“Where have you been, Plackard?” asked Sir Trevor Longstay.
“You may recall that you ordered me to self-isolate and work from home in March,” Plackard replied. “Even though I had no symptoms,” he was tempted to add.
“One can never be too careful,” Longstay said. “Anyway, you’re back now.”
Plackard cut short the pleasantries. He had a virtual meeting to run.
“I think you’re on mute, Sir Trevor,” he said. “Press the little microphone symbol at the bottom of the screen.”
“Don’t be ridiculous man. How are we having this conversation if you can’t hear me?”
“Just a moment,” said Plackard, getting up and rounding the thin partition that separated his desk from Sir Trevor’s.
“You just need to click here,” Plackard said, pointing to the screen.
Blithering’s director of pandemic emergency communications left Sir Trevor rubbing his computer with a sanitary wipe and returned to his desk to restart the Zoom call.
“Can everyone hear me?” he asked. The attendees confirmed that they could.
A head appeared above a partition in the corner of the room. It was Dr David Rummage, Blithering’s interim director of public health.
“This is ridiculous. We can hear each other perfectly well without being online. We’re all in the same bloody room,” Rummage said.
“We need to follow the guidelines. No face to face meetings,” Plackard replied. “Virtual is the new normal. We need to let go of old meeting paradigms and embrace the medium, which is why I’ve asked Bev Heaver to talk to us interactively today. Are you there, Bev?”
Blithering’s chief transformation officer waved from the other side of the office.
“I can hear you loud and clear, Martin,” she said.
“You’re not coming through my headphones. You need to find the microphone icon, bottom left of your screen,” said Plackard.
Embracing the medium
While Heaver embraced the medium and tried to persuade it to share her screen, Plackard explained that everyone needed to be online so that they could record the call for the benefit – or “learning” – of those who had been unable to attend the live event. “No one will ever have to miss a meeting again,” he said.
Bev Heaver spent the next hour illustrating how the pandemic had created unprecedented opportunities for new slides and diagrams.
Collaboration would in future both be asynchronous and synchronous, she said, but what would that mean for “the conversation”?
There were many other questions. She appeared to have thought of them all.
How would leaders themselves need to evolve? Was it possible to be digital in a non-binary world? Could you have a burning platform online and would it be safe?
How could change agents use the new media to lead from the bottom, the middle, the edge or all three places at once?
Was there a role for kindness? What would that look like? What should be the organising principle for managing complexity and how do we get everyone in the same room to co-design it?
Would inequalities of technical literacy make it harder to include some people than others?
As if to illustrate the last point, Heaver’s slide deck suddenly disappeared, and an image of a pack of playing cards appeared in its place. Rummage muttered an apology and closed his solitaire game.
Plackard seized his opportunity before Heaver could regain control of her slides, and announced a comfort break.
The new usual
The afternoon session started with a lively discussion about whether business as usual was still a relevant term. Bev Heaver thought not and suggested that we refer instead to “the new usual” to signal our wholesale rejection of the old version. Rummage asked what would happen when, after a few months of the new usual, the novelty inevitably wore off: “Would we revert to ‘usual’ or call it something else? Perhaps we could bring back ‘normal’.”
Heaver thought this was an important enough question to warrant breaking out the flip chart paper, but Sir Trevor intervened to keep the agenda on track.
Passionate about disapproval
He had important news of his own that he was keen to share. He revealed that during lockdown he had embarked on “a journey of personal activism” to help the disadvantaged. His #VerySeniorLivesMatter campaign aimed, he said, to end discrimination against and negative perceptions of very senior managers in the public sector.
This group of predominantly white males were, he explained, subjected to daily acts of interference and humiliation by politicians and civil servants on the one hand, and frequently undermined by their junior colleagues on the other. Very senior individuals were subject to constant scrutiny and they were unfairly blamed when things went wrong. Often they were forced out of their jobs into other highly paid positions where the cycle of suffering and despair began again.
Plackard commiserated with Sir Trevor but wondered aloud whether this was the right time to highlight the plight of senior managers, with the world in the shadow of various existential crises and with other, equally worthy causes in the offing.
Sir Trevor disagreed. “I cannot stand by and witness injustice without registering strong disapproval,” he said, making the depth of his feeling clear.
This won’t hurt a bit
It was left to David Rummage to brief the executive team on plans to put local GP networks in charge of delivering the imminent Covid-19 vaccine.
Rummage explained that the funds would be held by the local integrated care system (ICS).
“It’s important to have a process with appropriate governance, assurance, management controls and checkpoints. Otherwise the money might reach practices too fast,” he said.
“Yes, and ideally a process dominated by secondary care providers,” said Sir Trevor, approvingly.
There were still a few small hurdles to overcome, Rummage admitted: logistics, maintaining existing services alongside a full-time vaccination programme (including critical form-filling and reporting functions), the availability of suitable premises, exhaustion, a demoralised workforce.
But GPs were used to working under these conditions and enjoyed problem-solving, he added. The popular new GP networks would be a big help too.
“PCNs are definitely the way forward, particularly in those areas where the practices are actually talking to each other,” Rummage said.
“It will be a good test of the system’s ability to collaborate to get things done,” said Sir Trevor. “And if, heaven forbid, things don’t go according to plan…” he tailed off.
“We’ll be right behind our GPs,” Plackard said. “At a suitably safe distance, of course.”
“Exactly, Plackard,” said Sir Trevor. “Safety is always our first concern.”
(c) 2020 Julian Patterson