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Five year helpline upgrade in five months

Five year helpline upgrade in five months


At this year’s Helplines Partnership AGM, our first-ever virtual AGM, we heard from Lydia Okroj and Zara Gilmour, in our member showcase.

They shared how, as Scotland’s Domestic Abuse and Forced Marriage Helpline they have responded to the pandemic, brought in huge helpline infrastructure changes and support their staff team’s wellbeing.

The helpline before Covid-19

As an organisation, we were entering our fourth year delivering the helpline and were seeing calls steadily increasing, over 30%, year on year.

We anticipated the same level of increase this year, 2020-21.

We had plans in place to bring in a graduate mentoring programme, to support people to come in, learn about the service and the sector and, act as relief workers for the helpline.

We were also developing a training programme, working with women who have experienced domestic abuse to give them the skills and experience to work on the helpline.

One of the things that was really important for us, was to future proof the helpline.

We wanted to make sure that we were in a strong position to deliver a streamlined multi-channel service that meets the needs of callers, call handlers and funders.

Demand during lockdown

Then the pandemic. There was a three-fold impact for us:

  1. The need to establish an offsite service with the telephony and technology to support this
  2. Increased demand for the service
  3. Mitigate the impact on the quality of the service

Initially, we saw a drop in calls to the helpline in the first few weeks of lockdown which means that we were able to focus on putting plans in place to get systems, which up until this point had been very much tied to our physical office, working remotely.

Our call volumes began to increase, in the space of one week we saw the demand for our service increase by 109%. It has now plateaued at just less than 50% increase on last year.

Our team have been fantastic, our call handlers agreed to work an extra hour each shift to increase the helpline’s capacity.

Future-proofing helpline technology

At the 2019 Helplines Partnership Conference, we attended a seminar hosted by The Developer Society.

We took a lot away from that presentation and, being away from the helpline and having time with colleagues we were able to reflect on our service and what we wanted.

We had our contingency plans in place that we’d had to use in the past for instances of bad weather but now we needed something that would enable all our team to access the phone system and other digital tools to deliver our service remotely.

Our contingency plans did allow the team to work remotely, from home, but we needed to have robust systems that allowed us to work longer-term in a distributed way.

Thanks to funding from National Emergency Trust, we were able to speed up our work with The Developer Society to create a streamlined, simple system, build digital resilience, greater autonomy and use cloud-based systems.

We implemented a five-year tech plan in five months. The development work is ongoing, and we are continuing to work with the team to train them on the new systems and procedures.

Supporting and safeguarding the team’s wellbeing

It was important for us to support the team in both the transition to home working and adapting to the new systems.

The team have been amazing in adapting to these changes and the new digital tools and systems we’re using have made tasks simpler.

We’ve adopted an agile, iterative approach, testing, reviewing and tweaking and making changes when we need to before we look at what needs doing next.

It is essential that our team are supported we call and check-in with each team member at the start and end of each shift.

We also encouraged visual handovers, so the team members could see each other over a video call.

It’s the ‘kitchen conversations’ the chats when you are making a cup of tea that the team miss being remote.

To make sure they don’t lose that connection we’ve been holding digital social catch-ups as well as self-care guidance and training.

The team also have access to a health and wellbeing budget – people have chosen to spend it on different things including exercises classes and counselling to help them cope with the impact of the pandemic.

The team hear harrowing things, women who have been living with domestic abuse and domestic violence for a long time are calling us now because their coping mechanisms have been taken away.

Next steps

We will continue to support our team’s health and wellbeing, to support them to support callers.

We know that for many women access to their phone, to make calls has been restricted so being able to access the support and information we offer digitally has become even more important.

We are continuing to explore all the channels available to us and are working to develop innovative ways to deliver vital services to support people in these challenging times.

Scotland’s Domestic Abuse and Forced Marriage Helpline

Scotland’s Domestic Abuse and Forced Marriage Helpline, 0800 027 1234, managed by Scottish Women’s Aid, is here to support anyone with experience of domestic abuse or forced marriage, as well as their family members, friends, colleagues and professionals who support them.

At Helplines Partnership, have been committed to supporting organisations that provide non-face-to-face advice, support and information to improve general wellbeing for over 20 years. We champion the interests of our members and help them to build sustainability and deliver the best service they can for their users.