Taking on the challenge of networking during a pandemic

Spending almost a full year working on Coronavirus (COVID-19) communications has been tough. The pandemic has had an undeniable impact on the dynamics of both work life and home life.

In GCS Local, we have been delivering virtual learning and development sessions throughout the pandemic and we link up daily with a vast number of partners in our work across the region from local authorities to Public Health England (PHE) teams, from NHS colleagues to chambers of commerce. We’ve used this time to build on our existing remote culture of daily team hangouts and check-ins to support new staff in navigating their roles.

Nevertheless, I felt there was still a gap. I realised that along with the many things I have missed over the past eleven months, one thing that I’d really missed professionally was the chance to connect with other people. Certainly, one of my favourite parts of the job has always been getting the chance to meet people from all over the region and hear about their different roles and organisations.

Bringing back normal conversations

Virtual training sessions and meetings have been so useful but they don’t lend themselves to networking or having a normal chat. In fact, one of the shifts I’ve noticed as everything has moved online is that it’s really easy for meetings and calls to become wholly functional and operational.

What I’ve really missed are the chats we used to have while waiting for the kettle to boil or walking out to the sandwich shop. Often some of the best ideas don’t come from formal meetings, but rather from a casual discussion that sparks the next piece of work.

North Connect

With this in mind, I began trialling a simple networking system for comms professionals in northern England in November. Each month, I match up colleagues who volunteer into pairs. The individuals then set up a time to have a virtual chat. There’s no format or agenda, just the opportunity to connect with people across the patch and strengthen working relationships.

We’ve had over 100 sign ups from both central and local government, including many comms leads from local authorities. We are now facilitating over 50 coffee roulettes a month, linking colleagues from all different locations and organisations – from the Lake District National Park Authority to Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Manchester, from the University of York to Doncaster Council.

Karen Johnstone, Head of Communications, Engagement and Marketing, Bury Council and Bury Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG):

“It’s a great way to network with colleagues without even leaving your home! I think that’s really important at times like these both from a work perspective but also from a wellbeing perspective too – taking half an hour to have a brew and a natter with a like-minded professional is worth its weight in gold. It feels like a luxury to take the time, but I always feel positive and motivated afterwards and with even more empathy for what we’re all going through at this time.”

Broaden networks or just lighten the load

My connections have been both eclectic and varied – sometimes there is overlap with a campaign, project or work priority, other times the common ground is how we are managing a new team member remotely or how we are coping with the childcare/work juggle. The latter have been equally valuable, often even more so, and have done wonders for my creativity and wellbeing.

Finding the time – it’s always worth it

Despite my enthusiasm, when the calendar reminders flash up, I still find myself thinking – I really haven’t got time for just a chat with someone, I’ve got too much on. We’ve got so used to working in a high-paced, demanding environment that it feels like a luxury to be taking this time to network. But it really is so important to carve out this time. I always benefit so much from connecting with a peer and sharing a bit of normal, pressure-free time, that it leaves me feeling motivated and ready for the next challenge.

The truth is that we rely on strong partnerships and networks to undertake our work, making it so important to have off the clock discussions to generate ideas and connections. One of our key roles is building relationships with local partners and these informal discussions have had a huge impact on that.

How it’s going

Tracy Holmes, Macmillan Communications and Engagement Lead, West Yorkshire & Harrogate NHS:

“It was so great to chat – really good to share experiences and contact details for future. Looking forward to the next connection.”

Steph Cunningham, Head of Communications and Engagement, Doncaster Council:

“It’s been great. I think we all need that peer support and conversation right now.”

If you have any questions about the initiative or would like to be part of North Connect going forward please email me at alice.pelliccia-bourke@cabinetoffice.gov.uk.

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  • Alice Pelliccia-Bourke (1)