Providing essential services in lockdown

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By Dr Juliet E. Kele, Research Fellow In HRM
Department of Management and Lloyds Centre for Responsible Business, University of Birmingham

COVID-19 has had a devastating effect on every aspect of life across the UK, including business. For its entrepreneurs and 5.82 million small business owners in particular, these are stressful and uncertain times. And whatever comfort some may look to find in the government’s financial aid proposals, such policies are surrounded in ambiguity.

But many of these smaller businesses are providing essential services. Recent data shows 360,670 organisations in the UK provide community services relating to ‘human health and social work activities’, of which 98.8% comprised of small businesses with less than 50 employees. During any crisis, the most disadvantaged and marginalised individuals become even more vulnerable. With so many of the services and businesses they rely on now in jeopardy, the COVID-19 outbreak will also disproportionately affect society’s most vulnerable.

One such small organisation is Open Wings in Nottingham. This business is a unique, bespoke and person-centred service, helping adults with a wide variety of learning difficulties to access learning and activities in a calm, safe and supportive environment. Started five years ago as a joint venture between two entrepreneurial sisters, Anna and Maria, Open Wings is a great example of positive and responsible business practice in such uncertain times.

While we’re all creatures of habit, for the clients of Open Wings, routine and structure are even more important. So when the sisters were forced to close their centre due to the current pandemic, they realised they’d have to find a different way of working. “For the people that we work with, it’s exposed the fact that they’re always a vulnerable group,” says Anna. “But in particular in a situation like this, they are extra vulnerable.”

So Open Wings made a commitment to their clients to ensure that they have the support they need during the crisis, and have been working even more closely with their parents and carers. Sending regular video messages really helps to lift their spirits. “A lot of them do struggle with mental health and anxiety,” says Anna. “What I’ve said is: ‘I’m available 24/7. If you need me, you can ring or text me any time’. I think for them it’s just knowing that we are there and that I will pick that phone up and ring them back.”

All of Open Wings’ learning activities, such as a cooking class, have been transferred to social media platforms and conducted online. A particular success has been their online choir, which they hope to combine with another Nottingham-based social enterprise, Pulp Friction CIC, to break the Guinness Book of Records for the largest choir ever for adults with learning disabilities. Open Wings are also working with other local learning disability organisations, such as Space Inclusive, who have created a forum for all providers to work together, share ideas and resources and support each other. It’s become a real catalyst for change and enabled collaborative work that may never have happened otherwise.

Social responsibility is at the core of the aims, mission, values and work of Open Wings. Adult learning has been found to improve the social capital and connectedness, health behaviours, skills, and employment outcomes of individuals – each of which has direct positive effects on both physical and mental health. The UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning in its latest Global Report highlighted the interconnected nature between adult learning and education and the ensuing benefits to our health and wellbeing, our work and employment prospects, and our role in civic society. Education is not only a fundamental and empowering human right, it also forms part of a holistic, sustainable development agenda with lasting positive benefits and impact.

So while Covid-19 has exacerbated the economic pressures on Anna and Maria’s livelihoods, they have used the crisis as an opportunity to expand their services and be more innovative, while deepening their collaboration with similar-minded organisations. “I think that for me is part of being responsible,” says Anna. “So that we can make sure that at whatever time, with or without the coronavirus, we are giving our members the best that they could have access to.”

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