For PBNI’s Urban region

I first heard about Coronavirus from a family member who teaches in China in February 2020, who described the lockdown arrangements he and his students were having to live with; remote learning; not leaving their home without essential reason.  I listened at the time with sympathy, yet not for a moment thinking that similar measures would soon affect my own life just a few weeks later.

So as an operational senior manager for the Probation Board for Northern Ireland, with responsibility for 10 area managers, and the delivery of probation services by their teams, the last year has been a challenge. People understandably have wanted certainty, assurance and guidance in a time of great uncertainty and concern.

Staff in PBNI have a ‘can do’ attitude, always wanting to do their best to support service users, and victims of crime. That attitude certainly made my job a lot easier, coupled with the efforts of my area managers fielding so many more queries and questions than usual, and supporting front line staff every day, keeping them motivated, operational and safe. .

Working remotely has had a significant impact on managers’ need to be available to answer multiple queries that would normally organically be dealt with through colleague discussions, whilst balancing home and work demands. My organisation took a very proactive approach to responding to the crisis, trying to always be ahead of the curve, whether that was in terms of IT requirements, directing all who could to work from home, and limiting staff numbers and time in offices so they could prioritise face to face contact with high risk service users.

In parallel the Senior Leadership team worked from the very start on what a recovery plan needed to look like, giving the first 3 months of lockdown (1.0) a feel of ‘fixing the plane whilst flying it’. My communication with my managers became of utmost importance, providing guidance on practice decisions, helping interpret guidance when staff and/or their families developed symptoms of covid, and ensuring that messages issued centrally were clearly understood.   We have never relied so heavily on the support of our Health and Safety Department, our Communications team and our Business Support Managers, along with our Estates Branch, HR colleagues and IT team; everyone has come together and supported one another.

As well as an operational senior manager I also am the lead probation link with our Courts Service in Northern Ireland. I have worked closely with courts colleagues to ensure that probation business continued to progress. I worked with colleagues to ensure that arrest warrants were still possible (which required a face to face session with a judge); that breaches could be dealt with remotely; that Orders were extended that needed to be.

I looked at practice across the UK and Ireland and learned that colleagues in Scotland had their Community Service Orders’ statutory time limits automatically extended under their coronavirus legislation, without the need for Court hearings to extend which is a really interesting development.  During this time the importance of having good working relationships with justice partners has been key.

I am also the lead in PBNI for Community Service. In regular contact with colleagues in neighbouring jurisdictions, we took the difficult decision to pause Community Service until it could be safely re-started using outdoor work opportunities. Some of our Community Service staff were effectively utilised in delivering essential PPE delivery at the start of lockdown to offices, working with senior managers and area managers to assist recovery as soon as possible. It enabled a lot of people to feel part of something bigger – that we were all contributing and supporting one another.

From a personal perspective, life has changed quite a lot for me during this pandemic. I decided to invest a little in working from home (shed to office conversion);  and now prefer a 20 step commute to a 60 miles one, meaning my work/family balance has improved significantly. I took up a couple of new hobbies, including open water swimming which is a great stress buster! I never thought I would yearn for a frosty morning so I could jump in water less than 2 degrees and enjoy it. As I write this I am still shivering from going in at 7am this morning to Lough Neagh, the largest lake in the UK, and am already excited about my next swim later this week! As a senior manager it is good sometimes to clear my head and breathe once in a while.

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