The iNetwork team recently met up in person for the first time since March 2020. It was a gentle return, meeting outdoors in a local park in Tameside. Meeting colleagues in person pre-pandemic was a simple matter of booking an available meeting room. In the post lock-down world, we discovered that something seemingly as innocuous as meeting in real life was fraught with additional considerations: what are individual members’ comfort levels? Who has underlying conditions to consider? Inside or outside? Facemasks or no facemasks? This seemingly small step of meeting up, was in fact a great opportunity to promote wellbeing and enjoy bonding as a team. It was also a really good moment to reflect on the fact that other teams across the iNetwork partnership have faced or are facing similar adjustments back to the workplace.

We know, from discussions at board level with the network leadership groups across the iNetwork programmes, that returning to the workplace and the consideration of staff health and wellbeing is high on the agenda. So important is this agenda, that the Transforming and Innovating Public Services (TIPS) programme added ‘employee health and wellbeing’ as a key priority for 2021-22. Within the TIPS programme, discussions have primarily centred on how to support the workforce as a new normal is established. Members of the TIPS NLG are asking what the new workplace normal looks like, and how we can support a workforce that has experienced the trauma of covid-19. It was great to see strong attendance at the iNetwork event in July on Returning to the Workplace: Employee Wellbeing where we explored how colleagues are addressing these issues.

The Effective Information Sharing & Security (EISS) network leadership group has also discussed returning to the workplace and wellbeing. It has been very clear that implementing IT solutions to allow the workforce to work from home, and now to transition back to the workplace, whilst keeping the system safe and running has not been an effortless feat. We have discovered just how essential IT and tech are to the continued running of our services. Interestingly, as much as IT is essential, there is a recognition that it’s about the people who keep the tech running that are the lynchpin. How well we look after our workforce affects how well we deliver our essential services. 

The Connected Procurement & Commissioning board meeting last week discussed the need to attract and retain a diverse workforce. Anecdotal evidence from a number of iNetwork member organisations would suggest that staff recruitment and retention is currently difficult; with the shared experience by many organisations of re-advertising job adverts. These conversations echo very similar discussions across all the iNetwork programme boards. Earlier this month, we held an event to look specifically at attracting and retaining a diverse and skilled workforce. This is not a new issue, but the current circumstances have added additional considerations to how better diversity and inclusion practices can support recruitment and retention of a broader range of people and skills.

From a iNetwork perspective, we are working towards holding face to face events again in the next financial year. The world has changed and we recognise that the new normal for us will not be going back to face to face events by default. It has been a journey for us as a team to switch from face to face events, to exclusively online events. The next year will challenge us further to explore how we can look at hybrid events, and to better understand when it is essential to meet in person and when it is better to hold a virtual meet-up. This continues to be done in dialogue with the membership: to understand when, and how, our partnership members will be ready to move to the new normal way of operating. One thing is clear, it was just so GOOD to see the iNetwork team in person when we met in the park, and we are really looking forward to seeing you all in person when we start in-person events again.