Planning for the New World: A Q&A with Mark Atkinson
Q&A with Leaders 9th June 2020 5 minutes read
What does the world of the Disability Sector look like when a pandemic hits?
Having recently joined the Charities & Social Enterprise team at Green Park, I am delighted to contribute to our “Q&A with Leaders” series with a focus on the voluntary sector.
I am an advocate of the disability movement, with a shared experience and a professional expertise of working with disability organisations throughout my career in executive search.
The purpose of this interview series is to learn and share how leaders are adjusting their business strategies in response to the Covid-19 crisis. As UK regulations are being lifted, we explore how some of the voluntary organisations are adapting to what our “new normal” looks like.
My first discussion is with Gordon McCullough, CEO Research Institute for Disabled Consumers (RIDC) a people-centred UK research charity working to improve products and services for disabled and older people and has candidly given me his view from the corner.
Covid-19 has given the global civil society a shared experienced of living as an isolated and disadvantaged community. We have been cut off from the wider society, our working environment and our families and friends. The front-line staff have been at the forefront, putting themselves at risk for the benefit of the public - but for nearly 13.9m disabled people in the UK, living in “lock-down” is their everyday life. The pandemic has given us all an insight and empathy to assess what changes could and should be made to support the disabled community who live with difficulties.
CEO | Research Institute for Disabled Consumers (RIDC)
How have the effects of Covid-19 impacted your organisation?
Covid-19 has significantly impacted RIDC since the official lock-down. Being experts in ‘person-centred’ research involving direct input from disabled and older consumers, our pan-disability panel of over 1,600 people (the largest group of its kind in the UK) became inaccessible almost overnight – many of the panel were deemed to be “at high risk”, which presented a huge anxiety for me and the Board.
Our mission is to transform how private, public and voluntary sectors listen to, adapt and learn from the direct experiences and insights of disabled and older people. Our participatory research involves a lot of face to face interactions and people being out and about testing and assessing services.
All our discussions at the very beginning focused making sure our panel weren’t put at risk, the staff’s well-being was paramount, and there was a plan to manage the organisation’s finances. Our main strategy has been not to make any redundancies but to hold firm, which has so far been OK. I’m a believer that you will be remembered for how you treat your staff team and stakeholders during the crisis, and by having an open management approach has been the right one for our organisation.
What has kept me up at night has been the cash-flow situation (an ongoing concern for small organisations) and adjusting to uncertainty on a national level. I have felt totally useless when the work initially stopped and new opportunities, naturally, dried up. Beyond the financial anxieties the big question for me has been “why do we exist – are we important anymore?” I had to step back in those first few weeks of the pandemic and take stock of what “could happen if this goes on and how will we respond”.
A light has been shone on how some disabled people feel all the time because we have all felt isolated and excluded during the pandemic. One positive step-change for disabled people is remote access working, which is at the forefront of the agenda. Things that were said to be impractical are now the norm. For me there are as many challenges for disabled people during the recovery phase, as there are now. Two examples are accessing public transport and shopping - our recent series of surveys into the impact of COVID-19 have uncovered high levels of anxiety about shopping, mental well-being and accessing care and support. It will be vital that regulations and standards surrounding accessibility and inclusion are not eroded and we listen to disabled and older people to come up with solutions to do things differently.
We have made some decisions that as an organisation like most others that have revolved around how we work. We do not need to be all working from the same room at the same time, to ensure the quality of our work. A shift in our thinking has been on how to achieve greater impact by reimaging our approach, services and digital offer, and by communicating to our clients in a impactful way to ensure the messages that need to be heard on accessibility and universal design are not drown out– in fact, we will become even louder.
We have just completed developing our new strategy. It is called Small Changes, Big Difference because time and time again our research has shown those small, seemingly unimportant things, make the biggest difference. A current project looking at the accessibility of electric cars for disabled and older drivers will continue to inspire discussion on the impact of what small changes (liked dropped kerbs at charging points) means for the roll-out of the electric car-charging infrastructure across the UK.
We also want to focus on the intervention of technology for disabled and older people when using their mobile phones and computers. Recent usage of video-conferencing on platforms such as Zoom has been transformative for keeping in touch. There are lots of advantages to new technologies but we must understand more fully how people are using and interacting with them to ensure they are inclusive and as usable as possible.
It seems obvious when you say you should involve and listen to the people who are going to use your products and services. It is common sense (and good business sense) but it is not commonplace.
On reflection as a leader who has had sleepless nights with a mixture of panic and a bit more panic, I have a deep sense of ‘responsibility’ for an organisation that was set up over 50 years ago. I do not want to be debilitated and clouded by a sense of fear of what might be lost on my watch.
I know that it takes time, courage and a lot of self-reflection to look at things in a different way and understand not only the reasons of why we have done things a certain way, but how and why we must do things differently in the future.
Our instinct is to get back on track, get back in the office and pick up where we left off. This is natural but I think (and it is easier said than done) to be bold and question accepted wisdom to do things differently. There is a saying “never waste a good crisis” and we can learn from this terrible event that now is the time to challenge yourself, your Board and your staff team to question ‘how can we do better, but differently’.