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Insight: A helpline revolution

Harriet Grant, Advice and Information Manager at Enquire, the Scottish advice service for additional support for learning, on how the lockdown has led to challenges but also surprising opportunities for change.

On 17 March 2020, following national guidance on working practices, we took the decision to temporarily close the Enquire helpline. One week later we reopened for written and email queries only, and earlier this week (4 May) we reopened using a computer-based telephony system.

Before 17 March, our helpline service did not look too different from when it was first established 20 years ago. Of course, we had adapted and improved throughout our first 20 years to continue to meet the needs of the people who used our service – in the main these are parents of children with additional support needs, but the emphasis was on evolution rather than revolution.

We were responding to more enquiries than we had ever done before and continuing to receive almost universally positive feedback.

One service user recently surveyed told us:

“Thank you! Enquire helpline was like alight in the dark for us and our family. We've been dealing with a challenging situation for 22 months. To speak to someone who could listen, then explain legal expectations and the process of how to resolve it was so incredibly valuable. I wish I knew of you sooner”

We had explored some options for making better use of digital to improve our service, but frontline delivery always came first. There never seemed to be an appropriate moment to step back and think through the possibility of a completely new approach to delivering the helpline.

And then coronavirus brought about a revolution, and just like any revolution, it has caused upheaval and dislocation (or should I say relocation?). But it has also given us an unexpected opportunity to take a completely fresh look at what we do and deliver the helpline service in ways that will make us even more responsive to the needs of our service users.

Before the revolution, we were fully office-based, we used telephones to respond to telephone enquiries (how passé!) and our files and our databases were all stored on a local server in the Children in Scotland office. Now, six weeks on, the entire helpline team works from home, we respond to telephone enquiries through a computer-based telephony system and all our files and databases are stored on the cloud.

So, with schools closed and changes made to the legislation we advise on, we have the technology to support the service delivery in place so we can focus our full attention on the advice that we give.

None of this transformation could have been achieved without our small but incredibly dedicated and talented team. They have responded magnificently to the challenge of continuing to provide the high quality and individualised service we are so proud of. All while working out how to adapt the service to home working and keeping themselves and our our website up to date with ever-evolving information about the impact of coronavirus on additional support for learning.

There were, and no doubt still will be, many challenges along the way. Now that we are starting to emerge from the period of tumultuous change, however, we are already beginning to see some of the advantages of remote working and do not foresee returning to pre-revolutionary times. Here are just some of the potential advantages and opportunities our new way of working can offer us:

  • More efficient and responsive ways of delivering the service, with more flexible opening hours to respond to periods of high demand
  • More flexible working hours
  • More accessible working arrangements for people who may find coming into the office challenging
  • Opportunities to recruit from a wider geographical area
  • Multiskilling the team
  • More efficient call management from better data

Even more importantly, despite being physically distant from each other, it feels like this strange time of separation has brought us as a team closer and more supportive of each other than ever. We are more responsive, more inventive and more skilled than ever before.

Vive la revolution!

Harriet would be very interested to hear from other helplines which have made the transition from office to remote working to share learning and ideas: hgrant@childreninscotland.org.uk

Enquire

Harriet is Advice and Information Manager at Enquire, the Scottish advice service for additional support for learning

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