YMCA Victoria: Technology coping with covid

YMCA Victoria: Technology coping with covid

167 year-old YMCA Victoria is surviving the existential threat of the pandemic thanks to tech solutions and leadership...

Today YMCA Victoria is a not for profit organisation employing over 5,500 people and providing a wide variety of services including camps, community recreation and sporting facilities, swimming lessons, as well as children’s programs such as before and after school care, and early learning centres from more than 150 locations across the state of Victoria, Australia's most populous.

Naturally the Y today has evolved as society has evolved, and welcomes all genders, races and religions, though its core commitment to supporting and empowering young people is as strong as ever. Safe to say its founder Sir George Williams couldn't have predicted this transformation though he'd surely approve. And he'd be sad to learn that problems like social isolation, youth depression and suicide he set out to address then have only grown, or that a new pandemic would threaten the very continuation of not-for-profit organisations like his.

Williams founded the YMCA in response to the industrial revolution: today we are seeing the third industrial revolution, and the Y is embracing that challenge.

In January 2020 YMCA Victoria brought in Shane Riddle, an experienced ICT professional and CIO, as General Manager of Technology and Strategy to assess its needs and set the organisation up to optimise its services, simplify and strengthen its internal processes and governance, and make sure the Y had the technology and expertise to deliver on its mission.

Then came Covid-19. Government restrictions meant that from March most of the business (Y activities and services being mainly face-to-face) from recreation centres to camps, pools and offices, had to close. The impact was huge: more than 5,200 staff had to be stood down. Shane Riddle's job started to look very different: “I could never have predicted that my first nine months with the Y would see us faced with a pandemic that would see the majority of the business closed! But while it has been a difficult time for the organisation and our 5,500 staff, I am proud of what we’ve been able to achieve and how we have utilised technology to innovate through this tough period.”

In early April, Australia’s Federal Government, introduced the JobKeeper initiative to minimise job losses. “We knew this would be of great assistance for thousands of our staff,” says Riddle. “However it took several weeks to pass JobKeeper through parliament and into legislation.” The details of the process were not clear, nor what the government expected from employers to facilitate the self-nomination process so staff could receive the payment. The Australian Tax Office (ATO) finally released a form, to be collected by the employer, outlining the staff member's nomination. The Y was responsible to hold these forms and advise the ATO of numbers.

Thousands of forms had to be processed, explained, collected, collated and processed into payroll. The process needed to be robust to pass rigorous ATO audit, and flexible enough to accommodate individual changing circumstances. And all this had to be done in short order. “We had just over a week from concept to payroll processing to ensure our people could get the back payment before the end-of-April cutoff. Using a manual approach to this was just not an option for the size of the task and organisation.”

Riddle explains his use of technology tools. “Together with our software partner Barhead, we used Microsoft PowerApps and 365 Dynamics to achieve this: through PowerApps, we built a replica of the ATO form, we emailed our staff their unique encrypted URL to access their form as well as details outlining their individual circumstances in relation to JobKeeper: the link presented the ATO form pre-populated with their information, allowing the staff to simply validate and complete or update any incorrect or missing information and submit it.” 

On submission, a digital signature was created, and copies sent to the staff member and stored in Dynamics. “By using this solution, we were able to automate our processes, reducing human error, admin hours and associated costs” he explains. “Dynamics gave us a platform that our support teams could use and refer to as they addressed queries from staff: across the weekend we asked our staff to review and complete the form. Microsoft Tech for Social Impact were great support to the Y during this rapid development and allowed us to deliver a great platform for our internal support team.” The rapid turnaround had real human impact across the organisation by securing JobKeeper payments for Y staff at a very stressful time, and their feedback bore out their appreciation. 

The technology Shane Riddle put in place has wider benefits for the business, beyond navigating a crisis and ensure staff were able to receive the full government benefit package. It set the organisation on the route to automate its processes reducing human error, make its data more secure, traceable and auditable, and save costs. Within the business as a whole, the success of the exercise raised the profile of the technology team, and gained them a newfound appreciation. “It highlighted the value technology can bring to all of us at the Y, and was a great example of moving towards a more digitally-savvy and agile culture, something many organisations are having to adapt to amidst the new reality of Covid-19.”

In May as the lockdown was eased the Y introduced online bookings as facilities were gradually reopened, with the safety of staff and customers as a priority. Online bookings, perhaps surprisingly, had not previously been attempted: it was clear, however, that a system would have to be put in place to help restrict numbers and manage compliance with government guidelines. “As centres reopened, customers were able to book via their centre’s website, we created a very simple process for the customers to follow the prompts to book the date and time and make payment. The booking system allowed us to control the headcount at our sites as part of the government restrictions while also ensuring that everybody had the same access to the facility in a fair and equitable way.”

This simple strategy resulted in a real boost for the organisation. Since May, more than 200,000 online bookings have been made at the Y's aquatic and health and wellness centres. “We were proud to once again be able to support our community with in-person operations, and be able to provide opportunities for many of our staff to return to work. It also took some financial pressure off the organisation, with increased income,” says Shane Riddle as he prepares to meet the further challenges the pandemic will undoubtedly throw up. Meanwhile, the experience has provided a great example of how technology can sustain a vital social enterprise like the Y and stimulate better service, using digital tools.

Shane Riddle