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Alastair Shanks is a man on a mission, building the best homecare business in Guildford and Farnham

Alastair Shanks is a man on a mission, building the best homecare business in Guildford and Farnham

He is one of Right at Home's most experienced and respected franchisees, and a look at how he has conducted his business during COVID will show you why

After leaving university Alastair Shanks joined Unilever’s management development programme and was fast-tracked into a management role. He then joined his father’s engineering business with 13 branches spanning the UK as operations director. However, after seven years he hankered after running his own business.

“I knew I wanted to start my own business but felt that going out completely on my own would be too risky so I started to look at franchise opportunities,” he explained. “Through a franchise matchmaking service, I was introduced to Right at Home. I took to Ken Deary and the team right away and liked the company’s strong ethos and values.

“I was surprised that the care sector was an ideal match for me as I had never considered it. However, I liked the idea of being part of the local community whilst making a worthwhile contribution to the welfare of the elderly.”

He added: “The training was excellent and gave me everything I needed to know about running a homecare business. I was also invited to the international conference in the US and it was great to hear from franchisees there who have been running their businesses for much longer. I became a member of Right at Home’s Franchise Advisory Council that means I have a lot of input into the future development of the franchise network. I have always found that management is open to new ideas and franchisees are actively encouraged to share best practice at our regular meetings.”

Since starting his franchise in June 2012, Alastair has built up his business which is now the second biggest in the network, turning over £1.8m per annum.

He said: “One of the biggest rewards of the business has been the amazing feedback from clients and the feeling that we are really making a difference in people’s lives. The greatest challenge is never letting a customer down; you need to do everything humanly possible to deliver the service as people and their relatives are depending on you.”

Caregivers want more than a job. They want to make a difference in the lives of those in their care

Since starting his Right at Home franchise, Alastair has been a man on a mission and has dedicated himself to building the best homecare business in Guildford and Farnham.

Right at Home offers quality care and companionship in the comfort of each client’s own home. Visits last a minimum of one hour and strong bonds are formed between the caregivers and those they visit. Whilst some people may categorise caring as unskilled labour, those working for Right at Home know they have the unshakable respect of everyone in the business and those they visit, but none more than Alastair himself.

To identify the very long list of skills that caregivers are required to have, Alastair’s recruitment process begins with a simple question, he asks: “Would I trust this person to look after my own mother in her home? We only recruit if the answer is a definite ‘yes’.

“First, all Right at Home caregivers are insured and vetted. Then, each goes through a comprehensive training and orientation process that guides them through our values and standards; going above and beyond the national legal requirements for carer induction training. This training continues throughout their career with us.”

Alastair’s use of the word career might be the most telling – it certainly fits with the Right at Home ethos of being ‘The right people, doing the right things, for the right reasons’.  Certainly, it helps to have a passionately dedicated team of professionals around you when you’re faced with steering a business, and the hundreds of people who depend upon it, through a global pandemic.

“At the start of the year, my 10-year-old daughter asked me about the coronavirus and said she was worried about it,” said Alastair. “Initially, I reasoned ‘well it’s in China, we’ve had lots of these things before, once there are a few cases in Farnham we can start to worry about it’ – not ever thinking that that would become a reality! As it got closer, I remember being at a networking event where everyone was almost comically bumping elbows and tapping shoes instead of handshaking, but as it turns out that was the last event I was at before everything pretty much shut down.”

Worrying about the business and the impact on clients and the care team

“When it was announced that anyone showing symptoms had to isolate for two weeks there was a real concern that we could lose a significant part of our care team at any moment,” he explained. “Add to that the threat of schools closing, when many of our office team and caregivers have younger children, and we busied ourselves carrying out risk assessments around every eventuality we could think of.

“When this all started, we had about 20 clients cancel their care, which was mostly people with lower needs, and some were living with their families who were now around more to support them so felt they could cope without having additional people coming into their homes. We were also running community projects and groups that all had to stop, almost without notice, after five years.

“This was incredibly hard to deal with as we were all so aware of the positive impact it has on so many of the clients, who already feel quite isolated in their lives. However, with the exception of our ‘inclusive cricket’ sessions, we managed to put together Zoom versions of our popular Singing for the Mind, Sunflower Cafe and Love to Move events. The whole team felt the pressure to be thinking long-term how to support this group’s emotional and mental wellbeing while they are isolated at home.”

Communication, planning, preparedness

“The help we received from the Right at Home’s national office was completely invaluable, particularly in terms of interpreting the guidance from the government on PPE and working practices, and then making that all clear to us. This allowed us to confidently carry on as advised, rather than having, even more, to worry about, plan for, or guess solutions for. I’m involved with the Surrey Care Association, and there was much confusion and lack of clarity amongst many of the operators, big and small, who were all desperate for the right guidance. We certainly saw the support we got as a prime example of the power and advantages of being in a franchise network over being on your own. Another brilliant advantage, perhaps even unique to Right at Home, was having a franchisor who bought and paid for a substantial amount of quality PPE for the network, so our caregivers could operate with confidence and our clients could feel protected and reassured,” he added.

The support from the national office also meant that Alastair could confidently communicate with his own team that there was not just a plan for them, but a company-wide plan and a team of people who really had their backs.

The extra mile

“My wife Kate and I sat down at home and discussed what else we could do. With no real idea of how long we would be working in these circumstances, or if indeed things would get a whole lot worse before they got better, we felt it wasn’t enough just to meet expectations,” said Alastair.

“Kate has her own business, but things quickly went pretty quiet for her, as they did for many people. The upside was that we would have Kate as a round-the-clock resource for Right at Home.

“We saw that shopping was one of the biggest concerns for clients – not being able to get out and perhaps not having anyone to ask. We set about gathering a group of local volunteers who wanted to be able to help. We made phone calls to friends and local contacts and put out a few Facebook ads, and we ended up with around 170 people ready to operate a voluntary shopping service. There was quite a mixture of people. Some Rotary Club members, lots of people who were on furlough, some young people – a real slice of the local community. Everyone was DBS checked and trained as well as we could under the circumstances. Soon three or four volunteers were helping Kate onboard new volunteers, but in the end, we had to make a training video for everyone to go through.”

We called it ‘Friends Shop’

“We weren’t the only people across the country trying to do this of course, but we ran into the same problem everyone else was having, which was how to we organise payment for it?” said Alastair. “We can’t really have a group of new volunteers going around town taking money from vulnerable elderly people in their homes. So, we worked out we could use our direct debit system for Right at Home to manage the process. Shopping orders would come through by phone or email and the volunteers would pick everything up, pay for it, deliver it safely, and then we were able to reimburse them within 24 hours. I have links to Farnham Town Council who had set up a helpline for local people and they started to use our set-up to offer the shopping service more widely to meet the demand. At the height of it, we were shopping for around 110 people each week.

“When you’ve got someone vulnerable phoning up to get some help with shopping, it’s not too complicated to get someone to help, but it was solving the payment issue that really made the whole thing work. It relied on the goodwill of the volunteers to pay for the shopping and get refunded by us the following day.”

Alastair was too modest to also say that it worked because he and Kate paid the direct debit charges.

“We are phasing it out now as the demand falls, but we are delighted to be able to say that some wonderful friendships and relationships have been built up between the volunteers and the vulnerable people in the community and so many will continue to offer that kind of practical support on an ongoing basis. With the relationships and trust built up, they are either having a pre-paid card or have a payment transfer set up with the volunteer. The spirit of the Friends Shop lives on!” he continued. 

Things to look out for

Alastair first trained to be a ‘Dementia Friends Champion’ in March 2013 and has since delivered around 100 training sessions in the community.

He said: “I’ve been involved with an Alzheimer’s Society initiative for a number of years now and I have heard some really heartbreaking stories about people with dementia being shouted at, and even threatened in the street or in shops because they haven’t been social distancing properly. I would just ask that people think before lashing out – that person could be incredible scared or confused and may not even be aware of what is going on in regard to COVID. We’ve been working hard to promote this message locally and have tried to encourage those who are in this vulnerable category to wear sunflower lanyards when out, which is part of a recognised ‘hidden disability’ awareness scheme. A little bit of compassion can go such a long way.”

Impact on the Right at Home Guildford and Farnham team

“In a way, I think the whole experience has actually brought the team closer together,” he said. “Seeing everyone working from home over Zoom and seeing family life going on all around them. Some people were certainly pretty emotional at the start of it – a mixture of what’s happening in the world, and also the reality of being at risk being out in the community whilst others aren’t. We had a handful of caregivers who were shielding or shielding with relatives – fortunately, none of the team has tested positive for the virus, although one caregiver’s husband wasn’t so lucky and was seriously ill in hospital for 12 weeks and is only just home and on oxygen. So yes, team spirit is good, and everyone feels valued and optimistic, but there is no complacency – this has had a devastating impact on people all over the world and we all need to do our bit to get through it.”

CQC outstanding

As if anyone needed further proof of Right at Home Guildford and Farnham being outstanding, in their report, the CQC inspectors said they had found ‘people received an exceptionally personalised service’ and that ‘there was a great commitment to ensuring people lived fulfilling lives’. They also described how they ‘found numerous examples of where staff had gone the extra mile to support people to achieve their goals and respond to their needs’ and that the ‘service had an active presence in the local community’.

“I cannot describe how proud I feel of the whole team,” said Alastair. “This achievement is just further testament to how hard they work and how much they care for each and every one of our clients. This special relationship our caregivers have with their clients, and the effort they make to ensure everybody is treated respectfully, and as the individual they are, really leapt out of the report. That is just wonderful to read from a third party because it represents precisely what we are all about.”

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