Out in the field – Laying the foundations for a successful community engagement team away from the office

By Holly Love, Project Director, Communications and Engagement

One of the toughest tasks for me as a community engagement practitioner is to navigate those moments before the field work begins. You’ve got your brief, you know what you have to deliver and your excitement levels are building because you know, in that moment, you are seeing democracy in action. You are about to create a safe space for people to share their views and potentially affect change.

But as tempting as it might be to get out there and start engaging, pausing to plan and establish your team means the difference between success and failure. As I reflect on my time living and working in communities affected by last Summer’s bushfires, here’s what I learned on establishing a community engagement team:

Commit to putting the community at the heart of the project

In fast-moving projects with tight deliverables, the temptation for clients can be to just get started and any time spent talking and listening, is time that’s drawing the program timeline out.

However, where a project is potentially controversial or has a large element of community engagement, it’s vital that the community sits at its heart from the outset. This was no exception for the NSW Government’s Bushfire Clean Up Program. This wasn’t just a series of demolition sites, this was the Government assisting people through an important step in recovery.

In our first internal planning meeting we made a commitment to put the community at the heart of the project. To stop, listen, to go above and beyond to meet their expectations. From that point forward, every new staff member joining the team was briefed in the same way and “this isn’t your usual construction project” became our rallying cry.

Holly Love and Laing O'Rourke Bushfire Clean Up Program

Put your staff’s physical and psychological safety first

Our team was acutely aware that we were about to embark on a highly important, but also highly emotional project. Together, we acknowledged that this was likely going to be one of the toughest things we had all worked on, while also being away from our families, friends, usual routines and support networks.

Before we stepped into the field, we had a conversation as a team about what each other needed to feel physical and psychologically safe – and those things then became non-negotiable. For example, first visits to sites were always done in pairs. If someone stuck their hand up and said they needed to have a day or week at home, we would shuffle things around and facilitate that.

Whether it’s as a team, or just one-on-one conversations with your staff, establishing a commitment to each other’s safety and wellbeing, finding out what that means to everyone, and then delivering on that, is critical to any project’s success.

Set your processes, then approach the work with a mindset of consistently looking for efficiency

A previous manager at the start of a large project once said to me “we just have to start small, think big and change fast” and for years I’ve carried that around on a post-it note inside the cover of my notebook.

A core component to keeping the community at the heart of the project was ensuring we delivered a personalised, yet consistent service. It doesn’t have to be complicated and simple step-by-step instructions will get the ball rolling, but know that it probably isn’t perfect. Test things in the field, ask staff what’s working and what’s not, try new things and incorporate them if they work (and never do them again if they don’t). Approach the rest of the project with a desire to redraft that version of the process, and every subsequent version, until you are working at your most efficient.

Bushfire Clean Up Program NSW

Technology isn’t always the best solution

While it’s tempting to go looking for an app, software or a platform that can fix your problem, technology isn’t always the best solution. Consider the skills and preferences of your team, and deliver a solution that works, in that moment, for them. While over time we moved onto Teams, and our Whatsapp group grew bigger, in the early days the most effective method for planning a week of engaging with residents, across multiple local government areas, was a whiteboard. At that point, everyone would pop into the office of a morning or evening and, as we stood around debriefing and sharing insights, names and locations could be easily be rubbed off and changed. From a safety point of view, it also meant that the entire team were aware of each other’s whereabouts.

Observe each other’s strengths and play to that

Working through the early days of COVID-19 with looming border changes forced us to adapt. Faced with the uncertainty of whether team members from QLD and Victoria would be able to get home on weekends, we quickly changed how we worked as a team, creating two logistics officer positions and playing to each other’s strengths. Rather than field team members organising their own schedules, we now had two team members back at home making outbound calls, googling the most efficient routes to places and scheduling in appointments that we saved on OneDrive so it could be accessed anywhere. Team members no longer felt stretched across multiple skill bases. Those at home could dive deep into logistics, while the field team were freed up to focus on being present and engaging with residents on site.

Debriefs are vital

At the end of the project, it can seem like the last thing on anyone’s mind is spending more time together. There’s families to get back to, normal routines to re-form and a lot of life admin to catch up on. However, debriefs are vital- not just to reflect and learn from our mistakes, but for the team’s mental wellbeing. A 2007 study conducted into nurses working in high-stress environments showed that those who process distress without receiving group support in the workplace, take a year longer to resolve their distress than those who debrief as a group.

A good debrief doesn’t have to be long or complicated. It’s simply about creating a space where everyone feels comfortable sharing their insights- what worked well, what didn’t, what could be changed next time, and what could help us all feel safer. Depending on the project you’ve just completed, it may be worthwhile asking a psychologist or counsellor that specialised in critical incidents to facilitate this session.

Every project, and team will have different needs and deadlines, however acknowledging keeping your customers and team’s wellbeing at the centre of your thinking will ensure a quick set up, and the success of your field team.