The global pandemic COVID-19 has been an unprecedented challenge for all sectors of Scottish society. Along with the three other UK nations, Scotland entered a legally mandated ‘lockdown’ on 23rd March 2020. This lockdown remains in place in May 2020 at the time of writing this article. In Scotland, this has meant that people are only allowed to leave home for: essential work that cannot be done from home, getting food or medical provisions, or daily exercise. It has become mandatory that citizens work from home if it is possible from them to do so, meaning that almost all voluntary and community services have had to deliver solely distance-based models of support.
As the leading national charity dedicated to helping people affected by crime, Victim Support Scotland (VSS) has rapidly adapted as an organisation during the pandemic to ensure that we can continue to support victims and witnesses of crime and to champion their rights. This article explores the extensive digital and structural innovation that VSS has embarked upon, focusing on the areas of care, communication and collaboration.
From the outset of the pandemic and then associated lockdown, it was vitally important to VSS that we continued to provide practical and emotional support to victims and witnesses of crime. While face-to-face services in the community and courts were forced to shut due to the lockdown restrictions, the VSS telephone helpline, webchat service and email support methods have remained open. For the first time, VSS webchat services have extended their hours of operation to include Saturday mornings. The VSS website, Facebook page, Twitter account and LinkedIn account have been updated continuously to keep individuals informed of our services and provide useful news and updates. Tailored website and social media content has been created to provide support and information around emerging crime trends during the pandemic and lockdown, focusing on topics such as fraud, domestic abuse, hate crime, and neighbour disputes.
Dedicated work from staff early into lockdown ensured that all staff and volunteers had the hardware, software and guidance required for secure, home-based working. Staff and volunteers working with service users have continued to work in an empathetic, person-centred way within this new home-based setup. Some service users have opted to receive support by the pre-existing methods of telephone, email, or online webchat. For other service users, their communication needs or preferences have led to support staff and volunteers creatively piloting other distance-based methods of support provision such as text message, WhatsApp, and video calls.
Throughout the pandemic, care about the health, safety and wellbeing of all people connected to VSS has been paramount. Early into the lockdown period, we responsively launched our new expanded Victims’ Fund following extra direct funding from the Scottish Government. This Fund supports victims of crime who are in financial hardship with immediate needs such as food costs, utility bills and funeral expenses. VSS services in each area of Scotland have also developed extensive links to crisis services in their local area and are able to rapidly connect individuals with practical help.
Supporting the mental wellbeing of VSS service users, staff and volunteers during this difficult period of history has been central to VSS’s COVID-19 response. Proactively establishing external partnerships with expert organisations such as NHS Education Scotland has led to the development of tailored online training on topics such as psychological first aid and safeguarding of vulnerable people. This training has supported staff and volunteers with their own mental health, as well as equipping them in their role supporting others.
While communication with service users has taken on new forms, so has everyday communication between VSS colleagues. Team meetings, board meetings, supervision meetings and training courses have taken place as online video meetings using ’Microsoft Teams’. Staff and volunteers have adapted to this virtual space and are learning more every day about the art of running a good online meeting. Staff have also used their creativity to organise virtual tea and coffee breaks and quiz sessions on Microsoft Teams, to replicate the normal companionship that would occur between colleagues having a social chat in the office.
New forms of dialogue have been developed for all staff and volunteers such as weekly email updates from management, and the circulation of a continuously updated ‘Frequently Asked Questions’ document. VSS’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Kate Wallace, has been running a digital ‘CEO Surgery’, where any staff or volunteers can come and chat via a video call. A group of staff have produced a ‘Working from Home’ guide covering everything to do with setting up a home office, using technology and supporting one’s personal wellbeing. Further practical guides have also focused on areas such as video call platforms and cloud storage systems so that staff and volunteers who are less digitally confident feel fully equipped to use new technologies. Staff and volunteers have also been using networking platforms such as ‘Microsoft Yammer’ to share useful resources directly with one another, whether this be a helpful mental health app, an informative podcast, or even just a great mood-boosting piece of music.
The hiring of new staff and volunteers has also taken on new, innovative forms during the pandemic. Interviews of prospective candidates have taken place as online video calls, drawing on best practice guides produced within VSS about conducting effective online interviews. The induction and training of new colleagues has centred around virtual meetings, online training materials and friendly screen-based introductions. Interactive ‘Welcome Sessions’, describing the history and aims of the charity and featuring an introduction from the Chief Executive Officer, have been delivered online for the first time.
As illustrated so far, novel models of internal collaboration have been at the core of the VSS COVID-19 response. Members of staff across all teams and regions have been working together to keep each other updated about changes, produce helpful resources, and support each other’s areas of work. A dedicated ‘Coronavirus Action Team’ has met frequently to coordinate all these organisation-wide efforts.
The pandemic has also led to new forms of collaboration external to VSS across the justice sector. Weekly digital meetings between a wide range of public criminal justice agencies and victim support organisations have allowed for emerging issues to do with crime and justice during the pandemic to be widely highlighted. This sharing of knowledge allows support organisations such as VSS to be highly responsive in their support for individuals affected by certain trends in crime.
VSS has also continued to collaborate with other victim support organisations and to champion the rights of victims and witnesses in Scotland. This has been particularly important in response to criminal justice system changes that have resulted from the pandemic. A key example of joint working between VSS and three other major victim support organisations in Scotland was the release of a first-of-its-kind joint Open Letter calling for the Scottish Government to re-consider allowing jury-less trials to go ahead during lockdown. Jury-less trials were highlighted within this letter as the most workable option available to prevent considerable delays in the court system post-pandemic.
Conclusion: building on organisational innovation post-COVID-19
This article has discussed ways in which during the global COVID-19 pandemic, Victim Support Scotland has creatively adapted and innovated its services to support people affected by crime. Much of the care, communication and collaboration that has taken place over this time has been made easier though the increased availability of digital tools for interacting with service users, colleagues and external stakeholders. However, it is not online methods themselves that have made the VSS COVID-19 response possible. The driving force of innovation has been the resilience, dedication and flexibility of VSS staff, VSS volunteers, and the users of VSS’s services.
Without doubt, the experience gained within VSS to do with hosting and attending online video meetings and using new technologies to provide support will be valuable for the future. Furthermore, the extensive and successful collaboration that VSS has experienced with stakeholders from across Scotland is an excellent precedent for future practice. Civil society organisations and businesses alike have been breaking all kinds of barriers through their creative approaches to handling this unprecedented global crisis. It is now important for these organisations to share their experiences and best practice in the move towards a post-COVID-19 world.