For Ashly Bissen, the job of Communication Coordinator for Home and Community Options has undertaken a number of changes in the wake of COVID-19. What was once a role geared towards marketing, promotion, artistic design, and fundraising has shifted from a primarily external focus to an internal one.
Ashly is working closely with Executive Director, Suzanne Horstman, and HCO’s Management Team as they develop new plans and implement best practices based on directives from the CDC, Minnesota Department of Health, Department of Human Services, and local healthcare providers. As more information is learned about COVID-19, agency processes can change almost daily, and at times it can be a challenge to keep up. “One part of my job that I’ve always enjoyed has been taking complicated concepts and developing ways to share them with others in a simple, engaging, and understandable way.” How she does this now looks a little different, and with A LOT more people. “With COVID-19, I’ve had the opportunity to learn so many new things about the inner workings of our agency and the disability services industry as a whole. Being able to put that knowledge into context with the medical, economic, and social impacts we are seeing in our community has been eye-opening,” she shared. “While I’ve always known that HCO takes a proactive and innovative approach to providing services, it’s been fascinating to see that approach in action firsthand with something like this.”
Staff members, individuals, families, and case managers are turning to the communication office as an information hub, and Ashly has become a one-stop-shop for those seeking information about HCO’s services as it relates to the virus. While she’s still doing some of her typical work, much of what she now handles is managing and routing correspondence across various departments and helping to field questions. What is HCO is doing to protect my loved one? Is anyone ill? How can I communicate with my loved one safely? What does HCO need? What can I do to help?
As directives surrounding COVID-19 change, she is tasked with opening up a dialogue with all of HCO’s stakeholders to convey these changes and make sure everyone in the agency is on the same page. “There will always be nuances to each specific situation as we roll out something new, but it’s helped us provide a bit of consistency where we can in an increasingly inconsistent time,” she said. The temporary change has also helped HCO supervisors keep their focus on the care needs of those HCO serves and implementing critical changes as quickly as possible rather than fielding questions. “If a staff member has a question, they typically go directly to their supervisor with that question. With COVID-19, it’s likely we have a number of staff members across all of our programs who have the same question as well.” HCO’s efforts to centralize where their information comes from has ensured that communication has been consistent and helped them get a better idea of where people are at with processing through that information. “I’ve been able to look for trends in what people want to know, which helps us determine where we as an agency need to provide more information. And because things are moving so fast, we don’t always have the answers right away. We sometimes have to say: That’s a very good question and I don’t know the answer – but we’re going to go and find out.”
The agency’s annual musical (which accounts for a huge percentage of the donations that HCO receives annually) is typically a large part of Ashly’s job. With this year’s musical postponed to 2021, HCO’s approach to fundraising looks very different as well. Many non-profits like HCO are now tasked with exploring other avenues for fundraising and are all vying for the same dollars at the same time. “We want to be sensitive to the fact that many of the families and businesses that have been so generous with HCO in the past may not be in a financial position to support us on the same level this year. There are so many new needs we are facing with COVID-19: PPE shortages, the increased need for service hours with less staff to provide care, and countless new costs without funding sources to pay for them. We’ve had a number of people who would typically contribute to our musical that have still chosen to give to our organization, and we are exploring ideas for other ways that the community can continue to help us meet our mission. Our families and the community as a whole have always been so supportive of HCO, and we are so lucky to have them. I’m optimistic that those who can support us will continue to do so.”
Where she would normally be making musical flyers or calling sponsors about their ticket reservations, much of Ashly’s time these days is spent in conversations with families and staff, helping establish communication surrounding new agency protocols, or talking through future challenges and potential solutions during the pandemic. “I’ve been able to provide a lot of support with the implementation of technology and video conferencing software in a way that we as an agency haven’t used before, which has been really interesting for me to watch play out,” she said. “We were lucky to have been already in the process of establishing these systems shortly before COVID-19 started, and we were able to pivot this project quite quickly to meet very different needs from what was originally intended. Seeing this technology now being used to help our staff hold remote meetings or provide the ability for those we serve to stay connected to each other and their loved ones from afar has been amazing.”
While some of these changes have been easy to see coming, others have come as a surprise. “Professionally speaking, I’ve learned that while being able to help our stakeholders understand what steps we are taking as an agency is extremely important, helping them also understand WHY we are taking those steps has been just as critical. It’s been the catalyst to helping people work through some of their fears and feel confident that we are doing the very best that we can to protect and care for our individuals and our staff,” Ashly said. “There’s been a definitive shift in how I connect with others. The conversations I’m having with people now feel much more real – more authentic,” she shared, “both personally and professionally. By its very nature, this pandemic has taken a lot of control and feelings of safety away from all of us over the past few months. Everyone is at a very different level of understanding, processing, and responding to COVID-19. I’ve enjoyed being able to listen to other people’s concerns and help them work through those feelings. I’ve gotten to know some new people and have also built deeper relationships with others in ways that I wasn’t expecting.”
Who knows when the medical and economic climate will return to some semblance of normal, but in the meantime, HCO staff such as Ashly are proving to be flexible and resilient in these unprecedented times.