3 minute read 23 Mar. 2020
Ruth Owen

Ruth Owen - Looking after your people in a crisis

By EY Oceania

Multidisciplinary professional services organization

3 minute read 23 Mar. 2020
Related topics COVID-19

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  • Pandemic planning: Survival through business as unusual

Within a week of becoming Deputy CEO and Chief Operating Officer for the UK’s Jobcentre Plus, Ruth Owen knew that things would be anything but normal.


started in November 2008 and I’d barely got my feet under the desk when we saw pictures of Lehman Brothers workers walking out of their New York offices with their boxes,” the EY Oceania Human Services lead partner says. “We suddenly realised that even though we were in the UK, a severe recession was coming.”

“Jobcentre Plus, which is the equivalent of Australia’s Centrelink; had around 90,000 staff, 800 offices, a budget of £4.5bn and paid benefits of over £130 billion.

“When I started, we were almost at an all-time low in terms of people who were unemployed and claiming benefits – around half a million. Within about six months, that number had doubled. To help all the new jobseekers, I needed people quickly, I needed premises and a different handling model because we wanted to keep everybody actively engaged in looking for work and trainings.

“All the evidence suggests that after six months’ unemployment, customers  tend to experience depression and once you start to experience depression, you stop job seeking and then other health areas deteriorate. So we had to find a way of keeping all customers actively engaged and connected to the labour market or training, and to avoid that downward spiral that leads to economic inactivity and exclusion. Like today, the motto was “whatever it takes…”

“I believe in a big service delivery organisation, you have to get to a place where it's steady, calm and consistent. Everyone needs to come into work every day knowing what they've got to do. I decided my role was going to be an umbrella to the organisation, to protect them from all the craziness that was going on.

“One crucial lesson is that the role of the leader in crisis mode, compared to managers, is to steady the organisation then get on and turn the new way of working into business as usual as quickly as possible, because from a workforce point of view, just dealing with the anxiety of a crisis can eat up all their energy and you never get any work done or help any customers.

“Within six weeks, we had created a whole new hiring scheme. For organisations like ours that needed to quickly add staff, we had to come up with very, very flexible contracts that were expanded and regularly reviewed depending on economic circumstances. The trick was finding flexible contracts that people were prepared to sign.

“We also needed to remain mindful of quality. Although we had to scale-up very quickly, we didn't say that any person is good enough. We tried to maintain quality standards so that the service we were offering was still high. We went through a few instances where we lowered the bar and subsequently regretted it.

“Once people had been hired, we also worked very hard with leadership teams to ensure that even if you were on a fixed-term contract, you felt part of the team. And certainly, the other brilliant thing was capturing all the great ideas that came from these new employees. We wanted to milk every single first impression or query they had about the way we worked and spot opportunities to be better – things that for those of us who had been there years were just the way things work round here.

“I think that organisations need to talk about finding opportunities in a crisis. Obviously, you really need to deal with the here and now, but always look for things that could move your business forward that you thought was going to take you a lot longer.

“For instance, many companies might now be looking to adopt technologies around working from home that might have taken five years in a normal time. In times like this you can push the boundaries of change management.”


A crisis needs to be handled with one eye on dealing with the immediate problems while having another on the opportunities that might emerge.

About this article

By EY Oceania

Multidisciplinary professional services organization

Related topics COVID-19