Jul 22, 2020 | Blog

How Zen Internet is managing COVID-19 risks and its approach to the “new normal”

by Duncan Davies

Notify client Zen Internet is an award-winning Internet Service Provider (ISP) headquartered in Rochdale, North West England.

Zen provides a full range of data, voice, and hosting services to business and residential customers throughout the UK. The company has a strong ‘People first’ culture, born out of its founder and Chairman’s long-term goal of ‘Happy staff, Happy Customers, Happy Suppliers’ – so people really are at the heart of the business.

This ethos has seen Zen win many awards, including being PC Pro Magazine’s ‘Best Broadband Provider’ for the past 14 consecutive years, and being named one of the Sunday Times ‘100 Best Companies to Work For’. Zen’s ambitious goal is to be a true ‘challenger brand’ to the larger, established competition in the ISP market.

Ayshea Robertson, HR Director, and Lee Geirnaert, Health Safety & Security Manager, at Zen spoke to Notify CEO Duncan Davies about how the company has been managing the challenges of COVID-19, and how Notify’s suite of Health & Safety software is helping them keep their workers safe and giving them peace-of-mind in the new normal…

DD: Could you talk about the sorts of Health & Safety risks that Zen faces and how these risks have changed over the last few months?

AR: Pre-COVID our main/most common Health & Safety risks were slips, trips, falls, and the occasional piece of equipment requiring attention. We’re not a “high risk” company as such but actually, the Notify software has really helped to flush out those areas and risks that perhaps would be considered minor and ignored in other businesses.

LG: We’ve been using Notify for around a year now. It’s been absolutely ideal having Notify during this pandemic. It’s allowed us to really speed up the Health & Safety processes and deal with the rapid changes we’ve needed to bring in across the business.

LG: Our main safety risks are around the fact that we occupy a shared building, which is very much open plan in design. When this building is full, you’re probably talking about 1,000 people wandering round, so if you can imagine trying to keep all those people 2 metres apart! Currently, a large percentage of our workforce is working from home.

DD: How are you making decisions about letting people come back to the office?

AR: We’ve carefully tracked and followed the Government’s guidance. Whilst they say people who can work from home, should work from home, that is what we’ll be doing.

Clearly, over time people’s circumstances may change, and working from home may no longer be possible, or may become difficult, and an individual may want to come back to the office. In fact, yesterday we had our first request from someone saying that working from home was no longer a viable option. We make sure there is good dialogue between the employee and their manager, and if they are going to need to work from the office then we will absolutely help this happen. This will be by exception rather than rule for the time being.

Pictures of Zen’s offices and staff members (taken before lockdown)

DD: What are you having to do to get the office ready for people returning?

LG: This whole experience has been a bit of an eye-opener in terms of rethinking office life. Our approach is that we don’t expect lots of people to return to the office at the same time. We envisage phased returns and actually much of what I’m doing is about trying to ease staff anxieties and concerns.

To start off we did the Covid-19 risk assessment. We followed the 5-Steps to get COVID-secure and the Government advice.

We probably exhausted every bit of Notify software we could use!

We used Notify’s Risk Assessment software to start identifying the main hazards, who could be harmed and how. I would say using the software cut the time to do the risk assessments by half and it was really easy to use across our team.

We are also using the Audits & Checklists module to carry out Covid-19 121’s with every employee, and we already use the Incident Management module so that anyone in the organisation can flag a concern, near miss, or incident.

What’s also great is that we’ve got access to real-time data; we can get alerts and see a snapshot of the business at any moment in time.

In the building itself, we now have about four hundred 2-metre Social Distancing stickers and directional arrows. We now have a one-way system and signage up at the front and back doors. We have also significantly increased the number of hand sanitisers deployed across the building.

I’ve also recently completed a vlog – my first one, which was quite daunting! – where I filmed a walk-about through the building showing everyone the new measures that we’d put in place. I received some really positive feedback about how it had helped ease anxieties and concerns for when people start to come back into the building.

How are people feeling about coming back into the office?

AR: It’s really mixed, to be honest.

We’ve been carrying out Covid-19 “121s” (face-to-face meetings via Microsoft Teams between an employee and their line manager) right across the business. We’ve managed this using the Notify Audits & Checklist module which has actually been great. As each 121 is being completed by Line Managers, I can see a real time snapshot view.

This means I’ve been able to identify those individuals who are nervous about returning and look at the commentary to check any specific concerns and issues. I’ve then been quickly able to look at how we can address these concerns.

What we are seeing in our data is that a lot of people are nervous about the prospect of coming back to the office. That’s for lots of individual reasons, and despite the work we’ve done with our ongoing communications and things like Lee’s vlog. Of course, given how Covid-19 is transmitted, people are mostly nervous about being in a building surrounded by lots of other people.

There’s also for us the added dimension of the other tenants in the building. That creates a bit more concern, partly because some of them are back already and because people tend to be wary about communal areas and where there are shared facilities. So, we have to be really sensitive to that and we’ve just continued to make clear that any return to the building will be carefully controlled and monitored.

The bottom line is we’re not forcing anyone to come in, and that’s made everyone feel more comfortable.

To be perfectly honest, going forward I see the whole landscape changing in terms of new ways of working.  Early indications for us are that most of our people will want to work more flexibly. So, of course, that will reduce the pressure we have on space and allow us to maintain healthy social distancing and have plenty of room to help make colleagues feel comfortable.

DD: How have you been gathering your feedback? What’s been your approach?

AR: All of our Line Managers have been carrying out 121’s and then using the Notify software to complete a standard checklist that we created to facilitate that conversation.

The manager goes through it with the employee and captures the feedback. Lee and Sarah, my HR Manager, can access this data and have a look at where the mood is and focus our attention on specific areas.

The beauty of having everything digitally and live is that I can instantly get a sense of how our employees are feeling. People have individual circumstances or health issues and it is important we understand and react to this.

DD: How are you managing the practical office topics like hygiene, cleaning, kitchens and car parking?

 LG: We have had the same cleaners for many years and it’s just about flexing what level they need to provide for us. We get to the high touch points every hour and we’re ensuring that all hand sanitisers are regularly topped up. Over time we’ll be getting to the point where there will be almost constant cleaning around the building.

When we knew we had tenants wanting to come back to the office we carried out a deep clean, so we know how that needs to work as we open up more space. As you can imagine we have surface wipes everywhere they are needed – near printers or kitchen equipment, for example – along with the increased cleaning rotas.

We’ve also brought in basic housekeeping rules around only having one person at a time in the printing room and making sure the one-way system is adhered to.

We’re lucky in that we have car park spaces for 700 vehicles, so while we have small numbers of people in the building, there’s room to have every other space being used, and we’ve sent guidance to every member of staff on this. We also have a number plate recognition system for access so there’s no need for anyone to touch barriers or enter key codes on their way in.

In ‘phase 1’ we’re likely to bring about 60 people back into the office so we’re confident we can accommodate those sorts of numbers given what we now have in place.

DD: What about travel and people who might need to commute to work?

LG: We stopped business travel before lockdown, so that side of things was halted very quickly.

We do know through the employee sessions being carried out via the Notify platform that one of the biggest areas for anxiety is from people who use public transport – some people take two or three busses to get into work – and obviously this is an area that we cannot control, but where understanding the challenges is really helpful. It’s another reason for maintaining the option for remote working for the time being.

DD: Ayshea, what are the main challenges to you as HRD as more people are coming back to work?

 AR: On the back of this global pandemic the working landscape has changed, and I see that we are entering a completely new model of work.

We currently have 95% of our people working from home and with varying flexible arrangements in place, so this has helped to contain the risk to date. We have continued to support our thousands of customers and much of the business has continued as it was before Covid-19, in fact in June we had a record month for our Retail Sales team.

Going forward we anticipate that many of our people will want to continue to work flexibly and some may not wish to return to the office at all. With fewer people in the building, the office-related risks will be reduced, and it will allow us to manage any required social distancing guidelines.

Looking forward to the future, there is an opportunity to be creative with the space that we have. Obviously hot-desking is off the agenda for the time being but, as restrictions are lifted, I see us making much more flexible use of our office environment.

We’re having a lot of discussion around this already, for example: what does work look like in the future post-COVID, or when there’s a vaccine? There is an opportunity to take on board employee feedback and recent research into work patterns and be really innovative and forward-thinking.

DD: What about the whole mental health and wellbeing angle? Anxiety about being in the office, anxiety about travel to work, anxiety about job security – all those things must be weighing heavily on people?

 AR: Of course, this is a huge area of focus for us. We have massively increased employee engagement activity and communication right across the business.

Our CEO, Paul has been doing a twice-weekly vlog since the start of lockdown. He provides a really transparent and honest assessment of where we are, the big topics, and how we’re performing.  I don’t think communication has ever been as important, and our evolved approach seems to be working really well. In fact the results from our recent pulse survey ratified the success we’ve had in this area. We had a 98% positive rating to a question about whether our people felt they had been kept informed about business performance during the lockdown. And we had an overall engagement rating of 95%, which is amazing, and testament to all the effort we have put in on engagement and comms.

At the same time, the workload of core activities in HR has continued. All the ongoing initiatives are still happening as usual, with a focus on the key challenges we’re facing. So, my team is still promoting mental health wellbeing, financial wellbeing, and the other campaigns that run as part of our People Strategy.

My message has been that we’re all still working and have a job to do; we’re just doing it remotely. We therefore need to adapt our approach but keep delivering the things we were doing pre-lockdown.

In fact, I’d say we’re doing more than we’ve ever done on engagement and wellbeing because of the way Covid-19 has affected everyone, and we want to make sure people feel connected with the wider business. That’s not just about connecting people to their direct teams and colleagues, but the whole business. So, we’re making more use of a wide range of tools like Yammer and vlogs.

Pictures of Zen’s team building activities (taken before lockdown)

DD: What about the areas that we might assume need to happen in person? Things like team building & meetings, training and the more social aspects of work?

AR: It’s simple for me; we’ve got to evolve and manage through the current situation. There’s no sign it’s going to change in short or even medium-term so we need to adapt.

If I take our Learning & Development delivery for example, the majority of this used to happen face-to-face, but that’s now moved online over a matter of a few weeks. But rather than just recreating things digitally we’ve tried to make sure that it’s still interesting and interactive for colleagues.

Similarly, we’re continuing to do our monthly business bitesize briefings, which used to happen face-to-face. This is about 40 people, typically, where the executive committee provides a business update on progress and plans. Nowadays these events tend to take place via Microsoft Teams with the same Q&A and the same interaction as before.

Yes, it was a bit different and strange at first as people got used to the new format, but now it’s second nature for us. My view is that you can’t stand still and wait to get back into the office. Our customers still need serving and so we still need to be developing and communicating with employees; just using new tools and techniques.

LG: We’ve also seen new things start up like online weekly quiz nights across a lot of the teams and a few social drinks (remotely) on a Friday. In fact, some teams that didn’t use to socialise because they were all over the country are now doing a bit more of it. So, there has been quite a concerted effort at socialising, but in a way that suits people’s home lives.

DD: Could you outline some of the benefits you’ve seen from using Notify?

 LG: For me, it’s really about the ease of use. You need very little training to log into the app and it talks you through it.

I’ve been using the Risk module for a few months. I’ve even shared it with my security team leader who had no formal risk assessment training. They picked it up really easily because of the simplicity and the way it helps guide you.

Notify helps speed things up and not lose key information. It’s invaluable and worth its weight in gold. You get more time back to implement your control measures and actually manage risk

On the Audits and Checklists module, we rolled that out across our People Managers to carry out the Covid-19 questionnaires with their teams right across the business, and we had no issues with them getting up to speed, even though they had never used the software previously.

And these days everyone has an app so Notify gives the best of both worlds with the PC or App version, so we’ve had no problems implementing it.

When we launched Notify, we did it at the same time as outlining to the business that safety is everyone’s responsibility and communicating what we were trying to achieve. We have even added Notify into our Health & Safety policy as the tool they should use.

DD: Has Notify helped you identify and address issues sooner?

 LG: Yes definitely. Our Security team use Notify Incident Management regularly as they do external patrols every day. They report potential hazards much more quickly and then with it being linked to the Action Tracking we can quickly create an action and assign it to the right person or team with a priority on it. We can deal with things much more quickly now.

Actually, Action Tracking works wonders. We’ve even had a person use it for reporting social distancing, where someone wasn’t adhering to the guidance. In this case, it was another tenant that was involved, but because Notify lets you share the notification with people outside the organisation, we could just send the issue to the tenant and follow it up digitally.

AR: I really like the Action Tracking side of Notify, it’s such a good way of making sure things get done.

For me Health & Safety is now in a completely different place to where it was before at Zen.

We had very low reporting and everything was paper-based. If I compare that to now where H&S is fully integrated into our health & wellbeing strategy, it’s been a massive transformation in our culture and attitude to it all.

People know we care about them because it’s visible; it’s out there, and they know they can report incidents and accidents and that things get sorted out. It’s really helped transform the H&S agenda and profile at Zen.

We have had so much great feedback over what we’ve done on H&S in the last couple of years. Credit to Lee for that, but also by having the right tools to report and allocate actions with Notify, this has supported the transformation we wanted to drive.

Notify CEO Duncan Davies – “Our mission is to make a billion people safer at work.”

DD: What do you think of Notify’s mission to make a billion people safer at work?

LG: I think it’s an amazing mission to have.

You look at the stats for last year and I think there were around 600,000 injuries at work in the UK alone. My question is how many of them could have been avoided if businesses were better at reporting and tracking even the minor near misses. As the saying goes: Today’s near-miss is tomorrow’s accident.

By introducing a system like Notify within companies I would like to think that figure would be dramatically decreasing just by making people aware and making it easier to report incidents and act on them. Please keep up the good work!

Find out how Notify can help your business manage the risks of COVID-19… try for free here…

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