‘We’ve had to update guidance daily’: Acas chief executive Susan Clews on the impact of Covid

2020 was a year unlike any other, with the coronavirus pandemic upending the work of government and changing how we live our daily lives. Senior figures from across the civil service tell us how the unprecedented 12 months affected them, and look ahead to 2021
Susan Clews ACAS

By Civil Service World

14 Dec 2020


What are you proudest of Acas achieving in 2020? 

Without hesitation it’s my colleagues in Acas who have made me incredibly proud. The way that they have responded in such a challenging year has been brilliant. Initially that meant working at pace to move from office working to home working, with all the digital challenges that presents. We’ve handled an explosion of demand for our services with employers and workers needing to understand how the pandemic affected their business and work, and what support Acas offers.  

Acas staff have shown remarkable resilience. We’ve been able to scale up our work – often adapting Acas’s online guidance on a daily basis to reflect the changing COVID restrictions. All this has been underpinned by our people and their flexibility. We put the wellbeing of our people at the centre of what we do, and they have supported each other throughout the year – from personal check-ins and virtual team gatherings – to quizzes and craft groups springing up – they have been amazing. 

What was the hardest part of being a leader in 2020? 

A big part of leadership comes from collaboration and innovation – whether that’s with Acas people, colleagues across government, or with external partners and stakeholders. And while online meetings have come on in leaps and bounds in the last few years (and thank goodness for that), sometimes it’s just not the same as being in a room together. There are conversations which are more effective when they happen face to face.

That said, how we have worked with partners, particularly across the civil service family, has been exemplary. We worked on a successful workers’ rights campaign with BEIS, we ran joint webinars with Companies House, HMRC and the Equality, Advisory and Support Service, we have shared messages on conflict and safety at work with HSE, we have worked with DWP on disability rights and we have launched a workplace rights campaign with the Welsh Government. 

What are the main challenges facing Acas in the coming year? 

The main challenge for Acas is meeting customer need. Demand for our services has increased exponentially over the last nine months.  For the year ahead we expect this demand to continue and this puts huge pressure on our people and services and in the current public spending context that means we’ve got to redouble our efforts to do the best we can with our funding, working with BEIS, our sponsor department. 

We’re seeing a rise in demand for dispute resolution services and along with backlogs at the Employment Tribunal this means we’re carrying a high conciliation caseload.  It’s essential Acas can maintain its conciliation service – to save time, cost and stress of a court hearing.   

As well as supporting workers and businesses with COVID impacts at work we’re also playing a part in supporting in the recovery after Covid and we expect to be especially busy here.    

The Acas website has seen traffic up by around 60% on the previous year, and we’ve been highly responsive in updating web advice, covering the issues customers needed to know about, in particular, pay and time off in the pandemic, redundancy, mental health & wellbeing, and safety around returning to the workplace.  Our Helpline has also seen heavy demand, set to answer over 800,000 calls this year. Our training services moved online, and we’ll be training nearly 6,000 people with new courses on topics like remote working, and we’ve upscaled our webinar programme to train over 50,000 people. 

People will have to be more creative about celebrating this year. How will you make the festive period on Zoom special? 

Personally, I am looking forward to some time away from the laptop and with the recent easing of restrictions around Christmas I will be able to meet up with some of my closest family face to face which will be fantastic. 

However, for those we can’t meet up with we will turn to digital channels to keep in touch. Of course, no Christmas party, virtual or otherwise, would be complete without an outfit so I will be digging out that Christmas jumper and you’ve prompted me to consider a festive backdrop for calls. Another idea I heard recently is to hold a virtual cocktail party with others – you choose a cocktail recipe, and share it with the group in advance, so everyone can gather the ingredients and mix their drink together – though clearly not for work calls.


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