First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Aoife Smith: We are doing well. The first lockdown was a challenge with 3 young kids at home and both parents working full time, but we have found our feet. Setting clear boundaries between working and family time has been really important.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded The GreatCare Co-op.
Aoife Smith: I always had a lot of empathy as a child, which developed into an acute awareness of social injustices into adulthood and an ambition to be involved in changing that. For a decade, I worked as a community development practitioner doing grassroots campaigning with migrant domestic workers who were pushing the boundaries, being brave and creative about fighting for rights and respect. It was during this time that the seeds were sown for setting up The Great Care Co-op. We knew that if we wanted to have great care with great jobs that were paid better, with pensions, security, and valued migrant women, we had to do it ourselves. So after securing funding, that’s what happened. Along with a group of 9 migrant women with decades of care experience, we set up a new model of care and employment, a not for profit social enterprise that reinvests profits back into our mission of delivering great care with great jobs.
We have introduced a radically new model of home care in Ireland. It was born out of two decades of campaigning and fighting for better rights and recognition for migrant women working in care and domestic work in the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland. Despite winning several campaigns and raising the political messages from migrant women employed in care, the jobs and treatment of carers in the heavily profit-driven sector were not improving. The idea to set up a worker-owned model seemed like the only solution. If we wanted to have great care with great jobs, we were going to have to do it ourselves. We secured the funding under the European Social Fund’s gender equality stream and put together a shrewd team of migrant women with the skills, experience, and analysis of home care and developed a prototype, tested it, iterated, and launched The GreatCare Co-op in July.
How does The GreatCare Co-op innovate?
Aoife Smith: The Great Care Co-op is breaking new ground in Ireland at multiple levels. The home care sector in Ireland is dominated by private companies and international franchises, but pay and conditions are poor. Despite being a growth sector, there is a critical labor market shortage. Staff retention and turnover rates are high. The Great Care Coop flips the current model on its head. We are the first carer owned cooperative led by skilled migrant women. Instead of being profit-driven, hierarchical, and task-focused with a remote workforce, our model is not for profit, pro-migrant, pro-worker, and pro care, and based on self-managed teams working locally. It was designed for carers by carers.
It is highly user-centered, and we carried out design sprints, surveys, and interviews with carers, families, and individuals to test our value proposition and iterated based on learnings.
We adapted Buurtzorg’s model of self-managed neighborhood care to suit the Irish context. Buurtzorg’s success in The Netherlands has spread to 25 countries. The Dutch business scaled rapidly from one self-managed team of 4 to over 1000 teams today with 14000 staff. Research showed it has higher staff and client satisfaction scores and has better financial efficiency when compared to traditional home care providers.
We have coupled this with a worker-owned cooperative model to ensure equity in the system. We believe that the people who run care organizations should be the people who give and receive care.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Aoife Smith: In March, we were just about to launch the cooperative then Covid 19 emerged. We had to pivot and delay the launch. Working with older vulnerable adults, we were working in a high-risk group. We needed to assess risk and be certain we had the highest training and safety standards to protect carers and clients. It was the right move. We launched in July. Keeping people safe and well during the pandemic is essential. Our work has taken on increased importance, and with trust in the nursing homes broken, there is increased demand. We need to ensure training and standards are of the highest quality.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Aoife Smith: Yes, we lost revenue and a few clients when we delayed the launch, but it gave us time to learn more about the virus and how it was affecting people, communities, and the care sector.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety?
Aoife Smith: Making sure I have the right support structures around me, working with the Board of directors, and seeking expert advice in an area where needed. To destress after a hectic week, I rely on my yoga. I’ve done it for years, and it is my best friend. Switching off and spending time at home with my family helps keep the balance right too.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Aoife Smith: Homecare in Ireland is a competitive market with international franchises and private providers. Our strength is our story; we are carer owned and run. It is early days for The Great Care Co-op; there has been huge interest from carers who want to work this way. We want to be recognized as the carer’s choice. Where you have great carers, the clients will follow. The successful home care providers will be those that treat their staff well, and that is what we are set up to do.