In case you didn't know, there are two teams that design, manage and edit content at Essex. With lockdown, in the words of the Spice Girls' no.1 Christmas hit, 2 become 1.
During this time, the team worked quickly to provide support and guidance about the crisis for residents and businesses on the Council's website. We spoke to Lead Content Designer, Lino Boga-Rios and Senior Content Adviser, Louise Alabaster to find out how the teams have worked over the last 3 months.
Can we start with how your team got redeployed?
Lino: I suppose, it kind of happened in stages, didn't it? We knew something was happening. Then as lockdown hit I kept thinking, "we’re going to have to do a lot in terms of content."
Our teams work closely together anyway. It just made sense to reach out to them.
Then it just became well, “let's just kind of just work together.” Then we became part of the wider Comms and Marketing team. The crisis was an opportunity to go, “I don't understand this split, let's not have it.”
So, I contacted Louise who said, “Yeah that sounds good. Let's work out how it's going to work with the rest of the Comms and Marketing team.”
And then it just happened. Would you say that's the way it was, Louise?
Louise: Yeah. I don’t think it was a big formal, “you’ve been redeployed.” It was just common sense.
There’s so much common ground between us, it was just a natural progression at point of crisis. Let's just come together and we’ll work out the best route forward.
How did you decide on roles and responsibilities, who does what, and how the work comes in?
Louise: I think when we started having discussions, it was a knee jerk reaction of needing more resource in the first instance.
The extra people who had already been formally redeployed in the Comms team had been established as functional leads for certain areas. We looked at the areas that the content designers had worked on in the past. It made sense to just pair people up with those individual function leads based on previous experience with essex.gov.
So, they'd be able to hit the ground running versus sort building up knowledge in that area from scratch.
We tried to flex around resource experience and skills in order to establish the strongest team we possibly could. This included pairing the strongest team members with the functional leads who had least experience of content design.
Lino: Yes, I think there was some initial questions about roles and responsibilities. I just said, "you know, let's not talk about that. It’s all hands on deck and we need to get content on essex.gov.uk," and the team did.
How did this affect the rest of your respective teams?
Lino: So, we work in the Service Transformation team, while Louise and the rest of her team work in the Communications team. As well as breaking down that structural divide between our teams, I felt like it gave us the opportunity to also breakdown some of the structures we worked within.
Rituals that work really well in a project, don’t necessarily work when you're doing content in a fast and rapidly changing environment. So, things like stand-ups in our own Service Transformation team didn't make sense anymore as we weren’t working on projects with our own teams.
Instead, a daily morning catch-up made more sense. I attended the daily Comms briefing, to be aware of what was coming our way. Then had another catch up with my team to discuss the work coming in and who would pick up that piece of work etc. It was hard to plan content as guidance was coming in and then changing on a daily basis. Knowing what comms were happening meant we had a rough idea and in lots of instances we could reach out to Comms leads and get things going before they came to us.
Also, the two teams had weekly catch ups, just so we could synchronise workflow. Again, it just felt kind of natural, an opportunity to work in a different way, a more fluid way.
And, you know, the team really ran with it.
How receptive were both your teams to the redeployment?
Louise: We were absolutely elated that you guys were going to be working with us because I guess at that point, we knew there was going to be a lot of work coming our way that we didn’t have capacity for.
We didn’t want our standards to drop. We know from the normal requests we get in that people push and challenge, and we were very aware that given the pace of change, we were going to be hit with a lot of content that needed to be published quickly.
So, having you guys on board sharing that load, it was a massive help. It was almost like an immediate expansion of the team – but with people that don’t need to be trained - they know what they're doing. They can come in and hit the ground running.
We've raised awareness of content design in the organisation, for the benefit of both teams and I think that's not something that I want to lose. We've started on that journey now. We should use it as a launch point to continue and push that conversation.
I think it's been a really interesting time to show we can deal with crisis. We can see a benefit in changing people's behaviour and attitudes at the same time.
Lino: And at such a fast pace. Most people didn't have the opportunity to question what we were doing and let us get on with it. It was just like, "do what you need to do."
And in that process, as you said, people started to understand. Like it was, “alright then that does work, and they do know what they're talking about. You know, all of this stuff about content design, does make sense.”
Like you said Louise, I hope it continues.
Can you tell me about how you got the coronavirus hub up and running?
Lino: I can't remember now? (laughs). You guys just got onto it. I would like to say there was this big plan. Actually, that wouldn't have worked because we wouldn't have got it up and running as quickly as we did. We needed to respond quickly to the crisis. The very nature of that crisis made planning difficult anyway.
So, we had a couple of meetings and discussed what we thought would work. We got a loose idea of pages and themes. We knew we didn’t want to put all this (temporary) content on our existing pages, so the idea of the coronavirus hub was born.
We knew it would contain information about changes to our services, as libraries, parks etc were shutting down. We knew we would need to give information and advice to our residents, so we mapped out the main areas of focus, and got the hub up and running in a matter of days. A Minimum Viable Product (MVP).
We monitored feedback from users on a daily basis. We opened up regular communication with the contact centre to see what calls they were getting in. Where the pain points were. Then just learning and iterating as we went along.
At one point, we had all sorts of new content coming in on a daily basis. It didn’t fit within our structure, so we had to take a step back and redesign it to accommodate more areas.
We also had to challenge some content, which would have been better served by having it on a different channel, such as a news story, social media, or even leaflets. Having that wider collaboration with the Comms and Marketing team allowed us to direct those requests to the right person.
Louise: Yes, it’s about helping people understand where best to reach their audience. It’s not all about getting it on the website. It's about getting it to where your users will see it.
And yeah, I think we learn so much more by developing something and pushing it out there. But that wouldn’t have happened I think if we hadn't been in this situation.
Lino: Yeah definitely, and it didn’t feel like anyone owned it. We all did, and it was entrusted to us. It was a collaborative effort, with an acknowledgment of the content and content design teams’ expertise.
Louise: And I think having a good website already there was a solid foundation for us to build upon. If we have been hit with this when the old website was still live, we would have suffered an absolute world of pain. I think we benefited from having all those solid principles and standards already in place, so you've got them to build on.
What were some of the challenges you faced, if any, and how did you overcome them?
Louise: I think because everything was moving at such a pace, there was a lot of reminders to functional leads to link with their content designers when there is new information. We used our daily briefing to reinforce who was leading on what area because it was hard to keep track with so many service changes coming through.
Also, I think there was an initial misconception that the hub was for communications purposes rather than service delivery information. They just think "oh, it's about coronavirus, therefore it needs to go on the hub," without actually thinking what that content is meant to achieve.
Lino: Yes, and you know it’s been really nice for us working in this way. We felt like we were part of the wider team. We felt quite comfortable linking in with social media and external comms, and other teams.
Another thing that’s always confused me, is how our teams were divided between project work and 'business as usual (BAU)' work. It's a term I absolutely hate.
Louise: We hate the term BAU too!
Lino: Yeah, everything at work is BAU, you know, as long as it’s work. You know if you stand on a desk in a tutu, and do a one-person rendition of Swan Lake, that's 'business as unusual'. Fine, but everything else is business as usual.
Because non-project work is less tangible, it doesn't have those markers, people kind of don't see it as important. I think what we've done in the last three months is show people that actually ‘business as usual’ (grimaces) is just as important as project work.
How did you find communication between the teams?
Louise: Obviously pre-COVID we had a few check-ins, but we didn’t have a clear purpose, whereas now I think now it's so much more driven and collaborative.
Maybe it's just because of the climate that we’re in. Everyone makes that extra effort to be there. The sessions we have now are really valuable. It’s really important that we share that knowledge because there's so many different links and interdependencies between everything that's happening. We have a much better awareness of the bigger picture, which allows us to work better.
Lino: Yeah, I agree. That thing of physically being in the same set of buildings was literally and figuratively creating walls between us. Now we have miles and miles between us but it seems to work better.
What feedback did you get from stakeholders and service areas about this new way of working and the turnaround time in particular?
Louise: Our efforts haven't gone unnoticed and that higher up (senior leadership) have been really impressed. However, we've reinforced that actually it's not just our team, it's a collaboration between the teams. I don't want that to go under the radar.
We've also had feedback from other partners, people who’ve asked us how the content on the coronavirus hub was developed and what approach we've taken. This has possibly led to other councils taking a similar approach whereas we were one of the first to develop the most comprehensive hub within the first week of lockdown.
But whilst we got the hub up and running in a matter of a few days, there is still that misapprehension of how long it takes to do good content.
It's not like you are writing a news article. You could do it in ten minutes and get it published, it's not ideal, but possible. If you are doing proper content design, even under pressure, it will still take time. And we still hear "Oh I'm going to send you some content, it needs to go live today." So, I think that's mostly an education piece for the rest of the organisation.
Even if we reflect back on the number of hours that were spent on developing the hub, I bet we would all be shocked about exactly how much resource has gone into making something that is effectively so clean, simple and easy to understand.
Lino: Yes, and sometimes I'm amazed at the content design team, at their breadth of knowledge. You know, I'll say something, and the team will go "yes, but GOV.UK have got that," or ‘that's Chelmsford City Council thing." I think, how have you got all of this content in your head? Not just of essex.gov.uk content but other websites?
I think people don't appreciate that. That is what good content design is. It's not just about writing words, designing content in the best format and putting them on your website. It's skilfully crafting content within the context of everything else that's out there.
I started a 'thank you' folder in Outlook from stakeholders from all over the organisation. From the top of the organisation and, equally important, from the people we worked closely with on a daily basis. I don't count the number of emails in it (laughs) but it's well over 20 by now. It's definitely more than one thank you a week since March. Pre-lockdown, a thank you email warranted a team lunch so you can imagine what percentage increase that is.
What lessons did you learn from this experience?
Lino: We've got better communication. We've got greater visibility as a team as well. We've made content design a more visible profession, all of those really good things.
And we've created a hub, which we are consistently improving all the time and iterating.
Louise: I just want to say the hub is great and it's really clear and relevant for residents. They can find stuff easily. They are engaging with it. But we still have pockets of the organisation that don't work with content in this way. This, for me, has reinforced the journey that we still have to go on, but also to reinforce the importance of persevering.
Do you think that this may lead to a change in how we work together in the future?
Lino: Absolutely! I’ve found the last few months quite invigorating. We've been able to run with something. I've got to know my team much better as well because we've been working so closely together. Project work often means I'm removed from what my team do on a daily basis.
I think we're going to be doing this for a while, some of it will just stick.
Louise: I don't think we should rest on our laurels though, because a lot of the old ways of working can creep in.
We need to be really aware of the fact that actually we need to keep all of the good stuff. We need to make sure that between the two teams that we keep it quite tight and make sure that people are aware that this is how we want to continue going.
It's not something that we want to let go off but who knows what's going to happen?
Lino: That's the other thing. It's like we can't plan to make it stick just yet because we don't know what's going to happen. So, it's a bit weird.
Louise: The speed at which our relationship has changed, would, in normal circumstances taken a year or more to get to this point. We would have talked about it a lot and we would have had to do a plan and make it formal.
I think just by the nature of how it's come about and the fact that it is working so well says it’s right and should continue.
But yeah, and I think the rest of the team are just exceptionally keen to keep up with what we've been doing, ensuring those connections remain strong.
We're not resting on our laurels though.
Let's not just continue doing it. Let's actually keep changing. Keep trying new things. I think that's the only way that we're going to continue to show the organisation that two separate teams can work well together with a common goal.
We know there's so much work to do to increase awareness and understanding of content design, its purpose and actually what it can achieve. If we can start to identify advocates to that approach and include them, I think it really helps also to set that foundation of a community of best practice.
As I said, people are noticing it at the moment, or they know the good things without realising that the good things have come from the fact that we haven't over analysed and structured the way that we're working.
We're just doing it naturally.