ICAS CEO, Bruce Cartwright CA: Reflecting on the lessons of lockdown
Three years on from the first wave of Covid-19, ICAS CEO Bruce Cartwright CA looks back on the pandemic to ask where we go from here
This month marks three years from the first Covid-19 lockdown in the UK. It was such a cataclysmic event we now often talk about our world in terms of pre- and post-pandemic.
The anniversary has made me reflect on what has happened in those intervening years. I saw how the pandemic reshaped ICAS. For example, we moved to online learning overnight. It was something we simply had to do, and our lecturers had to adapt to teach online. Thankfully, they embraced the challenge and there was a strong degree of goodwill from both students and employers.
But the key decision facing us was whether to keep the exams going. We differed from some of our peers, who chose to suspend exams. But we kept a firm lens on the student. Our priority was to keep our student population on track, to give them the chance to pass their exams and qualify at the time they had planned for. We wanted to meet their and their employers’ expectations, and keep their careers on the pre-pandemic trajectory.
We were very much on the front foot, well aware of the risks but also focused on how we could mitigate them. We assessed in detail the factors within our control, and some outside. We had to show our regulators that we had competent processes and procedures for a variety of scenarios, and that we could conduct fair assessments with professional oversight in all circumstances. So we learned to move quickly, adapting to an entirely new logistical process. And we found it brought with it many benefits – and not just digital efficiency. For example, we soon realised the move away from exam centres allowed us to address many of the issues where students required concessions in the assessment environment, which could be more readily delivered remotely.
No going back
Having taken these and other measures we knew the pre-pandemic ICAS no longer existed. Even if we wanted to go back to how we did things before March 2020 – and we do not – I struggle to see how we could. We’ve been formulating our new strategy to set out who and what we want to be by 2030. And central to this is being “digital first” and embracing tech solutions.
Because we can make the training more flexible, we want to be in a position where, if required, somebody could do the entire syllabus online. It’s not our preferred option, but it’s feasible. Traditionally, we’ve operated across the UK. But, in principle, anyone can teach anywhere.
So we have to stay at the top of our game, to grasp new opportunities and maintain what we have. We cannot assume we have a right to exist – we will only continue to do so if we’re doing something powerful for the profession and people consider it to be important. There’s no room for complacency in this new world.
At an operational level, one thing I feel we haven’t quite got right yet is hybrid working. That is a general observation, not one specific to ICAS. A lot of people joined us during the pandemic. If everyone works remotely, do they get involved in the culture and embrace what we stand for? Thinking continues to evolve and the model will be different across the business spectrum. But we need to encourage creativity – we know people learn from personal interactions with others. I believe we, as an organisation, will see an increase in workplace use. We want our staff to come in because they see the value of being there. Hybrid working has many benefits – it is a question of finding that balance. For me, I see the pendulum trending towards more office time from a base that has been weighted towards remote.
There will be greater clarity in time and we need to look at the evidence and listen to our teams. One thing is clear: trust to deliver and responsibility to do so works both ways, as does a contract of employment. Let’s not skirt around that.
Of course, we must never forget the loss of life brought by the pandemic. It may be some time before we truly come to terms with its emotional cost. But if there is one positive development for us all, it would be a greater awareness around mental fitness.
I remember in late 2020, when we knew the new year would be taking us back into lockdown. I could sense people were feeling low and fatigued, myself included. First time around everyone stepped up and adjusted to the new normal. But we could feel the growing frustration as lockdowns were relaxed, then tightened again. But that prompted us to have more honest discussions.
The one thing I think society as a whole became better at during the pandemic was simply asking someone, “How are you today?” – even if that conversation was taking place online. And the question was not being asked with the expectation of hearing a rote “I’m fine” in return, as might have been the case in the past. People are more willing to say if they’re not doing well – they are open to talking about it.
My worry is that as we speed up again, we may not find the time to ask that question. We need to make sure that, amid the tragedy, grief, frustrations and regrets, the past three years leave us with that lasting positive, and very personal, legacy.
Access information and resources at the ICAS mental fitness hub