We will exit somewhere different from where we started

We will exit somewhere different from where we started

JustRight Scotland’s Jen Ang talks to TLEF head of comms Fiona Bawdon about the impact of the pandemic on her organisation

JRS Team Photo 2020

Since the pandemic, Jen Ang and her JRS colleagues have implemented fortnightly online training, group meetings – and even Friday after hours drinks (pictured)

Jen Ang, co-founder and director of JustRight Scotland, gives her organisation eight out of 10 for its response to Covid-19. ‘We sent people home on about two days’ notice, and they were able to continue working.’

She adds: ‘But we were lucky.’

Lucky in that when the Glasgow-based charity was founded three years ago, it was set up to allow flexible working: staff were equipped with laptops so they could work anywhere in Scotland; and a digital phone system means calls can be easily diverted.

JRS was founded by Jen and Kirsty Thomson, with funding from TLEF and Unbound Philanthropy, and Jen credits both organisations with supporting their core vision and making its launch possible. JRS has a mandate to (in its words): ‘use the law to defend and extend people’s rights by providing direct legal advice to those who would otherwise struggle to access justice.’ It now has a four-strong executive team and is known for its expertise in areas of law including human trafficking, and protecting the rights of migrants (including children), and women. JRS works collaboratively with other organisations, and has 13 staff, including four who have been recruited since lockdown. ‘I have co-workers I have never met in person,’ says Jen.

JRS received significant funding from the Community Justice Fund to pay for management consultancy and other support to help JRS’ leadership team and trustees assess risk and plan its response to Covid-19; plus to cover the additional costs of staff working at home longer term. These latter costs included tools for staff to safely deliver outreach and public legal education remotely; plus funding for JRS’ employee wellbeing support programme. (CJF was set up in the early days of the pandemic to support social justice organisations through the immediate crisis and beyond. TLEF is one of six founding funders; and CJF is administered by the Access to Justice Foundation.)

Of course, having tech that allows home-working is one thing, expecting staff to make the switch as seamlessly is quite another.

Jen says: ‘ There is a world of difference between flexible working as a perk of the job, when it suits you, to having to work remotely 24/7. We realised early on that staff had signed up to do one kind of job, and were now having to do another.’

Working at home means negotiating not just practical challenges (say, ensuring confidentiality when the family kitchen has become your workspace), but also psychological ones. Much of JRS’ work is distressing: women who are victims of domestic abuse, rape and sexual assault; refugees who have fled torture and violence. Some clients may be at immediate risk of harm. The work is intense and demanding at the best of times. Jen says: ‘We are client focused. You need to be mentally present to do this work. It takes energy to control your emotions and keep boundaries.’

Workloads, working hours, and clients’ distress levels have all increased in the pandemic. Jen says: ‘People have coping strategies and being able to set work and home life apart is one of them.’ That kind of clear separation has been a casualty of lockdown. Now, JRS staff may be taking calls from distraught clients telling harrowing stories in the room where their children usually play, or where they will be eating a meal with their partner later.

While the pandemic has made some kinds of communication harder, it may have increased understanding between JRS team members in other ways. With everyone based at home, inevitably, co-workers have been given a window into each other’s personal lives and circumstances in a way they wouldn’t have had before lockdown. ‘You do become privy to information about your staff’s lives that they wouldn’t otherwise have shared with their employer. We [management] and the staff stepped into that,’ says Jen.

Along with online fortnightly training, all-team meetings, and even Friday after-hours drinks, JRS has taken a number of other steps to help everyone cope with remote working. Its flexible working policy was extended to allow staff to work whatever hours suit them best; 10 days’ compassionate leave is available ‘for any reasonable caring responsibility someone might have’; and a 3pm finish was initiated on Fridays.

Income from legal aid has reduced, but JRS received grant funding which covered the cost of additional equipment, including laptops to allow interns to work remotely, and allowed it to reduce fee targets for staff to accommodate the shift in their work.

Jen says she and her management colleagues have encouraged colleagues to speak up about what they need ‘to be able to do this work safely’. No doubt some staff would have liked more but, along with everyone else in the social justice sector, resources are finite.

JRS seems to be weathering the storm, but Jen worries about the clients JRS is no longer able to reach and the capacity that the sector has lost. ‘We will exit somewhere different from where we started. We won’t snap our fingers and come back to where we were.’

Despite all the pressures, there have been some positives. Too many clients have been missed because of the pandemic, but the odd one has been reached actually because of it.

Edinburgh City Council’s response to lockdown was to offer accommodation to people who were street homeless. One of those duly housed was Marc, an EU citizen client of Jen’s who has lived in the UK for over a decade; working occasionally, but who had been homeless on and off during that time. Marc sought advice in 2019 about the EU settlement scheme (which he clearly qualified for), but then missed appointment after appointment, due to his chaotic lifestyle. Once in the hostel, he came back in contact with workers from StrEEt Aware (a collaboration between JRS, Shelter Scotland and Streetwork Edinburgh), who, in turn, put him back in touch with Jen. ‘He was more well than I’d ever seen him. He was safe, rested and fed. Staff offered use of a laptop and phone at the hostel. They fetched him after breakfast to bring him to the private room to meet me remotely, so I could finish his EUSS application.’

She adds: ‘But for the pandemic, that wouldn’t have happened. But for the incredible effort of our StrEEt Aware partners on the frontline who put themselves at risk, it wouldn’t have happened.’

After nearly a year working under pandemic conditions, Jen reflects that while having the right tech was vital going into the pandemic; having the right people is vital for coming out of it. ‘I’ve learned that that the resilience of an organisation comes down to cohesiveness of its team, and your ability to communicate and react flexibly. It comes down to what extent do your team believe in the common aim of the organisation? You have to put your shoulder into it.’ If anyone is unhappy in their work, or unsuited to their role, remote working will only amplify these issues, she says. ‘The challenge for us is to find new and better ways to cultivate that shared purpose and channel that energy, during the continued lockdown and beyond.’

This is the first in a series of articles intended to give a snapshot of how TLEF grantees have responded to the pandemic: the challenges; potential solutions; new insights; and ongoing concerns they are facing. If you would like to take part, contact fiona.bawdon@thelef.org

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