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How COVID-19 has changed the way public bodies work

Hello I’m Lucy Armstrong and I’m Chair of the Port of Tyne.

Prior to the start of the COVID pandemic in 2020 the Port of Tyne board, I was probably a fairly standard chairman that, we met face to face in the Port buildings and we did something which was because our board comes from all over the place, we have someone from France, a number of people down in London as well as some of us based locally here in the North East, and we would cram all of our board meetings and sub committee meetings in to a sort of two day period and it was all fairly intense, we liked seeing one another, and it was all pretty efficient. COVID came and suddenly we couldn’t go to the Port.

So the first challenge for me as an individual was to think, how do I demonstrate to my colleagues that I’m supporting them, that I’m appreciative of their work and that I understand they are doing something over and beyond what we would normally expect, and how could I acknowledge to them that I understood we were in a crisis, and I appreciated how they were rising to that challenge.

So whilst the one to one interaction I had with my chief exec on the phone, on Teams, same with the FD probably upped a bit, actually the number of formal meetings I halved. We became more transactional in the meetings because we recognised that you couldn’t spend as much time on the screen, it’s very hard as a Chair to read body language on a screen, it’s very hard actually to Chair. In real life you can stare people out if you want them to shut up, you can swivel away from them. Those kind of techniques, all of that body language technique, almost exhausts when you’re on screen. So I not only halved the number to provide space and time for the executive to get on and to plan and to do. I probably spent a little more time than normal in the early days of the crisis, checking in with each non-exec how they felt about the changes, and as a habit anyway I generally at the end of a meeting asked people individually that we share collectively just very quickly just one good thing about the meeting and one thing we’d do differently. We carried on doing that for the first few months on Zoom, so that we could better at communicating with one another on Zoom.

We’re going to experiment with that until the end of 2021 we’re going to keep checking in wether that’s working for us, wether we need to do something different, but that’s our plan.

Interestingly when we start again, we’ve decided that we must have a restart as a board, and therefore our first meeting is not going to be a meeting we’re going to go for a walk. We’re going to go for a walk along the banks of the River Tyne which is what we’re responsible for, but the reason we’re going for a walk is A it’s easier to have a socially distanced discussing outside and the bio-risks are much lower of the virus, but we’re going for a walk to reconnect with one another as human beings. We are then going to have our formal board meetings back in real life, in a meeting room, but we’re going to keep our subcommittees as completely virtual. One of the things we got wrong I think back in the old world, was by cramming all of our meetings in to two days, there wasn’t actually enough reflection time between subcommittees and those issues coming to the main board. By having our subcommittees virtually they’ll take place maybe two, three weeks before the main board, there isn’t a need to travel, and then there will be time for everybody both on the subcommittee and those who aren’t to reflect on the content of their work, and their opinions, their views, for when we come to the board as a whole.

A constant challenge for a port, is how do we make those walls, how can you go through the walls, how can you make them transparent, and actually the COVID crisis of 2020 and in to 2021, in some respect has exacerbated that, because traditionally what we would have done would be invite people to come and look round the port, because it’s exciting to see a river, it’s exciting to see a pilot boat, it’s exciting to see trains with wood pellet on them, or cranes working, or huge warehouses full of tea or full of Barbour coats or full of product, so one of our challenges is how could we make the port stay alive during a time where nobody could come through the walls including half, or over half of our own colleagues.

The other thing that the Port often does, because we are a trust port, and we hold the river in Trust on behalf of future generations and people of the North East, we would hold annual events public meetings where we would talk about both the financial performance of the commercial side of the organisation, and that wider custodian role, but in fact we are going to do that this summer, so instead of having a face to face meeting, at which typically we’d get the local press, we might get some. councillors, but that’s about it, we’re actually going to do that exclusively online and if it’s anything like some of our neighbouring ports, particularly Blythe a little further up the coast, they got something like 5 or 6 times as many people, they got, I think it was 150 odd people attending their event, so we’re hopeful that actually the. technology will enable multiple ways of listening to and communicating with our different constituencies locally here in the North East and wider afield.

The COVID pandemic has made us realise that the technology does enable us to have footprints elsewhere in the world, we have. joined something called the Connected Ports Initiative and here we are sitting in the North East of England, talking regularly, colleagues talking regularly with those other ports and learning from them all around the world. Something that technology has enabled that we would never have dreamt of doing in the past, and I think the crisis has just accelerated our learning in that regard.