Alasdair Stewart heads up Age UK’s national services team, looking after its three large telephone services: the Age UK Advice Line, The Silver Line Helpline and the Telephone Friendship Service.
In this exclusive interview with Third Sector Jobs, we delved into how Age UK’s national telephone services have been impacted by the pandemic, what it’s like to work in the team and the rewarding career opportunities you can apply for right now if you want to make a difference to the lives of older people.
Alasdair - tell us more about the services your team delivers
The Age UK Advice Line runs from 8am to 7pm for older people and their families, friends, carers and other professionals, where we provide advice on a range of issues, from benefit entitlements and how to adapt your house, to sheltered accommodation and health and social care.
Our Silver Line is a 24/7 helpline whereby older people can call any time, day or night, whether it’s just to say “Good morning”, discuss the latest sporting results, or chat about what’s happening on Strictly or the news. For those who are lonely, they know someone is always available for a chat.
Our Telephone Friendship Service matches up an older person with a volunteer ‘friend’ who will call them approximately once a week to talk about shared interests, as well as sometimes new topics they might introduce each other to. Some develop cherished friendships that last for years.
How have these services been affected by the pandemic?
Older people are among the worst affected by the pandemic, with many encouraged to shield, some have mobility issues and rely on online deliveries which were scarce at one point, and many have been stuck indoors without any companionship whatsoever. Where some may have had good social networks, attending lunch clubs and other in-person activities pre-pandemic, none of that was possible anymore so they had to rely on our telephone services.
Alasdair Stewart, head of national services, Age UK
Not surprisingly, we saw an increase in demand for all our telephone services overnight when the pandemic first struck. The number of callers to our Advice Line and Silver Line Helpline doubled on some days, and 400% more people came to our Telephone Friendship Service looking for a telephone friend at the peak, revealing the magnified loneliness issues that already existed.
It’s been a challenging time for our colleagues delivering those services too. The types of calls and issues coming through became more complicated. It wasn’t just a case of understanding the rules around health and social care, for example. We also had to make sense of the government’s changes to the rules within the context of the pandemic.
How did you cope and in what ways did the challenges help you evolve?
We had to think of creative ways to support older people despite the immense pressure on our services. It’s amazing how everyone pulled together as a team. We involved volunteers on the Silver Line helpline for the first time ever. We all moved to working remotely from home so we put in place a brand new telephone system to handle it.
We were fortunate enough to have a number of corporate partners approach us to offer their furloughed staff as volunteers. We gave them basic training and within weeks they were able to hit the ground running on our telephone lines. The callers loved it as they got to speak to a wider range of volunteers across the country from different types of career paths - from customer service reps to TV producers.
We’ve continued to refine and evolve how we onboard new starters as quickly as possible and we now even have members of the public volunteering for our telephone services. It’s so touching to see so many come forward to offer their help.
What is the team culture like?
At the heart of our team culture is the passion we all share for helping older people. We never know what difficult questions may come our way each day by email or telephone, but thanks to our brilliant team and supportive working environment, we all help each other out so that we can offer the very best service possible for those who need us.
Are you recruiting to meet the growing demand?
We thought last year was busy, well this year has been even busier so we’re expanding all of our teams. We are recruiting more advisors for the Advice Line, more staff for the Silver Line Helpline, and our telephone friendship team continues to grow.
We’ve always known a huge number of people across the UK are lonely but the pandemic has increased awareness of the problem and how our services can help, so it’s great that we’ve been able to grow those teams and services to help us help those older people. We’re also investing more into growing the types of activities we provide, such as benefit checks over the telephone instead of face-to-face for those who prefer it.
Want to join the team at Age UK? There are lots of opportunities for people to apply for. Find out more and apply.
Where are the roles based? Are there flexible working options?
Most of the roles in my team are based in Devon or Blackpool. However, we are still working from home at the moment and we plan to move to a hybrid model soon, which will allow more flexibility between office based and home working.
We run national telephone services seven days per week so we are well placed to offer flexible working and part-time working options, including weekend, weekday and evening work, as well as different working patterns to suit your lifestyle. The pandemic has shown we can work effectively from home, but it doesn't suit everyone so we will offer both office and home working options.
Sum up what you think makes Age UK a wonderful workplace.
The brilliant thing about Age UK is that we’re all passionate about our cause. All of our staff are motivated to do everything we can to help older people, whether it be our telephone services team directly delivering our services, or IT, finance and HR staff in the background, everyone has that real focus of either providing direct support to older people and their families or ensuring that our colleagues are empowered to do so in the best way possible.
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