Imaginative use of collaboration technology during the Covid-19 lockdown has enabled The Salvation Army not only to undertake a digital revamp but also to find ways of helping more of its members have an active voice.
The Christian church and international charity operates in 131 different countries and 61 regions around the world. Its international headquarters in London, along with self-supporting countries, such as the US and Australia, had already migrated to Microsoft's Office 365 platform, which includes the Teams collaboration software.
But the majority of its financially-subsidised territories in Africa, Asia and South America were still using on premise email systems to communicate with the London head office. While global lockdowns have accelerated the rollout process, which is still ongoing, it was no longer possible to send IT professionals abroad to help.
As a result, the organisation provided local support staff with virtual training to push forward an implementation that Salvation Army Commissioner Merle Heatwole describes as having delivered "real benefits". He explains:
It allows for collaboration and the sharing of ideas and best practice that are helpful to our territories around the world, when there were only limited opportunities to do that in the past. Around the world, we have about 150,000 employees and Salvation Army officers, but only about a third were on the official email system. So enabling all of our staff to be connected in this way opens new doors.
One of these doors involves providing people, who in days gone by may not necessarily have had a means to be heard, the chance to be listened to. As Heatwole points out:
This will re-energise the organisation in a couple of ways - technology is something that possibly the younger you are, the more comfortable you feel in participating in its various uses. So it gives us a way to tap into younger people and their input, and also for them to have their voices heard as the senior leadership tends to be older. But there's also an opportunity to make representation more diverse. As a Christian denomination, we're seeing the church growing fastest in our African and Indian territories. In the past, there were limited ways people there could contribute to an international dialogue, so this will level the playing field and enable us to truly reflect the international organisation we are in the decision-making process.
As to how such input will be gathered and collated, the aim is to adopt a model currently employed by the organisation's International IT Council, whose members from 12 territories meet on a virtual basis each month and face-to-face three times per year to determine policy. In order to focus on specific topics, such as security, the Council has also set up a number of workstream-based sub-committees, which take input and recommendations from experts and specialists around the world via virtual meetings. Heatwole says:
It's a way to expand from having a small group of representatives to a much larger one that can feed into recommendations, and to provide opportunities for a much greater level of input from around the world. We see this as likely to happen in other areas beyond IT now that we have the technology to make it work.
Making the vision a reality
To provide employees with the necessary digital skills to both make this vision a reality and enable them to collaborate more effectively in their day-to-day work, the objective is to offer them virtual training on, and about, the Teams platform.
During the early days of lockdown in the UK, HQ-based staff were initially offered 30-minute, daily - now weekly - training sessions on how to use different aspects of Teams as most were only familiar with the Office 365 email system. As the platform is rolled out more widely, the goal is to implement a similar training regime globally, run out of the organisation's international headquarters.
On the one hand, having access to a collaboration system of this type has enabled The Salvation Army to continue providing essential services, such as distributing food and supplying medical care, to those in need in its financially-subsidised territories because head office staff were able to approve resource proposals and process payments.
On the other, it was also possible to continue providing employees with spiritual activities in which to participate. A prayer meeting is held each morning at 7am GMT and a chapel service each Thursday at 9am GMT using Teams, which has enabled many more people to attend than was previously the case. The success of the venture means that such services will continue to be held online even when employees are in a position to voluntarily return to the office on a shift basis (50% of the overall workforce in each shift), a scenario that is tentatively being planned for Monday 13 July, subject to UK government guidelines.
All being well, this exploratory return to office working "will become a more definite thing" from the start of August, says Heatwole, although vulnerable workers will still be permitted to work from home if required. A possible full return to operations could then take place in September depending on circumstances. But unlike some organisations, The Salvation Army has no plans to reduce the size of its head office building. Heatwole explains:
We see a lot of team-building benefits in people having opportunities to have hallway conversations. You can do it in a virtual setting but it's much more difficult - you have to arrange times and your ability to build community is missing to the same degree as in face-to-face sessions.
But that is not to say the organisation will not take advantage of other opportunities to digitise its operations. A key aim, for example, is to migrate all of its systems and processes to the cloud over the next six months in order to ensure future business resilience, with the biggest job expected to be determining how many hard copy files need to be digitised and how best to do it. The move will form an important element in updating its disaster recovery and crisis management plan. As Heatwole says:
Our plans had formerly focused on what would happen if something destroyed the building and where we could relocate to in order to continue operations. We hadn't really considered a situation where we'd be unable to come together for prolonged periods of time, but it'll now become part of our standard plan because it makes sense to be able to work in a virtual as well as a physical reality.
The Salvation Army has managed to turn what was initially a difficult situation into an opportunity to digitise and modernise the organisation, not least by providing a voice to employees from across the world who in the past would not necessarily have had one in order to help better shape its future.