In March 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic closed down many workplaces across Canada, Connect Counselling (which provides counselling for the community) faced much uncertainty.
Connect Counselling (referred to as Connect) provides affordable and professional counselling services to adults, seniors, children and families. They offer counselling to groups, individuals and couples to meet community needs. Many services are available regardless of income or ability to pay, supported by Government contracts.
The organization has been operating for nearly 35 years and provides excellent, in-person services to meet the diverse needs in the community. While some of the expected technology (word processing, email, etc) was being used, almost the entire organization was running smoothly using analog tools. Even counselling appointments were booked on a paper calendar!
COVID Forced Some Fast Changes
Scheduling, counselling appointments, and now several months later, even strategic planning with full board and staff involvement, transitioned to digital.
The transition happened faster than anyone could have expected and has given this social enterprise a different perspective of the future.
Quick Changes to Enable Remote Delivery
In mid-March (2020), Connect faced immediate workplace closure to meet provincial health guidelines to protect both its staff and stakeholders. Typical of many small social purpose organizations and social enterprise, they were bursting at the seams in their current space and maximizing every square foot available.
This didn’t translate well when the province recommended people stay two metres apart.
Staff were sent home. Programs temporarily halted. Connect needed changes quickly in order to continue to serve their community.
Bye Bye Pencils
In mid-February, Purppl and Connect began working together, a program delivered in partnership with Valley First. One of the earliest priorities was modernizing some of the technology. The first area of focus was scheduling and online appointment booking.
After a quick scan of technology for medical professionals, Connect decided on Jane, a popular online platform for health and wellness practitioners that makes it “simple to book, chart, schedule, bill and get paid.”
Together we began a rollout plan for a transition of the scheduling and booking. In mid-March, the timeline to implement went from months to days.
In the first week of the lockdown, the management team coordinated with staff members over the phone to coordinate client needs and concerns. Some staff continued to have to visit the office to check voicemail, update the schedule (on paper) and communicate it to the rest of the team.
Transitioning to work-from-home (WFH) wasn’t possible for several staff members because desktop computers anchored their work to the office. We asked around for help. Several founders of local tech companies quickly donated used laptops to enable Connect to go remote.
While video had been an option for years to enable remote counselling appointments, it wasn’t part of their culture. Connect prided itself on its personal relationships between staff, counsellors, and the community they serve. There was some scepticism that group sessions via video could achieve results for clients.
COVID forced fast changes. Individual counselling appointments immediately transitioned to telephone appointments. As global use of video skyrocketed, so did the questions about security and privacy. Doxy.me was the answer – used by medical professionals and compliant with Canadian privacy laws.
Within one week of closing, Connect was up and running using Doxy.me, which enabled the counselling team to see clients.
Behind the scenes, client scheduling was still a problem. The team immediately decided to implement Jane, a client scheduling tool, to immediately transition to an online calendar available for all staff to see and update.
This enabled counsellors and staff to see a shared calendar reducing the need to go in to the office and enabling a smoother client experience while reducing administrative time.
Connect anticipated a months, or perhaps even years, long process to change the organizational culture in support of online delivery; the transition took place in a matter of days and weeks.
Not only was scheduling moved online, so was program delivery. A massive and productive shift.
Shifting Strategy to Impact
At the beginning of our work together, Connect and Purppl knew that the board and staff needed to come together to build a new strategy for the organization.
COVID created some very urgent operational changes. It also amplified the need to address the organizational strategy.
While not critical of their past processes, Connect shared some limitations about strategic processes they had been through before:
- Staff and Board had limited engagement with each other in the process
- The process created a lengthy document that few people read
- Near term objectives and decisions were rarely anchored in the strategy
“Previous strategic planning meetings did not have the follow through so nothing was achieved.”
Typical strategic planning facilitation was further challenged by the limitations of COVID. Something new was needed.
Neither Connect nor Purppl really knew what to do to take this process online. We did some learning together.
Here are the actions we took together to facilitate an inclusive, online process:
- Pre-facilitation discovery session with Executive Director, Board Chair and Vice Chair
- Pre-facilitation survey to staff and board with a 80% response rate
- Pre-facilitation collaboration to establish direction for an impact statement
- Two facilitated, multi-hour, online sessions including board and staff to identify strategic priorities and initial Objectives and Key Results (OKRs).
- Breakout sessions during the group facilitations to enable individual contributions and enable team building
- Post-facilitation feedback survey
- Co-creation of a one page plan
Facilitating in an online environment with a group of 15+ of staff and board members was intimidating for Connect, and for Purppl. It’s not an environment either of us were very comfortable in.
The results were tremendous.
How was it different?
- “All ideas and opinions were valued, did not get bogged down on details, good to use theory of change, good energy. It’s going to be fantastic to have a one page plan to keep the organization moving forward.”
- “Getting to know the Board members in a different way and working collaboratively with them was a real ‘coming together’ moment. We’re now focused on a common goal to move forward.”
From Strategy to Impact to Implementation
Purpp and Connect worked together over a period of about eight weeks to modify their strategic planning to be actionable, inclusive, anchored in impact, and facilitated online.
Clarity was created first by agreeing on an impact statement. This statement, a part of a broader Theory of Change, is typically more focused than an organization’s mission statement.
For Connect, the new impact statement is: “Improved overall mental health and well being of all residents of the Central Okanagan who seek support, leading to measurably stronger, healthier communities.”
The refreshed impact statement combined with the information received during the group sessions resulted in four key strategic goals that will focus Connect’s activities over the next three years.
Those four strategic goals guide quarterly Objectives and measurable Key Results (OKRs) which are set by staff. Every set of actions has key staff or board members assigned to it to give accountability for follow through. These transparent, measurable OKRs keep staff focused and accountable on activities that are aligned with the impact statement.
All of this is communicated on a one page plan.
“We identified the most immediate achievable goals, and received a commitment as to who was going to initiate the process towards achieving those goals. Previous strategic planning meetings did not have the follow through so nothing was achieved.”
Operationally, the impact statement is also supported by a customized Decision Matrix that enables staff to use a repeatable process to make decisions. Consistent criteria, both impact criteria and sustainability criteria, are used when analyzing key operational and strategic decisions.
Staff score each criteria on a scale of 1 to 5 and use this scoring system to understand and communicate clear decisions within the team.
The Hard Work Continues
COVID forced this analog organization to go digital. Moving operations and an impact planning process online within six months was not part of a pre-COVID plan. In the coming weeks, Connect will also also some of their fee-for-service counselling clients to not only schedule online, but also pay online.
The organization has improved its ability not only to deliver on its impact, but also to build sustainability and support a diverse staff and stakeholders.
Online delivery of programs and operations will never replace in person delivery, but it will always be part of the future of Connect. The culture has changed, and so has the future.
About Connect Counselling
Connect provides counselling for the community.
All counselling services are strictly confidential and are provided by qualified and experienced clinical counsellors with a Master’s degree in counselling. Connect strives to be a safe, open, inclusive, non-discriminatory space for everyone no matter their sexual orientation or gender identity.
The Connect Counselling (Kelowna Family Service Centre Society) was incorporated as a non-profit charitable society in November 1986, spearheaded by the late Dr. Frank McNair. In 1987, the Kelowna Family Centre was awarded its first contract with the Ministry of Health.
The focus of the Centre has always been one of providing counselling and education – making a difference in the lives of individuals, families, and the community.
The agency is respected for its accountability to the community, responsiveness to community needs, and collaboration with other community services. It is a welcoming, safe and confidential environment.