The global pandemic was a vivid reminder that any crisis – however catastrophic – can also be an opportunity.
Large swathes of employees were suddenly working exclusively from home, meetings were abruptly moved online, travel to see customers or expand horizons was suspended and plans were put on hold.
A new reality was biting – and, in large part, businesses responded with an agility and resourcefulness that surprised many, often even the companies themselves. Changes in work practices that had been thought and talked about for months – or years – but were regarded as potentially difficult, suddenly became very possible indeed.
Working around lockdown
While some employees are moving or will move back to the office, at least part time, it seems unlikely that we will see a return to old-style, traditional office working, which, even before COVID-19, was changing fast.
It’s vital that businesses – and their managers – maintain that level of innovation and creativity as the global economy continues to work around lockdown measures, which are likely to continue well into 2021.
Professor Karan Sonpar, who teaches organizational behavior at the School of Business at University College, Dublin, believes that coping well with the aftermath of the pandemic will be crucial.
“From a personnel and HR standpoint, the main challenges will be dealing with the mental health and well-being of employees post a traumatic event that has led to increasingly difficult work conditions and changing expectations on how work is done,” he says. Managers must be “alert, empathetic and sensitive to the trauma individuals have faced due to the pandemic.”
But according to Sonpar, perhaps the most important thing managers can do is to look after their own as well as their team’s mental health.
“It’s lonely at the top, and we may be underestimating how difficult this crisis continues to be for executives who are required to steer their ship in these turbulent conditions,” Sonpar says.
It helps, he says, to try to cultivate a Zen-like attitude.
“The biggest challenge is managing one’s own emotions and mindset. Every individual is different and must find their own North Star, their own calling that keeps them energized and focused. But if it could be boiled down to one practice, I would argue it would be keeping a positive mindset and not being scared.”
Experts emphasize the continuing need for regular communication. “Executives and managers need to avoid the extremes of ‘happy talk’ or ‘project fear’ and instead communicate frequently even if this involves conveying incomplete information,” says Sonpar.
“Nobody expects executives to have all the answers,” he adds. “What people do expect, however, is that executives are visible and modeling expected behaviors. Being present and available for one-on-one meetings, even digitally, is one of the best things managers can do at the moment.”
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Barbara Gerstenberger, head of the Working Life Unit at Eurofound, the European Foundation for the Improvement of Working and Living Conditions, agrees that it is important to continue to check in regularly with colleagues one-to-one in order to replace those informal conversations you have when people come to your office or sit at the same table at lunch. But, she warns, there are limits to what can be done remotely.
“We discussed simulating a shared workspace through being connected in a meeting app like MS Teams while working away on our individual tasks,” says Gerstenberger. “But the reaction was unanimous: You cannot fool yourself that this is a replacement for sharing an actual building.”
Deirdre Mortell is CEO of Rethink Ireland, an organization that provides cash grants and business support to social innovation projects in Ireland. The company has 39 staff in four urban centers: Dublin, Cork, Wexford and Galway. “Now, they have adjusted to working from home,” she says, “and most would like to work from home 40-60% of the time but come to the office a few days a week too. I predict that is where we will end up.”
Mortell introduced anonymous staff surveys to track staff morale and gauge their comfort levels with different initiatives. This, she says, was enormously helpful.
Fun strategies to help teams stay upbeat and productive are also still relevant. Keeping community and culture programs going in the remote workplace, such as by hosting virtual quizzes, cocktail hours, family fun days or virtual pet parades, can help hugely, even when some staff have returned to the office, either part- or full-time.
Onboarding new colleagues needs a different approach now too – especially as: “Companies can also expect a high turnover of personnel to competitors as soon as the economy kick-starts,” according to Sonpar.
Forty-nine percent of Rethink Ireland’s staff have joined the organization since April 2020. “Systems and processes for joining, induction and boarding have to be much tighter, if done remotely,” advises Mortell. She and her team introduced a buddy system for all new staff, so they have someone specific, at their level, to call if they are lost and just don’t know what to do. “We emphasize that there is no such thing as a stupid question,” she says.
For Jason Rout, Business Director Industry at global facility management services Atalian Servest, improvements made in the company’s communications systems during the pandemic have proved invaluable.
“Once the first lockdown lifted, we continued with these processes, and they remain in place now. My team now communicates better than ever and has developed a greater level of collaboration, which is ultimately benefiting our clients too.” — Cathy Dillon
Published: March 2021
Image: Danae Diaz for Delivered.