In the latest in our series of interviews with charity leaders blazing a trail with digital  during the pandemic, we spoke to  Alison Lowe, CEO of mental health and wellbeing charity Touchstone, about how she’s led a radical change in how her charity works and improved wellbeing as a result. 

1. Tell us about your role at Touchstone.

I am a very busy CEO of this amazing Mental Health and Wellbeing Charity. Our Head Office is in Leeds but we operate all over West Yorkshire and have just started working in parts of South Yorkshire too. My role entails setting the right values-based culture, understanding and exploiting the strategic environment to deliver 5 strategic business plan objectives as being the partner of choice, delivering high quality and life-affirming services, being a just and learning culture, co-producing and co-designing our services and decisions with the people we serve and finally, recognising the strengths and talents of our staff and giving them the leadership and resources they deserve.

2. You’ve been on a journey with agile working at Touchstone during the pandemic. Tell us what you did and how you did it.

Before COVID-19, I had always been very much of the “old school” of thought that staff had to work from a physical office, five days a week, 9-5. Lockdown showed me that I had been wrong but that I was also missing a trick.

As most of our contracts enabled us to deliver remotely (in lockdown 1) we quickly mobilised our workforce to work from home. This was facilitated by a “lockdown practice day” we had undertaken the week before which meant we had already ordered the laptops and Wi-Fi dongles and done some rudimentary training on Zoom for staff before the lockdown started. What became clear almost from the start was that, putting aside the loss of freedoms and consequent isolation for many, working from home was a massive motivator for staff which made them feel loads more valued and trusted. The result was staff productivity increased and sickness went down.

3. How have you changed as a leader during this time of transition?

I have shifted my thinking and my behaviours especially regarding use of digital. I was a bit of a Luddite in the past but now I try out new platforms and have a go when before I would have asked an administrator to do it for me.

I also realised that I had not been living my values. I had not trusted staff to work from home when they had asked for this at earlier junctures in my career, and I realised that fundamentally this was because of a lack of trust. I feel ashamed to admit it, but I think I thought staff would skive; a deficit view of humanity, I now see.

I have changed now so categorically that Touchstone has developed a new Agile Working Policy, co-produced with staff, which gives everyone the right to ask to work in a more agile way, including working from home, or even Barbados, as one colleague requested!

I have also learned that time at home with your family is a gift and I am making myself spend quality time with my loved ones and actively encouraging all staff to do so too, using YouTube video messages which are heartfelt and empowering, at least that is what staff say.

4. You’ve talked about how leaders need to talk more about mental health with their teams. What’s the best way to do this?

I know how hard it is to be vulnerable, especially when lockdown and the pandemic have really challenged our concept of power and control so much already but a vulnerable leader actually gives others the permission they need to both recognise and respond to their own health and wellbeing needs.

I regularly talk to staff via my YouTube messages, Team Meeting, emails and other communications about how I am feeling. I have always been open about my own mental health and childhood trauma and this has enabled others to feel safe to do the same. We have resourced health and wellbeing in our budgets and we take time to make space for conversations about wellbeing with regular health and wellbeing sessions, such as yoga and Mindfulness, but also unlimited counselling during COVID-19. Fun is also an essential ingredient to a happy and healthy workforce and we have plenty of laughs, and healthy tears to keep us going.

5. Finally, how is your charity planning for the future and what role does digital play?

We have become digitally enabled and that will not change post-pandemic! All staff are now confident users of IT and various packages and this has become embedded within our service delivery too.

With some service users telling us they prefer remote access to services, we are currently reviewing all our service models and expect to embed blended face to face and remote delivery in the majority of our offer; this will widen access, save money on travel and some activities but it will also help save the planet and reduce the health impact of pollutants in the environment too. We are busy co-creating the new world with staff and service users, looking at what else a digital world can help us to develop but also looking at how we will return safely, especially as Coronavirus means some of our colleagues will never return…

In the main though, we are hopeful of a better world, one where we all look after each other a little better than before, and one where hugs return forever.