by Emma Pownall
    Marketing Director


15th May 2020 | 7 min read

When the world changes, people shine

How one Datel client’s working culture and technology are helping it to cope in uncertain times

The COVID-19 crisis has been a challenge for almost every business. Many have needed government support – indeed by the start of May, the government was paying the wages of 25% of the UK’s workers.

But you can tip the scales in your favour. Even businesses whose income depends entirely on a largely closed sector can optimise for success with a rapid and consistent response, solid technology and a great culture.

Datel client SIPS Education Ltd (SIPS) provides meals, music and arts, professional services including HR, finance, governance and risk management, and IT services to schools. COVID-19 saw schools close to all but the children of key workers overnight, and government policy on schools then changed rapidly over the course of a week. But with honest and forthright leadership from a committed senior management team, SIPS has flexed its operations and kept its team motivated.

Brian Cape, SIPS Chief Executive, explains the business as it stands, mid-lockdown (end of April 2020): “We have furloughed around 70% of our staff who are not able to work; because schools are closed to most pupils. But behind the scenes, we’re busy from an HR and finance point of view, making sure that all our colleagues are looked after, those furlough arrangements are managed and we use every tool at our disposal to remain a sustainable business. Then, even though our front-of-house catering team are furloughed, the back-of-house operational catering team have done an incredible job of keeping the supply chain going to make sure that vulnerable children and the children of key workers are being fed.”

That has been an exceptional achievement. With no canteens, the supply chain had to be refashioned to deliver cold meals, whilst remaining healthy, safe (e.g. including allergen advice on new packaging) and commercially sustainable – all over the Easter period.

  • Support your customer

Brian’s approach has been to recognise that his customer base had no better view of the future than he did, and therefore that they needed help. “We found ourselves trying to support schools in the best way we could. Many schools didn't know what they were supposed to do, what they were allowed to do, which children were coming in or how they could adhere to social distancing guidelines. There were all sorts of messages coming out from government with regards to voucher schemes, what to do for families entitled to free school meals who aren't in attendance because they're not key workers, etc. We just tried to take away some of the some of the pain from the schools by helping to make decisions for them.”

Dawn Taylor, Catering Operations Manager adds, “In that first week, we processed the different priorities coming out from government every day and worked out the best solution. And I think that when we finally decided on the scope of a service that we could offer consistently, with guarantees of quality, safety and nutrition throughout the supply chain, it gave the schools confidence that we could deliver. We know that we've got confidence in what's going out to the schools and to the parents, so it was one problem less for them to worry about.”

  • When the chips are down, culture matters

Brian was able to offer that commitment and consistency of service because SIPS reacted fast to the crisis, with the benefit of a deeply embedded culture, to create a credible guiding approach. He says “We're a mutual; a not-for-profit organisation, spun out as a group of local authority services from Sandwell Council. We've managed to retain the best of a public service ethos whilst being able to operate in a more agile fashion than some of our colleagues in highly-centralised public service organisations. Our reaction was based on three principles”:

Safety and welfare - “Of our people, because that's in our blood culturally - if we didn't have great people, we wouldn't be able to provide great services and we wouldn't be in business; and then the safety and welfare of our school customers and children.” Adds Dawn, “Foremost in our ethos is the fact that the customer always comes first. We’re dealing with vulnerable customers on a daily basis, so it becomes second nature - we are always looking to keep the children safe.”

Service delivery Brian again: “what we could still operationally deliver to meet schools’ needs and do so safely, 100% of the time.”

Financial stability - “how could we operate and meet those expectations whilst ensuring we are still there in the long run?”

Brian continues, “Even ahead of the furlough relief, I wrote to our colleagues to promise that we would find a way to look after them, we would get through this, and they would have a business to come back to. How we treat people during challenging times and how colleagues work with one another is crucially important. Culture is my number one priority because I think it'll set us up for a really positive long term legacy.”

Dawn adds, “Our culture hasn’t just ‘happened’. We’re reaping the rewards of working closely as an organisation for years. So even with complicated conversations like furloughing, HR were having conversations with members of staff who they usually already knew. We are a family, and that has become even more useful as we work remotely - you're not talking to a stranger at the end of the phone, you're talking to a colleague. One of our unit supervisors sent us an email in which she said, ‘I'm proud to be part of the SIPS family’. That comes from the heart.”

  • A little help from tech

SIPS was lucky in that it provides IT services as well as catering, so the company has a robust in-house IT team. Many back-office employees were rapidly able to work from home, connecting through Microsoft Teams and an enterprise-grade VPN. Says Brian, “Because of the resourcefulness and resilience of our people, everyone jumped on it. With bit of trial and error at first, we got into a routine of being able to work from home with a largely mothballed back office. Where there's a will there’s a way! With regards to telephony, even on the day one test we managed to get 70 people dialed in remotely, securely, over VPN."

IT is also keeping the SIPS family bonds strong. Brian says, “We have an internal system, Connect, which operates rather like Facebook. It removes the bluntness of the typical internal intranet, in favour of a more interactive platform. Our colleagues are using it to stay in touch with one another and to share stories. I write to it almost daily, to keep our staff abreast of what's going on and our thinking as a leadership team. There's even a mental health area, to help our people who maybe are feeling a little isolated. And of course dog photos! That non-work conversation is so important.”

Like all businesses, SIPS is currently thinking day-to-day, not year-to-year. The government will define how schools operate, and SIPS will have to follow suit. But it has a committed workforce, a communicative management, a suite of user-focused technologies and a long-invested culture of collaboration; all of which now translate into loyalty and flexibility from the team. The business is solving problems daily for its customers, and that help won’t be forgotten when some sense of normality returns.