Leadership lessons from volunteering in the NHS Covid-19 vaccination roll-out

5 minute read

On 4 January 2021, the unwelcome, but necessary, news of a third UK lockdown was announced. This brought with it the immediate closure of schools and universities – not exactly the news you want to hear partway through a one-year MBA at Oxford.

Feeling somewhat disheartened the next morning, I stumbled fortuitously across a request for volunteers to assist the mass vaccination efforts underway in the UK. I registered, motivated by the opportunity to make some contribution (no matter how small) to stemming the Covid-19 pandemic. I also saw a rare opportunity to see inside the operations of the NHS, the fifth biggest employer in the world, with a huge task ahead of it.

The health centre where I volunteered was vaccinating more than 500 individuals (75+ year-olds and essential healthcare workers) daily with the Pfizer vaccine. My role was as a steward, ensuring the safe and efficient flow of individuals to be vaccinated in and out of the health centre.

Riding my bike home from my first volunteering shift, I reflected on the fact that I had seen numerous concepts and theories about leadership and management that we had learnt during Michaelmas term being playing out in the vaccination roll-out.

Agile is a mindset, first

As a management consultant, I have seen numerous multinationals invest millions in large programmes to embed agile mindsets, ways of working and toolkits. From the first minute of my volunteering shift, I could see that everyone involved – from doctors to management – embraced an agile mindset, but without any of the jargon or pretence. It was in the DNA of the NHS. Collaboration, accountability, adaptability – but no glossy posters or training manuals in sight.

Examples included the stand-up at the beginning of each shift, where roles were assigned across volunteers and health practitioners, and important health and safety updates were shared. Roles were also very cross-functional in nature – in one hour I saw a member of the management team delivering vials to doctors, managing the overflowing carpark and cleaning spaces.

The best process design comes from the front line

We had learnt in our Technology and Operations classes that operations are composed of processes. And the mass vaccination is an example of this on a scale I had not witnessed before. There was an unrelenting focus on continuous improvement – anything that could be done to improve the efficiency or safety of the vaccination could save lives in this context. 

I saw first-hand how patients not arriving at their allocated appointment time and a clustering of people with mobility challenges caused queues to build up exponentially. This was countered by the introduction of 20 minutes buffer-time mid-shift to add capacity to the process. 

I also saw how simple process improvements, such as giving every person a sticker with the end-time of their 15-minute observation period, could reduce confusion and simplify the experience for all involved. Only those working on the ‘shop floor’ could make such observations and suggest process improvements.

Purpose wins hearts and minds

In our Organisational Behaviour class, we had debunked the myth that the ‘carrot and stick’ were effective motivators. I saw first-hand how the bigger picture in the work of healthcare practitioners provided a strong sense of intrinsic motivation. This sense of purpose created a highly productive work environment and sense of camaraderie, even more impressive given the high-pressure context and unrelenting workload.

Among the volunteers, I met retirees, Deliveroo drivers, council members, professionals on volunteer leave, and other students. Our purpose was common, yet unspoken. It didn’t matter whether we were making cups of tea and coffee, cleaning surfaces or managing queues – we were guided by an intrinsic purpose. And the instant recognition by way of a simple ‘thank you’ as people left following their vaccination bolstered motivation.

Human (not user) experience matters

Much management literature focuses on designing for the user experience. However, my experience with the NHS reframed this for me. No matter the service or product, at the end of the day we are all human. I saw the impact of the ‘human-first’ approach, as individuals commented they had already heard from friends in the local community of their positive experiences, alleviating a lot of their anxiety about being vaccinated.

When scheduling appointments, individuals were advised to dress warmly as they may need to queue outside and, even inside the centre, windows and doors would be open for ventilation. Numerous people mentioned how grateful they were for such information. They also appreciated the human details – options to book appointments by phone or the website, information booklets that answered FAQs and assistance in booking taxis to get home from the health centre. Such seemingly small details built trust in the NHS, and the vaccine – both very important in ensuring that enough people in the population are vaccinated to curb the virus.

Closing thoughts

I feel incredibly lucky to be able to play a small role in curbing a pandemic that has taken too many lives already. What will stick with me most are the tears and smiles of relief on the faces of so many of the individuals in the minutes after their first Covid-19 vaccination. There was now a small light at the end of the tunnel for some of the most vulnerable in society, many of whom had not seen loved ones, or left their homes, in months.

In terms of my MBA, the experience has brought a new lens through which I can consider the concepts, theories, and case studies for Hilary term. For me, it’s about focusing on how the vocation of management can be a force for good in society, and about looking for opportunities to learn in unexpected places.

Main photo credit: Stephen Cornfield (Unsplash).