Fiona Forbes, managing partner and WPP AUNZ wellbeing ambassador, opr
I have spent my career working with organisations to support their people and build stronger cultures through transformations of all kinds. No-one has ever seen organisations adapt as rapidly, and to such a significant extent as we have seen with COVID-19.
For the last decade 'disruption' has been a buzzword in business media, but 2020 has really taught us all what that means.
For those of us who thrive in creative and collaborative environments, this period of remote working has demanded a lot of adjustment against a backdrop of other stresses and challenges. It has seen the total renovation of employee experiences – for many this happened overnight, with no or little planning, and limited tech infrastructure to support the abrupt transformation. But even those who were well prepared in terms of tech tools to support remote collaboration have experienced a steep learning curve.
Hearteningly, it’s also proved that there are ways to foster collaborative, supportive cultures even from a distance. In fact, there have been significant opportunities to deepen those cultures while honing creativity in new ways.
I’ve broken down some of our own lessons as a business, and those from work with our clients — and a few predictions — into three phases.
Phase one: early learning from radical change
It’s unlikely there are any organisations still in this phase – face-to-face work is so two months ago.
But what we did notice was how tailored this phase was for organisations. We shared the need to move to remote working, pivoting how we did business and for many the kinds of products and services we offered. But despite the shared context and necessity to adapt, it was far from a one-size- fits-all approach. Adjusting quickly to this disruption was key, but we and many of our clients agree that it was heartening to start seeing evidence that neither your organisation’s culture nor its compassion depends on proximity.
Here’s what we learned:
At the start, most of us were feeling scared and anxious. As leaders and colleagues, it was our job to hear and recognise people’s emotions, not gloss over them.
- The most important step has been transparent communication from multiple levels of leadership. That doesn’t mean oversharing — we discovered we were communicating a little too often in the first few weeks. Experimentation, feedback and iteration based on insights from our people were all key.
- Frequent recalibration was key. Pulse surveys were crucial for understanding our overcommunication and adjusting accordingly.
- Digital tools have helped us stay connected and kept projects humming along. They’ve also provided a window into the human sides of our colleagues that we may have never seen before. Teams have even started opening up about everyday challenges, helping us bond more meaningfully. But notification and inbox fatigue are still an issue for some. Giving people the tools, etiquette role modelling and empowerment they need to craft space between their ‘on time’ and deep work are critical to helping them balance the workload, their headspace and team connection in the long run.
Phase two: settling in and tackling the challenges of the “new normal”
Once everyone had time to develop a rhythm and get a clearer understanding of what works for each individual, team/department and organisation, it was time to move from reacting to proactively thinking about wellbeing — both yours and others.
But we observed this rhythm came with a cost. This stage was gruelling for some because the novelty of a new period had worn off and uncertainty may have started taking a toll. We found a few approaches helpful to navigate this new rhythm:
- "Boundary" is a verb: Don’t let the hyper-connection of technology allow work life to bleed into home life. That’s what happened for many of our people, resulting in longer hours and a perceived need to be “always on.” Using structured boundaries like blocked-out calendars or status updates have helped our teams protect downtime. Your team needs to do boundaries together – give and take; collaboration on work time and down time.
- Helping hands: Support those who are starting to feel the strain of working with family, children or housemates. It’s important to check in and ensure they have what they need, whether that’s support from teammates with capacity, greater flexibility or physical tools from the office.
- Feel real: We all need to think about and acknowledge our emotional needs. Personally, I’m realising how much of my energy came from being with my colleagues face-to-face and spontaneously interactions across the office — I am grieving that loss. Confiding in someone, inside or outside of work, can help.
- Build-in optimism: Find small, everyday ways to stay positive. In our business, teams are loving incorporating positive news stories into weekly catch-ups. Others are donning costumes on video calls or launching contests for things like best video backgrounds or most notable “cameo” (fun fact: the winner of the latter was an intrusive pigeon. The team named him Fred).
Phase three: finding certainty and looking forward
I’m no oracle but I am an optimist — and I think, before too long, we’ll at least have more certainty about what comes next. In fact, there are already murmurs from media and government about the road ahead, and glimmers of what the timeline might be. So, while we’ll be learning along with everyone else, here are the ways we’re planning to gear up for another stage of change:
- We’ll need to learn from others who are ahead of us in their containment cycles. Countries, states and towns outside of Australia and New Zealand are starting to relax restrictions. As time goes on, this will accelerate, and we’ll see a wealth of insights — positive and negative — into what comes after hibernation.
- Things are likely to be different for many people by this point. Treating each other with compassion will be more crucial than ever.
- We’re going to be thinking about retaining new habits. For instance, stronger norms around work-life boundaries and wellbeing are improvements we don’t want to lose. Transformation comes with a reckoning, and it’s important that organisations and leaders have frank conversations about what we’ve learned from this time – what we can let go of for good in terms of how we work; what we want to preserve from this new way of working; and what about cultures has seen us come together and perform at our best and build resilience in the face of adversity.
I believe these challenges are already shaping many teams into something better. The road ahead may be difficult, but we can carry on knowing that we’re forging a better future on the other side.