Guest blog by Dr Caitlin McMullin, Immigration Research Initiative, Concordia University
There is no doubt that the pandemic has hit the community sector hard. Whether it’s the move to working from home, cancellations to events and fundraising activities, or finding new ways to deliver essential services safely, multiple periods of lockdown have been challenging to say the least. When I began a research project in February 2020 about migrant integration services and approaches to co-production with communities in Scotland and Canada, I certainly was not prepared for how my research would be disrupted. As a result, I shifted my project to consider how third sector organisations are adapting to the pandemic and what we can learn as we move forward.
Over the last few months I have been interviewing people working in the area of migrant integration services about how their organisation has adapted to the pandemic, in terms of service delivery and ways of working. I recently published an article entitled “Migrant integration services and coping with the digital divide: challenges and opportunities of the COVID-19 pandemic” that explores some of the emerging results from my research. While I am currently focusing on migrant integration services, these findings are likely to be relevant to third sector organizations working with a range of different communities.
A few common themes have arisen from the conversations I’ve had. First is the issue of lack of adequate access to laptops or smart phones, internet and data. The transition of services (such as employment support, language classes, advice and more social activities) to online delivery risks further isolating service users – and, as many people explained to me, it’s not just the most disadvantaged who miss out. Many families may have one or two devices at home, but because of lockdown, people who have one laptop in the home are now negotiating access between adults distance working or trying to access services and children home schooling. And people who have limited data tend to reserve this to communicate with family back in their home country.
Second, organisations may see a drop in service user engagement because service users don’t feel comfortable with or trust various platforms. For example, one interviewee noted that some migrant groups – particularly asylum seekers who come from repressive regimes – have indicated concerns about data protection and privacy in using some platforms, such as Facebook and Zoom.
Another theme that arose was that moving frontline staff to delivering services from home via videoconferencing creates unexpected challenges as the divide between public and private is breached. Prior to the pandemic, staff were able to separate their work and home life, but new arrangements means that frontline staff and service users must now essentially welcome each other into their homes, which can create awkward dynamics. Providing sensitive support services at a distance also becomes increasingly difficult; as one person told me, “I can’t offer someone a tissue if they’re upset!”
However, it’s not all bad. Some people I’ve spoken to have noted that some services have translated well to online delivery, allowing them to broaden their reach to clients who previously found it difficult to attend in-person services for various reasons. Online service delivery means that services can eliminate the stress and cost of travel, potentially increasing accessibility for some users and reducing the occurrence of cancelled or missed appointments.
So what can we learn from this? I have a few recommendations to help overcome the challenges and benefit from the opportunities of this shift to online service delivery. Training is absolutely key – both for staff and for service users. Training should focus not only on technical skills, but also in helping people to overcome their fear of technology and new platforms. As many people I’ve spoken with attest, we were all a little wary of Zoom at the beginning of the pandemic but as we become used to this new reality, it gets a little easier. Giving people a helping hand when they’re new to digital working can go a long way. In addition, service users need access to devices and data/internet. There are several great programmes that have provided iPads and data packages to people in need, and where resources permit, taking advantage of this will be helpful even as things start opening back up.
And finally, it’s important to remember that not everything can or should be done online. Everyone is doing the best they can, and as we come out the other end of this, many services will be able to go back to normal ways of working. But hopefully we can keep the lessons from 2020 in mind as we consider the possibilities of online service delivery in the future.