Taking On The Challenge Of Networking During A Pandemic

Posted on Friday, December 10, 2021 by Alice Pelliccia-Bourke, Senior Campaigns and Stakeholder Manager, GCS Local, North of EnglandNo comments

Spending almost a full year working on Coronavirus (COVID-19) communications has been tough.

The pandemic has had an undeniable impact on the dynamics of both work life and home life.

Alice Pelliccia-Bourke, Senior Campaigns and Stakeholder Manager, GCS Local, North of England explained that we have been delivering virtual learning and development sessions throughout the pandemic and we link up daily with a vast number of partners in our work across the region.

This could be from local authorities to Public Health England (PHE) teams, from NHS colleagues to chambers of commerce.

We have used this time to build on our existing remote culture of daily team hangouts and check-ins to support new staff in navigating their roles.

Nevertheless, Pelliccia-Bourke felt there was still a gap.

“I realised that along with the many things I have missed over the past eleven months, one thing that I’d really missed professionally was the chance to connect with other people.”

“Certainly, one of my favourite parts of the job has always been getting the chance to meet people from all over the region and hear about their distinct roles and organisations, she added.

Bringing back normal conversations

Virtual training sessions and meetings have been so useful, but they do not lend themselves to networking or having a normal chat. In fact, one of the shifts I have noticed as everything has moved online is that it is really easy for meetings and calls to become wholly functional and operational.

“What I’ve really missed are the chats we used to have while waiting for the kettle to boil or walking out to the sandwich shop. Often some of the best ideas do not come from formal meetings, but rather from a casual discussion that sparks the next piece of work.”

North Connect

With this in mind, she began trialling a simple networking system for comms professionals in northern England in November.

Each month, we match up colleagues who volunteer into pairs. The individuals then set up a time to have a virtual chat. There is no format or agenda, just the opportunity to connect with people across the patch and strengthen working relationships.

We have had over one hundred sign ups from both central and local government, including many comms leads from local authorities.

We are now facilitating over fifty coffee roulettes a month, linking colleagues from all different locations and organisations – from the Lake District National Park Authority to Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Manchester, from the University of York to Doncaster Council.

Karen Johnstone, Head of Communications, Engagement and Marketing, Bury Council and Bury Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) said, “It’s a great way to network with colleagues without even leaving your home! That is important at times like these both from a work perspective but also from a wellbeing perspective too – taking half an hour to have a brew and a natter with a like-minded professional is worth its weight in gold. It feels like a luxury to take the time, but I always feel positive and motivated afterwards and with even more empathy for what we’re all going through at this time.”

Broaden networks or just lighten the load

Her connections have been both eclectic and varied – sometimes there is overlap with a campaign, project or work priority, other times the common ground is how we are managing a new team member remotely or how we are coping with the childcare/work juggle.

The latter have been equally valuable, often even more so, and have done wonders for my creativity and wellbeing.

Finding the time – it is always worth it

Despite Johnstone’s enthusiasm, when the calendar reminders flash up, I still find myself thinking – I really have not got time for just a chat with someone, I have got too much on.

We have got so used to working in a high-paced, demanding environment that it feels like a luxury to be taking this time to network.

But it really is so important to carve out this time. I always benefit so much from connecting with a peer and sharing a bit of normal, pressure-free time, that it leaves me feeling motivated and ready for the next challenge.

The truth is that we rely on strong partnerships and networks to undertake our work, making it so important to have off the clock discussions to generate ideas and connections. One of our key roles is building relationships with local partners and these informal discussions have had an enormous impact on that.

How it is going

Tracy Holmes, Macmillan Communications and Engagement Lead, West Yorkshire & Harrogate NHS said, “It was so great to chat – really good to share experiences and contact details for future. Looking forward to the next connection.”

Steph Cunningham, Head of Communications and Engagement, Doncaster Council also agreed, “It’s been great. We all need that peer support and conversation right now.”

If you have any questions about the initiative or would like to be part of North Connect going forward please email me at alice.pelliccia-bourke@cabinetoffice.gov.uk.

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