How HR helped set up Bristol’s NHS Nightingale Hospital

Andrea Young, chief executive, North Bristol NHS Trust, speaking at the opening of Bristol Nightingale Hospital in April. Photo: Ben Birchall/PA Wire/PA Images

All HR teams have had to rise to new challenges in the past weeks, but the HR team at Defence Equipment & Support, part of the Ministry of Defence, has gone the extra mile – supporting the set-up of the NHS Nightingale Hospital in Bristol. Personnel Today speaks to deputy HR director Katie Sloggett.

The coronavirus lockdown period has been a busy one for most HR professionals, but Katie Sloggett and her colleagues have been closer to the front line than many.

Sloggett is deputy director of HR at Defence Equipment & Support (DE&S), a bespoke trading entity of the Ministry of Defence, carrying out procurement and support of everything from “socks to aircraft carriers” for the UK’s armed forces.

DE&S staff include project managers, logistics and procurement professionals, and around 8,000 staff are based at the MoD’s Abbey Wood site near Bristol. There are also around 3,000 other employees based elsewhere in the UK and around the world, including around 1,500 serving military personnel.

Alongside dealing with the challenges of equipping thousands of its own employees to work remotely, the HR team at DE&S has also been supporting Bristol’s NHS Nightingale Hospital, which has been set up in a conference centre at the University of West of England, close to the Abbey Wood site.

“Obviously opening the hospital has involved a massive HR mobilisation, so they approached us to help with project management, recruitment and onboarding,” she explains. There have been 17 DE&S employees supporting the Nightingale set-up since Easter – nine from HR and eight from the corporate solutions team.

Ready to help

Colonel Ashleigh Boreham recently praised the contribution of the armed forces and other MoD employees to the coronavirus effort, and has called the planning and construction of the seven Nightingale hospitals across England and Wales “the biggest mission of his military career”.

This has been reflected in how DE&S employees have stepped up, adds Sloggett. “We asked for volunteers across the workforce who would be happy to work on the Covid response. Any requests for support are triaged to see if we can help and whether we can deliver against our defence priorities.” As well as supporting the hospitals, department staff have been helping in the procurement of ventilators and PPE.

Julie Jordan, deputy HR director for NHS Nightingale Hospital Bristol has been delighted with the support from staff at Abbey Wood. “Their expertise and enthusiasm have been invaluable in helping us to get to where we are today – ready to care for patients with coronavirus if we are needed,” she says.

One of the priorities in mobilising volunteers and key workers in DE&S has been ensuring that data is up to date. Alongside the Nightingale support workers, a number of staff need to physically be on site because of the nature of their work. “We had to identify who our key workers were and issue them with letters so they were able to travel. But otherwise around 90-95% of our workforce has been able to operate from home,” says Sloggett.

Crisis response

The department set up a smarter working initiative around two-and-a-half years ago to enable employees to work from home if needed, but this had to be ramped up in a matter of days, with the IT department sorting out additional secure communications lines into the organisation, and HR and infrastructure teams ensuring that those who required adjustments – such as adaptive chairs – had what they needed.

The HR team is embedded in the crisis response team. The senior team keeps in touch through daily calls, where the focus is beginning to move from crisis management to business resumption. “It feels as though we’re talking more than ever,” she adds. There’s also a daily briefing to staff from the CEO (including video selfies), and because many of the issues covered focus on people, the HR team has fed into that as well. A list of FAQs for staff is constantly updated with the temporary changes made to guidance and policy.

One thing that has helped is widening access to the HR portal – usually only open to managers – to all staff. This remote service has helped feed FAQ themes and reduce the proportion of reactive queries HR has to deal with.

We’ve been trying to capture what has worked well so that we don’t lose that as we resume to the ‘new normal’”

As has been the case for many HR functions, wellbeing has become an increasing focus over recent weeks and DE&S has provided a lot of additional support. Sloggett says: “People are now starting to feel the pressure from having been at home for an extended period of time. We’re all trying to adapt and learn new skills. We’re encouraging those who are struggling to speak up if they find it difficult.”

The 140-strong HR team is understandably also feeling the pressure, with the volume of work increasing significantly in the past six weeks. “It has been all-consuming but we’re now looking at business resumption and the lessons we’ve learned,” she adds.

“I think there have been some good elements such as greater empowerment; our ability to mobilise our employees to work from home, so we’ve been trying to capture what has worked well so that we don’t lose that as we resume to the ‘new normal’.”

The response of employees to the crisis has helped identify some great future talent. “It’s been testing for every aspect of the organisation but there are definitely positives,” she says.

Reputation

“We’ve been able to demonstrate the impact that HR can have – our reputation has increased as we’ve been able to react quickly to what our people need, as well as offer support externally.”

“The HR team has stood up and been willing to be counted every step of the way. HR tends to be thought of for the hygiene or transactional things we do – but our ability to stand up in a crisis, give clarity as far as possible, ask the questions that needed to be raised, and drive a lot of the ‘new normal’ agenda. I believe that DE&S’s response to Covid is well aligned to the defence purpose of protecting UK people, territories, values and interests.”

Sir Simon Bollom, CEO of DE&S, agrees. He says: “Our capability is our people and our HR team has responded extremely well to the crisis by working proactively and at pace, addressing issues, revising policies and guidance that have landed when they are needed.

“They’ve been flexible and absolutely tied into our business priorities through the crisis, with an equal eye on ensuring normal HR business is maintained. There is still a lot to achieve as we now turn our attention to planning for the post-lockdown recovery, but the initial response has been excellent.”

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