– Unplugged yet connected – the community builds –

CU21 Sally and deckchairBy Sally Northeast

The past couple of weeks at work have been a stark reminder of why Comms Unplugged is so needed. As a busy NHS comms and engagement leader, still working mainly at home, I have once again found myself largely chained to my desk staring at people in little boxes on my screen in between trying to stem the tsunami of emails gushing into my inbox. Oh and trying to fit in some actual work too.

Rewind just a short while to when I was as far away from that scenario as it’s possible to be. I was in a field on a campsite in the beautiful Purbeck area of Dorset. My phone was only used to take photos and check people had sent in their lateral flow test negative results. There were no other screens in sight.

What I could see all around me though were people laughing, hugging, concentrating, listening, learning, eating, drinking, singing, walking, sewing and a whole host of other things. But more than anything the people with me in the field were connecting.

CU21 Holly Louisa hugBecause after the 18 months we’ve had, the burning desire to be with people was almost palpable under that wide open Dorset sky. With the grass under our feet, the trees all around us and the complete absence of the Teams call tune, we were able to just be – together – for a precious 48 hours.

Around 40% of our attendees were new, stepping slightly tentatively into this unusual bubble we’d created. It didn’t take long for them to feel right at home though, welcomed into the warm embrace of our wonderful community of unpluggers. One of our newbies said on WhatsApp later: “I felt like all of us were there on an event that had been organised by ‘our’ employer, like we were all part of the same organisation.”

This sums up beautifully for me why Comms Unplugged is different from other events. The sense of community, caring, curiosity and connection is at the heart of the ethos and somehow comes through strongly every year, whichever combination of people pitches up.

Once again we were so proud of our fantastic programme, featuring people who gave their time and expertise for free to benefit others. And that’s another thing about Comms Unplugged – the giving is strong with this lot! £1,000 raised for our charities Dorset Mind and Dorset Wildlife Trust in our epic raffle. Two scholarship places funded and enjoyed by people who might otherwise not have got there. Support from a fantastic group of sponsors who believe in what we do. Care, attention, advice – all given to each other by this ever-growing, wonderful group of comms people who’ve all found their way to the field looking for something different.

CU21 Bruce and DarrenAnd it’s certainly that! Where else are you listening to workplace culture guru Bruce Daisley one minute and forest bathing the next? Hearing the powerful brand story of the RNLI and later enjoying wood-fired pizza cooked in the open air? Building a tower from dry spaghetti and marshmallows then relaxing with a spot of needlework or singing in harmony.

The combination of professional learning and wellbeing activities is a winner because it demonstrates that all this stuff is important in helping us be the best we can be at work. You can have all the pro comms skills in the world but if you’re anxious and stressed they’ll be no good to you at all.

I completely loved being back in the field this year – there were too many highlights to list. I will give a huge shout out to the CU choir that our music man Tom Clements and I created in our singing workshop though – what a wonderful way to spend an hour!CU21 Sally and Tom

But, ironically, one of my favourite things happens after we’ve all headed home and are pondering what the experience has meant to us and how to process it. A WhatsApp group springs up each year and people continue to share, connect, communicate and support each other. Already the CU21 group members have shown off the embroidery they started in the field and finished at home. They’ve talked about work challenges and asked for advice. They’ve given each other tips and they’ve relived memories from the field.

Once again a community has been born. Or rather, it continues to grow and strengthen as more people start to understand the magic (or science?) that the Comms Unplugged ethos brings.

CU21 team unplugged at the beachI’m biased of course – I love this thing that Georgia, Darren and I have created and it continues to bring me joy every day. So how about I share a few of the comments we’ve had in our feedback? Because it’s clear that the formula we’ve cooked up here is really making a difference.

Thank you unpluggers old and new for being open to something a bit left field (!). You help make it what it is, and your comments tell the real story. #weareunplugged

“Love love love it! Nothing more to say.”

“It’s just so different in the best way possible.”

“Such a friendly, open atmosphere. It was an eye opener but it was the perfect way to make those initial connections.”

“The whole atmosphere was relaxed, friendly, and welcoming. It’s a wonderful community and something pretty special.”

“I’ve come away feeling reset. I’ve learnt so many great practical things to take forward professionally as well as taking dedicated time to improve my wellbeing and relax.”CU21 unpluggers and deckchair

“So much humanity and warmth in the field.”

“It is a very affirming event and probably the only event I come away from with ideas and renewed sense of motivation!”

“I’m so grateful for the CU community. I feel like I have a network of friends that I can call on for support, career advice and a good laugh.”

“I came looking for inspiration for my work and new ways to invest in my wellbeing. I left with that and a whole lot more. I am on a journey struggling with well over a decade of PTSD. #CU21 was a turning point for me. There was something magical about the field and my fellow unpluggers. I cried freely for the first time in 15 years and I am looking to the future with hope.”

Sally Northeast is Deputy Director of OD, Participation and Communications at Dorset HealthCare and one-third of #teamunplugged. Say hi to her over on Twitter: @salzasal