COVID-19 has meant that for most of us, virtual meetings and other remote communication tools have now become the new normal. But for our colleagues in remote communities, these tools have long played an important role in their day to day work.

As Community Engagement launches its “Engaging Differently” web content and resources Camille Brizell, our Engagement Officer in Shetland, explains how finding different ways to engage has long been just part of the job.

As an organisation we’re all adapting and getting used to different ways of working just now. However, video conferencing or communicating through email with colleagues might still seem a bit odd if you’re used to just walking over to their desk and asking them face to face. But in the Local Engagement Office that I work in, that’s been the norm for years. If I wanted to ask Vicky, our team administrator for something, it would be quite a journey for me to walk over to her desk – it’s 210 miles away in Aberdeen! Just popping over to Vicky’s desk would involve crossing the North Sea from my desk in Lerwick. Quite a feat!

Yet distance has never stopped our team from working closely. We’re used to being innovative in how we do things and have always planned ahead. After all, just travelling from one part of Shetland to another can require a lot of planning. The area is approximately 100 miles long from north to south and has 16 inhabited islands, some of which can only be reached by ferry. To get to some of our outer islands it takes two ferries. Then you have to factor in the weather – if you do manage to get to the place that you’re going to for a meeting, will you be able to get home again?

As you can imagine being able to adapt and use different approaches, including the use of technology, has certainly helped to maintain links, especially when the weather has been poor.

Now that everyone is rethinking the way they communicate with others, we’re hoping that our experience here in Shetland, as well as the experiences of others across health and social care, can help support the Community Engagement Directorate’s “Engaging Differently” work.

Engaging differently – one size doesn’t fit all

“Engaging Differently” is a set of web content and resources that does exactly what it says on the tin – it looks at the different ways that we can adapt what we do so that community engagement remains not just possible, but also meaningful, even if it is from a distance. In my role as an Engagement Officer, I’ve always used a range of approaches to involve different audiences. I’ve found that no two communities are alike and no two people are alike; what works for one community or person may not work for another. In her recent blog for Gypsy / Traveller History Month, my colleague Gillian Ventura, who works in Lanarkshire, told us about how important it is to build relationships and trust in order to get communities to engage.

As Engagement Officers, we explore every possibility to support and encourage different communities to engage. We can then understand their needs and provide support for them to make sure that their opinions are heard by our health and social care colleagues.

Engagement might sound complex and in need of some grand solutions. Add in the factor of the pandemic and associated lockdown and it seems even more complex. Technology like MS Teams is helpful when we can’t meet in person but sometimes the solution is much simpler than that and you can make use of what you already have around you.

It’s good to talk

During the pandemic I’ve been supporting work around NHS Shetland’s Respiratory Care Unit. One piece of work was to develop written information for the family and friends of patients being admitted to the Respiratory Care Unit.

Under normal circumstances, we’d gather a small working group together and share printed drafts of information leaflets for discussion. During lockdown, however, this just wasn’t physically possible. While I was able to gather some feedback through emails, there was one member of the public on the group who didn’t have access to the internet. There wasn’t time to post the draft leaflet to her so we did the whole thing by phone.  Every time I think back to this moment, I have a vision of this lady sitting by the phone, writing out the text of the information leaflet word for word as I read it out to her. We were on the phone for a good number of hours over a weekend as the leaflet was needed urgently. For me, it’s important to remain open to using different approaches and keeping in mind traditional methods just as much as new technology. The opinions of those who don’t use computers, conference calls and instant chat messaging on a daily basis are just as important as the opinions of those who do. We need to remember that. Often just a chat with someone on the phone has a lot of value when it comes to finding out how they feel about the healthcare that they’re receiving.


With everything that’s happened over the last few months, it’s strange now to think that before COVID- 19 it was often just me dialling in to a meeting on the mainland via video conference or telephone and I was the only one who was constantly thinking about a plan B if the technology failed. Now, everyone has to find new ways to communicate effectively.

COVID-19 has created many challenges for all of us when it comes to engaging with people, but it is also an opportunity for us to be optimistic. Here in the north, we’ve always risen to the challenges that being so remote and far away from each other has presented; the pandemic has proved that this is something we can all do and it may even have provided us with more effective ways of working. Even though we now need to keep our distance from each other, we have found that by engaging differently, we can overcome any barriers to communication and ensure that we can continue to provide essential support to our communities throughout these challenging times.

Camille Brizell is a Community Engagement Officer in our Community Engagement Directorate’s Shetland Office.

More information

You can find out more about Engaging Differently on the Community Engagement website