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Last year St John Ambulance was honoured to be chosen by the NHS as a key partner in its Covid-19 vaccination programme. Before vaccines had even been approved for use, our charity was tasked with helping to deliver them to the nation – by providing around 30,000 clinically-trained volunteers by March 2021. This once-in-a-lifetime challenge has highlighted some key principles about how to pull people together to achieve the previously unthinkable.

The scale of the challenge
In September 2020, a small team was brought together in Chesterfield – a good geographical midpoint – and sworn to secrecy. Across the obligatory 2m gaps between us, there was a sense of importance and excitement about the task ahead. But to be truthful, we also asked: can we really do this? Despite the fact we had already successfully trained 5,000 St John volunteers to help NHS frontline staff fight the pandemic on ambulances and in hospitals, the challenge here required us to recruit and train six times that number, in new skills including administering the vaccine.

Barriers to break down
In HR, our job was to screen and onboard all the vaccination volunteers. We were not involved in training because at St John we have a dedicated and award-winning division to take care of this. Neither were we heavily involved in advertising for volunteers. This was because, as well as having a large pool of existing volunteers, we were able to call on thousands of people who’ve learned first aid on St John training courses. We also worked with partner organisations who were able to connect their volunteers and people with us. Nevertheless, we had our work cut out for us. Here are just some of the items I put on our checklist:

  • Devise a rigorous volunteer screening process to withstand the pace and scale of the programme – to let anyone slip through the net would pose a risk to members of the public, the programme and the charity.
  • Create an automated Occupational Health screening process – requirements for the NHS Vaccination Programme were even more robust than usual
  • Recruit the dream screen team – in a mind-blowing challenge, we had to onboard and train around 100 new people in six weeks. They were to take on advisory and administrative roles to move volunteers through the onboarding process.
  • Ensure the HR systems and technology would handle the significant increase in volume.
  • Integrate partner data – we would need to devise protocols for transferring volunteer data legally, smoothly and securely.
  • Manage all of the above in the Covid-19 environment – that is, working from home, conducting meetings and interviews virtually.

Solutions to Share

1.Inspiration
First up, I must highlight the impact of having an inspiring leader with a can-do attitude at the helm. We were lucky that the person heading up what we called the Pre-Deployment Stage only saw barriers in terms of solutions. This positivity was reassuring and infectious and we were determined to succeed. I’d add that inspiration can flow in all directions and would always take the opportunity to thank my outstanding team for lifting me up with their positivity at times of considerable strain.

2.Communication, communication, communication
Obvious though it sounds, effective communication is vital and must be constant. I was involved in daily project and programme calls each morning, ensuring all strands of the operation were continuously informed and connected. I would speak to my deputy at least 10 times a day.
It’s especially important to inform and listen to subject experts including third parties and suppliers. For this reason, I brought in the account manager of our externally managed HR system at the earliest possible stage. This partnership approach was, in my view, critical to the delivery of the programme. Through prompt briefings and daily contact, we managed with very few hiccups.

3.Build on existing strengths
One of the reasons St John was chosen by the NHS to partner in the vaccination programme was because, as a health and first aid charity, we already knew how to prepare volunteers to care for the public in relatively large numbers. Indeed, we had already rapidly upskilled thousands to help fight the pandemic by supporting community services, ambulances and hospital emergency departments.

To some degree this activity had been a practice-run for the vaccination programme, and we took from it whatever we could. For example, to expand our work in hospital emergency departments, we had rapidly onboarded and trained 3,000 people furloughed from airlines and other organisations. We were able to make use of the fast-tracking virtual process we devised for this for our vaccination programme.

Furthermore, we knew from decades of experience that volunteers can make the best volunteer managers. Therefore, we entrusted the recruitment and management of our 300-strong Welcome Team to an experienced volunteer on furlough from his day job (he later joined us as employee). With the support of daily project meetings, he and his team conducted more than 28,000 virtual interviews, which is certainly no mean feat.

4.Be flexible
While building on existing strengths, it’s important not to be limited by them and to be agile, both as an organisation and individually. For example, to staff this programme, many of us were asked to adapt. Our HR Director stepped in to take on my everyday duties so that I could focus solely on the vaccination programme; I also “borrowed” a small number of our “business as usual” HR colleagues.

And we used outside help where we needed it. For example, we engaged an agency to recruit our team of 100 screeners and another to work with our clinical director to devise the form that enabled us to automate our Occupational Health screening. Given we had 74,000 applicants, the latter saved us a lot of time. We also used an external company to countersign our DBS checks. We kept our external suppliers briefed every step of the way and they were able to provide an outstanding service. We couldn’t have achieved our goals without them.

5.Wellbeing Watch
At the height of the onboarding in early 2021, I admit that I and some of those in my senior team were working silly hours, seven days a week. For a limited period, it just didn’t seem possible to work a 9 to 5 job. It soon become clear that this was unsustainable and I arranged cover as soon as possible so that we could at least take the weekend off during that most intense period.

There were some very rewarding days but also some very stressful ones and that can take its toll. It’s very important to have regular wellbeing check-ins with your team. We would let off steam with each other behind closed doors, then put our corporate faces back on and emerge with renewed determination.

6.The Power of Thank You
I never let an opportunity pass to praise my teams, who were simply outstanding. The charity has also sought to recognise their fantastic work in a variety of ways. But it is a personally written letter highlighting individual contributions, that really hit home and has been most valued.

Similarly, our teams were spurred on when our CEO, Martin Houghton-Brown, took time to come and thank us personally. He would pop into often fraught virtual meetings to say hello and tell us what a great job we were doing.

So, while those working in our sector will be well aware of the range of rewards available to us, we should not overlook the power of that very simple but personal ‘thank you’.

    Yvonne joined St John Ambulance as head of HR in 2019 after a busy three years in charge of HR at Cardiff Airport. Prior to that, she had spent seven years with the charity Victim Support, where she was HR Business Partner for Central England and Wales. A CIPD Fellow, Yvonne is passionate about equality, diversity and honesty.

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