Take a few minutes to think back to early March, everyone was going to work as usual, complaining about the traffic and all those other issues which beset our daily lives, but no one was complaining that they were not looking forward to being confined at home for several weeks on end with no idea of when it would end, simply because we all had no idea what was coming.
In an ideal world, most of us like to plan ahead, we like to know what is in store in the week(s) ahead, so this totally unusual open-end situation constitutes a really major conflict with everything we are used to coping with. No one likes change, but uncertainty is even more unpopular!
Then add in the context of having to try to work from home with substandard internet, the children off school but needing help with home schooling and very little contact with your fellow workers and you begin to appreciate that this is no easy situation.
The first phase
During the first few days, even weeks everyone was busy getting used to the changes, making themselves aware of new technology, trying to find a quiet place to work whilst still helping the children with their school work and generally rising to the challenge.
Then in many cases the tide started to turn. Less communication with “base” as a whole and more contact with a small sphere of coworkers led to a greater feeling of isolation; Everyone started missing the chit-chat around the coffee machine, the informal stuff, those small gestures which make a day brighter: I love your scarf, have a piece of the cake I made, I’ve got a great idea for lunch today, etc. Whereas you might stop by someone’s desk to ask a quick question and then exchange a few pleasantries, you are unlikely to do so using a video chat – you don’t want to disturb them – and writing messages on Slack just isn’t the same. So interpersonal contact slows down and inevitably so do creative exchanges and chances to bounce a few ideas around to solve a current issue.
This situation may be exacerbated by inequalities in the current work status among colleagues: Some are at home on full pay with their children, others on reduced pay on technical unemployment, but free to do what they like and others are trying to keep the boat afloat taking on everyone else’s tasks and frequently working much longer hours than they would have done previously. You do not need a degree in psychology to see that this is going to lead to conflict and even jealousy. A manager will have to be very empathetic and a real expert in emotional intelligence to manoeuvre down this rocky path and keep the workforce aligned and motivated.
How to keep morale boosted
When working at distance and under pressure, providing qualified feedback may not be on the top of everyone’s list of priorities, leaving those who need recognition to fuel their engagement are feeling left out and unappreciated. Even if a quick mail pops into their inbox, they probably will not really feel that this is in proportion to what they have achieved… and so motivation starts to flag, and employees find it increasingly difficult to be innovative. Don’t forget, by now the children are getting bored; the novelty of afternoon painting sessions is wearing off and their parents are having to think up new ways of keeping them occupied. This is the moment when they need a boost of confidence, a virtual pat on the back and the satisfaction of having been able to do a really good job.
If companies rely too much on e-mails and written exchanges, there is a huge risk of misunderstandings – some jokes just are not funny in written form, especially without the clues from body language that the remark really is a joke. If employees have not succeeded in setting up a regular working routine, they may feel very pressurized, especially if their fellow workers are now following a different routine and are applying pressure about their deadlines. Under normal circumstances, hyperconnectivity can lead to problems, but in combination with this unusual situation, it really can be the famous last straw.
What about wellbeing at work?
This is the moment to start thinking about employee wellbeing: A regular virtual team coffee break can work wonders or perhaps an afterwork, even the publication of photos from home (pets, children, new workspace) can help to make employees feel part of the external community and thus less excluded.
Perhaps an internal newsletter explaining who is currently doing what, celebrating a few internal successes or promising to catch up on a missed birthday cake or Easter egg hunt, will also help to reunite the team. Everyone can contribute from home; It might even be so popular that you keep it in place when you all get back to work at the office.
If you have a CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) committee, they may become involved, using their established communication channels and by publishing details of ideas for future events and activities, to give everyone something to look forward to.
Learning from the experience
This is also the moment to start working on your corporate post-Covid-19 strategy. Your staff will be pleased to hear that you are interested in receiving their feedback about the positive and less positive experiences of working from home. Even if the current situation is not representative of normal home working conditions, it will still provide valuable insights into which processes worked, which need adapting and how a future home working policy could be formulated.
This information could also be integrated in a strategy to face any future similar situation: Be prepared! You will probably need to reappraise your meeting culture, decide how many virtual meetings should be retained, when physical meetings make more sense and generally clarify what future policy is. Some staff members will have become accustomed to half attending virtual meetings whilst reading their mails on the side, this is not the sort of meeting culture you will want to encourage at face to face meetings.
You should also think about administrative issues, for example your holiday policy: Who is now allowed to take holiday? If this is not clarified it could lead to a lot of conflict, for example if parents still insist on taking their holiday during the next school break even though the staff who were working flat out throughout could really do with a break.
And of course, this will need to be aligned to your clients’ needs, just when they want you to get back on their projects, you cannot risk crucial team members taking prolonged time off. If you announce a fair policy, your employees will appreciate the clarity and be able to plan accordingly.
Perhaps an internal mentoring/coaching policy would help, providing staff with a recognised point of reference and even a potential source of mediation should any issues arise.
You may even have to reappraise some task attribution if staff have taken over tasks from colleagues during the lockdown and are then loath to give them up again. This would provide the ideal opportunity to assess who is best equipped to fulfil which task and then decide on any appropriate changes to project teams, just because someone did/did not carry out a task beforehand does not constitute a real evaluation of who is best suited to do it in future.
Welcome your staff back
Above all you need to welcome your staff back, thank them for all their hard work, tell them that you are glad that you can all get back on track and plan ahead again. Let them know that you did not enjoy the situation either and get them on board to ensure the future of the company.
Glue your team back together and let your strong corporate culture shine through. By doing so, you will encourage everyone to pull their weight; The months ahead may not be easy as workloads take off again, so you will need to be able to count on motivated employees.
Show them that you are willing to take the experience of the past few weeks on board and use it to create an optimal working environment for everyone. If you succeed you will doubtless find that your employees are (even) happier than before and are more than willing to make their contribution to the company’s future success.
Jane Barton, National Chairman IMA Luxemburg, IMA member since 2012.