A Digital Upgrade
When COVID-19 hit it presented new challenges to CARAS and the way that we work. We found that whilst we were able to quickly shift our work online, navigating Zoom breakout rooms with determination to keep our activities and support for refugees and asylum seekers across London meaningful, it was difficult to keep beneficiaries and their support networks up-to-date about what’s going on at CARAS. Beneficiaries needed a lot more support and encouragement than usual to access our online services.
We set out on a journey late last year to understand just how we needed to change our communication style to meet these new challenges head-on, and hold our community close at a time of physical distancing. From speaking to our community – beneficiaries, support networks, and staff – we understood that beneficiaries needed an easy-to-use system for information about our changing array of services, allowing them to easily make choices about what they wanted to attend. Their support networks – key workers, foster carers, and others – needed access to this information to support them to attend, and CARAS staff needed an efficient information-sharing and booking system that would save us hours of individual phone calls and WhatsApp messages.
Whilst a CARAS app was where our minds first led us, we quickly realized that user engagement in apps and websites varied significantly, and the best way to ensure our beneficiaries could indicate their ongoing and changing interest in activities was through WhatsApp and SMS messages. We quickly saw that the system we wanted to build should hold our ever-shifting timetable of events, allowing users to choose their preferred method of communication from a diverse set of devices and apps with which they were most likely to engage.
With the wonderful support of CAST’s Explore program, we built a low-fidelity prototype for activity registration and communication, along with a high-fidelity prototype with a live website calendar, which allowed us to pilot a future form of CARAS communication. Both prototypes let beneficiaries and their support networks see all the activities we have at a glance, letting them sign up for classes and reminders in just a few clicks!
The results demonstrated that we were onto a good thing –
“I think the system is excellent. Before I had to ask for information, now CARAS can make sure students know everything before we ask.” (young person)
“As a social worker, I have never seen a system as good as this from an organisation like CARAS.” (social worker)
We’re glad that CAST thought so too, and are thrilled to be working with SIDElabs to build our prototype into the CARAS communication system of tomorrow!
“ I am not tech-savvy” – this is a phrase we hear a lot in charity sector network meetings, and a phrase I still use to this day- a lot! All of a sudden in April 2020 we had to become Zoom experts. And use emojis. We had to learn how to use WhatsApp (I still do not have it on my personal phone) and sound fun, bringing our in-person energy into the virtual space! Some of us may have even practiced a dance or two on Tik Tok. And we have risen to the challenge. Sure, we still start talking whilst on mute. We still do not always set the Zoom sharing settings correctly, and may still not use the correct emoji. But these are small things compared to the huge steps we have taken already!
In March 2020 CARAS ran one computer class, and although the need was known and out there, it was only one class in a week of activities to get young people digitally trained. Prior to COVID, the thought of online activities was low down on our agenda, but suddenly we were faced with a challenge: How can we be a community organisation online? There’s no way it will work!
Yet it had to be done as we headed into lockdown, and the young people we work with rose to the challenge. They joined online classes for school, installed unheard of programmes. Zoom became our community space, and WhatsApp became a space for informal chats. CARAS change had begun, just like in every household across the world.
In a month of hard work, our staff members with the incredible support of partner organisations and the irreplaceable effort of volunteers managed to recreate a full programme with diverse activities: education, sport, wellbeing, arts, social activities, and practical support. All became available online for people to choose from, but we were faced with new challenges. We didn’t realise how much admin time was needed to create virtual programs – time spent on the phone explaining how our activities were still going ahead, how to use Zoom, and reminding people about activities they’d signed up for. Without our physical space, we had to invest time to hold people close to CARAS.
In 2021 we have started a new era, and we’re excited to be working with SIDElabs to make our online work more efficient, allowing us to do more for those we serve. Together we’ll be learning how to communicate more efficiently with our beneficiaries, using tech to make CARAS activities more accessible. This new era may be very uncomfortable, with no change to the uncertainty we feel, but it’s a new era none the less. We know what we need to do, and we are excited to working with SIDElabs to find those answers!