By Emma Bennison
The question I have most frequently been asked throughout the COVID-19 period relates to how BCA has managed to be so agile and to adapt so quickly. The obvious answer is that our organisation is very fortunate that the decision we made three years ago to provide all staff with the option to work remotely has stood us in good stead.
We were already experienced in the use of Zoom; those of us leading teams already understood how to manage and support staff to thrive and be productive from a distance; we had the equipment and systems in place and had implemented strategies to diminish the effects of isolation for our staff. It is on this strong foundation that we have been able to build.
But while remote working has put us ahead of the game, there has been more to it than that. Several of my personal experiences influenced my leadership during this period. First, everyone I spoke to in the lead up to the restrictions being introduced was experiencing the developing crisis very differently, both practically and emotionally. For some, life was continuing as normal. For others, purchasing essential supplies and catching public transport were proving difficult. So, I resolved that we should avoid reliance on a single fix or strategy which would not work for everyone.
The last time I travelled, in mid-March, an airline staff member told me that Hobart airport would have very limited flights by the end of that week. Halfway through my stay in an almost deserted hotel, they began restricting entry to guests only. The day after I returned to Tasmania, the state borders closed, which meant I could not visit family in Brisbane for an indefinite period. These experiences reminded me how unnerving it can be to feel isolated, trapped and disempowered, even though others were far worse off than me. In addition, several people closely associated with our organisation were tested for COVID-19 early on, which made the situation feel even more real.
So as a result, at the centre of our response have been our people – members and all Australians who are blind or vision impaired, staff, volunteers and representatives of our partner organisations. Through our member Happy Hours, support for our local branches, our free membership offer, increased internal and external communication to all our stakeholders and the provision of additional leave and flexible work arrangements, we have put people first.
We have also taken a “business as usual” approach to provide reassurance that we have not gone away and remain committed to delivering on the organisation’s mission.
Our existing remote working arrangements have certainly made this much easier. While we have been forced to postpone or make changes to some of our projects, our individual advocacy service, our systemic advocacy and campaign work, project delivery and peer support have continued.
We have listened openly and acted swiftly to implement new ideas. Members and staff have been empowered to reflect and contribute in a supportive, open and welcoming environment. We have given ourselves permission to fail, which has enabled us to innovate quickly and remain responsive to the suggestions of our members and stakeholders.
It is difficult to reflect on this period without acknowledging the extraordinary advantage that being an organisation led by people who are blind or vision impaired affords us. Our board members are all people who are blind or vision impaired, as well as 75 per cent of staff, myself and one of our two senior managers included. Many of our staff also have lived experience of disability. This has given us immediate and timely access to a diverse group of people, the majority of whom are people with disability. There proposed solutions are informed by their personal experiences and those of their networks. Very few national disability organisations in Australia can say the same.
So, while none of the above strategies are new to our organisation, we have been in a strong position to hone them during these unprecedented times. I am incredibly proud of and thankful to our Board, Staff and the many members who have volunteered time and expertise during this period. I look forward to seeing BCA retain and grow many of the innovations we have put in place as we move beyond COVID-19.