Sally Orlopp is Director of People, Skills and Employability at Centrepoint. Sally has spent 25 years helping disadvantaged young people, working in local government and the private sector before moving to Centrepoint six years ago.
We talk to her about the impact of Covid on young people and the organisation, and how Centrepoint’s People Strategy plans have helped the charity navigate the pandemic and change their working practices for the future.
Centrepoint has been working since 1969 to help young people facing homelessness, offering them the safety and security of a decent place to live and giving them the opportunity to gain skills, training, qualifications and employment.
Covid, of course, has exacerbated existing problems in society and high youth unemployment rates -unemployment for young people has increased by 52,000, or 10%, since the start of the pandemic. Young people living rough or going through a family breakdown have very little of what Sally calls “social capital” – contacts to get a job and family members to help, putting them at a huge disadvantage to others of the same age competing for work.
Sally is proud that Centrepoint has kept its services running throughout the whole pandemic. “We had to furlough 70 of our staff for between three and five months, but 300 continued to work, taking public transport to keep our frontline services open – something we promised we always would”. 77% of these staff were BAME, facing increased risks around Covid. The last lockdown was one of the hardest for the charity, with one of their highest sickness rates in January and over 100 frontline staff absent.
Happily, as we come out of lockdown, that situation has reversed with sickness at an all-time low and the charity in a strong position to help many more young people in 2021. The launch of a new Centrepoint People Strategy in 2019 has helped play a role in this and in surviving the last 12 months.
One key element of that strategy was a focus on prioritising ‘wellbeing and inclusion’ in the workplace. As Sally states “we were already thinking about how we wanted to live our values and be kinder”. It is a stance that has been incredibly valuable in maintaining staff morale throughout the pandemic, with the establishment of a working wellbeing group, various methods of support, and gratitude and wellbeing gifts to staff for their hard work such as flowers, fresh food delivery or takeaway vouchers. The Wednesday Wellbeing newsletter that ran through previous lockdowns is now less about Covid features and more exploring subjects such as the menopause and the current Holy month of Ramadan.
A secondary key element of that strategy was around ‘future proofing the organisation’, which led to the establishment of a ‘new ways of working’ group with individuals from across the organisation. Sally chairs the group and credits it as ‘one of the most inspirational groups I have worked with”. The group is addressing issues such as working in ways that are “smarter, not harder”, visibility in the workplace (“How do you influence where you are not being ‘seen in the office?”), whether the organisation’s KPIs remain fit for purpose, and how to manage performance differently in the future, after the difficulties of doing this remotely over the past year. In addressing the later, Centrepoint have introduced shorter appraisals that have been more about reflection on people’s work and behaviour, rather than measuring performance which is already addressed in one to ones – something that has really been welcomed by staff. As Sally notes, “Life has changed significantly in a year and we want to make sure we maximise those opportunities for change and make us a better employer”.
The group is exploring flexible work options in a changing work environment - whether people still need to do core hours, five days a week for example - and have recently surveyed staff on “How they want to work in the future away from Covid. How many days? What do they want to use the office for?” Sally notes that a consistent answer is that no one wants to use the office for working in, tapping away at a computer; they can do that at home. Instead, they want to use it as a collaborative space, for meetings and coming together.
Sally thinks there has definitely been a mood shift within the organisation: “Last year staff were grateful to work from home and feeling sorry for the frontliners, now people are sick of working from home and want to go back to the office, particularly after the last tough three months”. Sally anticipates a slow return to the office (and dependent on government guidance), “but it is people’s choice, rather than something they will be forced to do”.
Work looking at future proofing the organisation over the pandemic has inevitably impacted on Centrepoint’s new 2021-2026 Strategy and the way the organisation wants to deliver a bold, new goal to have eradicated youth homelessness by 2037 – the year someone born today would turn 16. Key to that is a new recognition that Centrepoint will not be able to do this on their own; they will need to campaign and influence government and work better with partners to deliver work and meet that end goal.
Finally we asked Sally if there was anything she wish she had done at the start of 2020, if she had known what was ahead. She states “I literally had around ten days holiday last year and worked seven days a week. I like to lead by example, so I wish I had led by working less hours and taking time out to reflect on things, to gain a hobby or learning.” But she remains proud at how Centrepoint has performed exceptionally during this time “If we were receiving a school report, I would say we have done very well”.
Sally, alongside other sector leaders globally, took part in our 2020/21 study entitled AAW Insight 2021 - Spotlight on Leadership, Staff Wellbeing & Talent Management in the Post-COVID World.
If you’d like to receive a copy of our report, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.