, they might be comfortable with accessing online again if they ever needed/would prefer to.

It felt almost impossible for the people online to be as engaged as the people in the room.

Ways to overcome

  • Having the presentations in the hybrid model, then breakout groups either being fully online with an online facilitator or face to face with a facilitator.
  • *High tech solution* OWL LABS – active collaboration for hybrid meetings if a smaller group.

Some organisations couldn’t manoeuvre a hybrid model in a way that didn’t mean people on screen had less of a voice.

Ways to overcome

The counter-argument to this is that many people may not engage with this content at all if there isn’t an online option to connect – in these cases, it’s not useful to think of accessing online as deficient to face-to-face. It’s about maximising engagement as much as possible, with an acknowledgement that, although it may not be quite as interactive, and it’s important to manage expectations and be transparent about the differences, there’s still lots to gain from engaging online.

When working 1:1, someone can express a preference for digital, but you then realise it’s difficult to read their visual cues and you feel you are not able to connect with them as well as you could face to face. You worry that this might impact on the outcomes for this person, how do you have that conversation, whilst still giving them agency and choice? 

Another person said: we shouldn’t just direct people who can’t access face to face to digital – can we support them to get into face to face?

Ways to overcome

  • Support around broaching these conversations/understanding when face-to-face support would be better for the person than digital.
  • A decision tool to help understand which format would be best suited to the person’s circumstances and needs

When using the alternating model – we heard that, in one organisation, people were turning up face to face when it was the virtual week, and vice versa.

Ways to overcome

  • The general advice was to be as clear as possible in their communications, but in this case the organisation had, and even sent out text reminders.
  • Having a poster with a column for each date, and an adjacent column where people can see what format it’s in that week, might help.
  • The general feeling was that any additional ideas here would be welcomed.

Another key message we got was that, if there is an expectation for organisations to deliver things in this new hybrid format, it has to be coupled with extra resources or access to resources. Many of the organisations I spoke to said they didn’t have the tech or resources to deliver hybrid models effectively.

Ways to overcome

  • Some suggested that pooling resources across the city with those who had the technology and skills, so that they could hire them for regular one off events, would be a real asset.
  • There have been some early conversations between Leeds City Council and the Local Care Partnerships about utilising vacant city centre premises for smaller community groups. There is a demand for covid secure spaces from across the sector and some opportunities to access city centre space that is currently vacant or underused. This could potentially involve access to conferencing software and carry on beyond the pandemic? (Early convo between Mark Durham and Karl Witty)
  • Could we do something to support the upgrade of shared community spaces so they are set up for hybrid when facilitators get there? (flagged up that some LCC spaces even just the Wi-Fi is rubbish – if there are no LCC staff based there how does that get reported?)
  • *High cost solution* We also talked about having confidential “pods” around the city in community venues where people could go online and connect digitally with services, consultations, network meetings etc, similar to the charging ports/phone access on the high street. It could provide essential services like checking emails, verifying IDs, printing out energy bills, registering with a GP and booking appointments, etc.
  • Portable hybrid kit – people can loan out and take to venues.
  • Look at community spaces and see if we can get key community centres up and running for hybrid, so everyone has a local ‘hybrid hub’.

For some people, accessing services online is not safe in their home environment (for example, getting support around domestic violence whilst living with an abusive partner)

Ways to overcome

In cases like this it is absolutely essential to give people a face to face option or a safe place to access online.

Finding appropriate spaces for online or blended sessions can be a challenge when you need a quiet space within a busy work environment without background noise.

Ways to overcome
A guide to setting up a hybrid meeting would be useful, eg.g. equipment required, how to set up the room , e.g. acoustics, positioning of TV and webcam.
Creating a directory of affordable/free community spaces you could hire with the technology for hybrid meetings and events.

Some of your feedback was gathered at our New Different event held during Co-Production Week 2021. You can watch the session here.