Navigating the new normal – Leading a large ECEC business in a post COVID world
The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, stretching back to December 2019, has been challenging for almost all sectors and industries, but may well also be remembered as an event which cemented in the hearts and minds of the Australian public the tremendous role that early childhood education and care (ECEC) plays in supporting children and families.
As many parts of Australia begin to adjust to life post COVID-19 outbreaks, and eye off a 2021 during which restrictions will hopefully continue to ease, we spoke with Warren Bright, CEO of Guardian Childcare and Education, to learn more about how his team worked through the challenges presented by the pandemic, and how a strong focus on recognition and connection has supported the business to emerge relatively unscathed from what has been a very complex year.
Supporting the team
Right from the early days of the pandemic, Mr Bright said, there was a focus on the wellbeing of educators and leaders.
“We knew we needed to support our 3,500 team members through what was going to be a really difficult time. We also knew that consistency of care and relationships was really important for children. So, we went to our centre leaders in the very early days and asked them what they wanted to do, and decided as a group to reduce everyone’s hours so everyone could stay employed and still be paid and children would still see their familiar educators” he explained, outlining the decision which was made to reduce hours across the board, rather than laying off educators completely.
Alongside the reduction in hours, was a strong focus on ensuring teams were able to stay connected with children and families, especially those children who had stopped attending. Guardian was one of the first providers to offer a comprehensive suite of online learning resources, all for free, for families, including regular Zoom video calls, online activities supported by educators and at home learning resources for families. This enabled that connection between educators and their children and families to remain in place.
Guardian also made the decision to offer free access to the Early Childhood Australia Learning Hub, so that educators and leaders could continue to learn and grow during their time away from working directly with children. “We wanted our team members to be able to stay connected to their work as much as possible. We knew that access to professional development was important from our Team Feedback so we made as much available as possible” Mr Bright said.
As lockdowns in various states became more severe, they launched a comprehensive professional development program consisting of dozens of webinars, live Workplace chats and communities of practice to ensure educators could remain connected to their love of teaching and build on their capability and confidence.
Another important source of relief for teams was the availability of Guardian’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and the Guardian One Team Hardship fund, both designed to support team members and their families with any support they needed.
Integral to the success of all the individual measures was a sense of timely, open and honest communication across the board.
“We spent an immense amount of time on letting our teams and families know exactly what was happening.” Mr Bright explained, outlining the need to not only keep people informed, “but to ensure they were still connected with their sense of purpose and love of teaching and educating.”
“We recognised really early on that if we could keep our teams connected to families, children and the impact they have, then we would be able to use, what was a terrible time, to actually produce some really positive outcomes – for children, families and our teams, and this would put us in a really good place in terms of looking after their mental health and wellbeing,” he added.
As restrictions eased, the level of support shifted, to a place of recognition and gratitude. “We are really fortunate, our owners reinvest everything back into the business and so, because we don’t pay dividends, the Board took a decision to make a Thank You payment to every full time and part time team member, we gave every centre money to zhoosh up their team rooms and we announced a significant spend on extra resources and upgrades for all centres.”
Supporting the business
Robust processes and procedures, as well as a strong focus on connection during their time away from the service has meant the return to care has gone well for children, families, and team members….but what about the business itself?
We asked Mr Bright about the impact of the pandemic on the workforce, in terms of retaining part time and casual staff, as well as the impact on occupancy.
Like many businesses during the pandemic, he said, “there’s no doubt that the generosity of the JobSeeker payment has made it more difficult to attract some casuals back to work” which has create a small pain point, “but our full and part time team members literally raced back into our centres, it was fantastic.”
Mr Bright commented “For us, occupancy outside of Victoria is very close to where it was this time last year, and in Victoria, while enrolments and days are increasing quickly, until tours can resume in an unrestricted way, it’s difficult to get a true sense of the numbers”.
When asked about the impact to the business as a collective, and if the roll out of new services during the pandemic had been impacted, Mr Bright indicated that while there has been some disruption, the business as a whole has weathered the storm well.
In 2021, Guardian is on track to launch eight services prior to June, and is projecting “a busy second half of the year for developments and we’re also looking to make more acquisitions in calendar year 2021”
Some of the new build services were to have been opened but were mothballed during the pandemic. For services opened recently the results have continued to be strong. A South Australian service which opened in early March is already seeing occupancy in the 90% most days of the week and a Sydney service is well ahead of expectations.
Another major change, one which is not confined to either Guardian nor the ECEC sector more broadly, is the change in support office structure.
“There’s no expectation that our team will be required to return to the office,” Mr Bright said, noting that “we actually think the business is operating more efficiently with people working remotely. Where we used to have up to 100 people in Bondi, we’ve been averaging in the teens with the changing expectations in terms of working from home.”
“You don’t need to be in the office to be productive, and we have no plans to call teams back into the office the way we used to. Our teams are telling us their work-life balance has improved, their productivity has improved and they are happier, so why would we change what is looking like a winning formula” he continued.
COVID-19 has shifted and challenged norms, and meetings which previously took place in person are now being conducted online, and in a shorter time frame. “We’re really happy measuring people on the outcomes they produce, not the time they spend in the office.”
The one downside is obviously the lack of connection, so a lot of effort has been made to engage in activities such as online trivia nights, virtual games, and opportunities to connect and catch up with others via platforms such as Teams and Zoom.
For more information about Guardian Childcare and Education, please see here.