Responding creatively in times of crisis

When the first lockdown was imposed, the Fennies people team knew it had to step up and implement a programme to ensure staff were on top of best practice and properly supported.

The organisation

Privately owned nursery chain Fennies teaches and cares for children under the age of five. It has 11 sites around the south of England predominantly in south London, Surrey and Kent.

Founded in 1992, the business was relaunched in 2017 when co-founder Steven Fenn took over the role of CEO and began an expansion plan which saw the group double in size.

It currently has 420 members of staff working across its nursery settings, a mixture of permanent and casual employees.

The nursery says it prides itself on not only focusing on the child’s experience, but ensuring parents are also provided and cared for.

In 2020 it launched a homemade food service that allows parents to collect freshly cooked meals prepared by an in-house chef when they pick up their children. All of Fennies’ nurseries have been rated Good or Outstanding by Ofsted.


The challenge

When the first national lockdown hit in March 2020, childcare was severely affected. Many nurseries were left unable to function as their facilities could not support social distancing measures and some faced permanent closure.

Research institute Ceeda found that the 2020 summer nursery occupancy stood at just 48%, compared with the average of 77% in spring 2019.  Fennies Nurseries had to continue working even when COVID guidelines were unclear.

The nursery’s head of people and culture, Kirstie Davis, says: “When the parents of children we care for became keyworkers overnight, we had no choice but to step up and provide the necessary support.”As with many employers, the pandemic also put an immense pressure on staff wellbeing.

Nursery staff suddenly found themselves in the position of being frontline workers. “We have a predominately young workforce who have no training or knowledge about how to work in a pandemic, and we just had to tell them we had no choice but to get on with this,” says Davis.

It was vital that any new guidance given to them by the government was correctly communicated to staff.

Davis says: “It had to be personable, every member of our staff had to be sure about the changes being made to everyday functions so that we could continue to work and care for children who needed us.”

“At the beginning of the pandemic nobody really knew what coronavirus was or what the government guidance required staff at the nursery to do,” says Davis. “However, it quickly became apparent that this was a serious situation that would require us to be prepared and structured to get through it.”


The method

The people team at Fennies started a programme that would help staff get to grips with the changing guidelines and help assuage any worries they may have. The programme includes a live weekly webinar and a 24/7 email support hotline.

“The webinars are for everyone, from in-house cleaning to educators and management,” says Davis. Hosted by Davis and internal trainer Jamie Atkins, the webinars take place on Tuesday evenings.

The sessions address the wellbeing of staff and include a live Q&A session where they can privately message any questions. Atkins also goes over the ‘Monday Mantra’, which Davis describes as a way of helping staff get into a positive mindset at the beginning of the week.

An example Monday Mantra was ‘excellence does not require perfection’, which encouraged staff to praise the work they have achieved during the time of a global pandemic.

The weekly webinars also provide staff with the opportunity to send in public shout-outs praising the actions and work of other team members. “This creates a nice sense of community and helps boost morale amongst staff,” Davis says.

A community update email following the webinar is sent out the day after it takes place, including a link to a recording for those
staff members who were unable to attend. “The email covers the key points and the latest news as well as the top five most-asked questions,” says Davis.

The 24/7 email hotline allows staff to ask questions and voice concerns about health and safety regulations when they arise.

“It was important that we showed our staff that we are just as committed to keeping our nurseries up and running as they are, willing to answer any question they may at any time or day,” says Davis.

The leadership team felt the government’s guidelines were ambiguous and were concerned staff would not feel safe working during the pandemic unless guidelines were properly understood.

“The management team had to start thinking ‘three steps ahead’ and upping the ante on safety and wellbeing,” according to Davis. “That has been central to the success of the robust action plan the HR team have set into motion at the nursery,” she says.

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The result

The team at Fennies believes the best consequence of the pandemic has been that they now feel stronger and more adaptable than ever before.

Davis says: “The webinars and online communication have provided a boost in trust and morale among staff members, which has in-turn made us a more desirable place of work.”

The nursery carries out a quarterly survey covering wellbeing, attitudes to work, feeling supported and opportunity for growth. The survey taken at the start of 2021 saw an overall improved score of 12%.

“Fennies is now included as one of the 25 Best Organisations to work for in 2021 in education and training and The South East’s 100 best companies to work for in 2021,” explains Davis.

The webinars have also increased peer-to- peer recognition. “The public shout-outs of praise between staff and the acknowledgment of each other’s work have meant that staff feel that their hard work isn’t going by unnoticed,” says Davis.

Previously, staff recognition would have only been seen in the quarterly staff newsletter. She adds: “It’s become hugely popular and effective, so it’s something employees have told us they want to keep going forward.”

Fennies has also retained all of its staff over the course of the pandemic. Davis says because staff felt safe in the workplace, they were able to continue to provide excellent childcare.

“It’s incredible that the company has not had to make any redundancies, in fact we have continued to recruit. And that was made possible because of how quickly we reacted and relayed information to our staff,” says Davis.

Davis now believes a ‘live’ version of HR could be the future of people management, arguing staff at Fennies responded positively to its coronavirus programmes because they were able to access the HR team at all times of the day, including out of work hours.

“HR doesn’t need to be an instruction manual exercise, but rather a live process where people feel looked after because of the best possible action taken, with speed and I think that’s what our practice has shown,” she says.


This piece appears in full in the March/April 2021 issue of HR magazine. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.