I used to work in an IT department a few years ago and I remember a time when our office had to be evacuated for several days due to a major plumbing fault. This situation meant we had to suddenly work remote and I recollect some of the behaviours and feelings that occurred across our teams during that time. I’ve found the notes of the lessons learnt session we had afterwards to assess what we could have done better, including me in my role as a manager as well as being managed at that time. It was clear that working respectfully and empathetically with colleagues was so important and some of us showed that more than others. But why was that and how can it be applied to the Coronavirus outbreak we now find ourselves in? In terms of people’s behaviours during such a change we find that:
Sudden Change Naturally Brings Anxiety
Coronavirus has brought widespread uncertainty. This uncertainty has generated anxiety in people. This feeling is very real, and a sense of threat is leading to hyper-vigilance. We need to respect that this change of behaviour in people is natural - we resort to our instinct of “fight, flight or freeze” mode when perceived danger appears.
Calmness and Kindness Works Best
The managers who held our team together and who set the best example were those who showed values of calmness and kindness rather that panic and sensationalism. It is important for managers not to have snappy and angry moments, but instead be prepared to listen (without trying to solve) and mediate between different viewpoints across colleagues.
Respect That Different People Have Different Attitudes
We should respect that some people will love the opportunity to be away from work, others will be a bit scared. Most will be in the middle, so it’s important to understand the whole spectrum of behaviour, and that they won’t necessarily be the same as yours. They also depend upon personal circumstances and attitudes to the situation.
So, what did our lessons learnt identify as best practice should the situation arise again. Here are the main points my records showed:
1. Trust Your People
It’s a time to review, revise and agree SMART objectives with colleagues and trust them to work to those. For example, look at the outcomes of their work, not the time they spend at their machine; remote hovering is just as bad as in-office micro-managing.
2. Set Up Team Values and Guiding Principles for the Period
Consider setting “team values” that are developed and agreed by all the team, for example, trust, clarity, connection, calmness, kindness, collaboration, creativity.
3. Regular Communication
Keep team meetings going as well as virtual check-ins, at regular intervals, set in advance, but at times that are agreed by all. In the current situation, these may not be at usual times but later morning times or earlier afternoon times when households are likely to be settled and allow for people’s caring responsibilities.
4. Taking Stock
An unprecedented situation like this means there may be a need to spring into action at points, but it is also important to pause where you can so you can be clear on priorities and the best approach. It’s important to take time when you can so you are be more mindful about what you are doing, what to communicate and anything to put in place.
5. Respect Work/Life Balance
Discourage out of hours meetings (if people choose to send the odd email after kids’ bedtime/health appointments as normal working then ok).
6. Try to reduce feelings of loneliness
Research suggests that working from home has benefits up to two days per week (for those used to being at work mainly full-time), and after that there's feelings of separation and feeling left out. The best colleagues contact people about non-work stuff. Getting in touch with everyone, even a text is important. Particularly important are those who may be recently separated, divorced, on long term leave or bereaved.
7. Remind colleagues and encourage them to use other support available for them
Some organisations have staff helpline/Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP) numbers. Local sickness, support and other policies that will apply – and may well be needed. There are also a range of contact numbers and support groups for those are struggling and feeling overwhelmed or anxious; make a list available for colleagues to use. Don’t forget your own wellbeing too.
8. Listen to tips from colleagues and other current remote workers
Always ask how colleagues are managing working remotely and the useful things they’re trying out that work for them; this may not only help you but helps them feel more engaged. We’re seeing this everywhere with people reaching out, sharing what works for them, and trying out new ways of doing things. There are a host of tips being made generally available from other remote and isolated workers and these are worth looking at and following if they work for you and your team.
9. Self-compassion, empathy and a feeling of hope is key
Taking it easy, especially on yourself. This situation is new to lots of people, and there is plenty we don’t yet know. Don't hold on too tight, people's anxiety is real. It is impossible to set timeframes because we simply don't know them. Remember, this not just affecting your colleagues, but their whole family as part of a national uncertainty. It is difficult, but it will pass. Most importantly.…. be kind to all.
- Looking After You Mental Health Whilst Working During the Coronavirus Outbreak mentalhealth.org.uk/publications/looking-after-your-mental-health-during-coronavirus-outbreak/while-working (Mental Health Foundation)
- Coronavirus and your wellbeing https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/coronavirus/coronavirus-and-your-wellbeing/" \l "collapse6aa35
- COVID-19 Support Pack (Mind Tools) www.mindtools.com/pages/article/covid-19_support_pack.htm