2020 Round Up with Sarah Barlow – Director of Marana Consulting Group
What have been the main issues organisations have had to manage in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic?
Most organisations were able to adapt to the challenges exceptionally well. This was, in the most part, attributed to collaborative leadership and a willingness from staff to learn and adapt quickly. In the early days of the pandemic, we received some calls from clients, checking in and we were a sounding board for some. Hearing how they were facing the challenges was inspiring especially in regional areas of NSW, where clients were in the midst of dealing with the aftermath of bushfires and floods.
Leading up to COVID-19, some State Government clients were moving towards flexible ways of working in agile shared spaces and were negotiating the hurdles that this change presented. COVID-19 created some sense of urgency facilitating a faster transition. A positive outcome for organisations and their staff.
We work with organisations who have staff predominantly working in the front-line interacting with customers. At an organisational level, clients were having to navigate the government guidelines which were changing regularly. Staff were then having to quickly adapt their interactions to ensure both physical and psychological safety, whilst also having to enforce regulations, deal with non-compliance issues and manage customer expectations.
Whilst everyone was digging deep, the challenges were more evident around October. People Leaders were expressing their concerns that they and their staff were exhausted. Then in December, with the second wave, lockdown and restrictions, people had to cancel much needed holiday breaks. This has presented some challenges in early 2021. Some staff are still very fatigued and are finding it hard to “switch-off” in a constant “switched-on” culture.
What advice do you have in terms of skills needed by employees to thrive in the current work environment?
Policy and process development will be important for organisations to develop comprehensive strategies to define what flexible and or agile working tangibly looks like. Clear policies and guidelines on the options available to staff are essential. It is important that People Leaders collaborate and facilitate how to make flexible working conditions support the needs of the team and the individual. It will also be important for staff to be clear about performance expectations and what over servicing / working might look like to support staff well-being.
This is especially important for some organisations, where I’ve seen that if flexible working is not available, then high calibre staff and job candidates will move to other organisations where flexible working conditions are available. Research suggests that we will not return to pre COVID-19 working conditions and the flexibility of working from home in some form is here to stay. For this to work, it is important for leaders to have strong facilitation skills, demonstrate emotional intelligence competencies and embrace coaching as a leadership and communication style. Adopting a truly collaborative style in place of an old school hierarchy command and control approach is essential and it is vital for this to be role modelled at all levels of an organisation especially at the director and executive levels.
Well-being and mental health continue to be areas of importance in 2021. Employees working from home have to confront the lack of practical boundary between work and personal time. Most work/life balance survival tactics come back to the basics and People Leaders will be required to actively take responsibility, be empathetic, support accountability and check in with staff well-being as an integral part of their role. Some senior leaders have commented to me about “returning to normal” in the context of productivity. COVID-19 has been a catalyst in helping some people realise that the pace they were operating at pre COVID-19 was unsustainable. It is going to be important for people to be permitted to establish boundaries and find time for both work and family and friends. People are pulling back from just what is profitable and focusing on what is worthwhile.
As Director of a small business, what did you do in 2020?
On a personal level and as a director of the business in 2020, I was very mindful of focusing on my physical and mental well-being. I ensured that I got into nature, exercised, walked, reached out to my support network and gave myself the headspace to be able to work through the challenges ahead.
It was important to be patient and process what was going on and what direction Marana needed to take to best assist our clients. Having the headspace to think strategically was important and if I needed this, I thought that some of our clients may value this too. Our first step was to reach out to all our clients, to let them know that we were there for them when they needed us. Many clients also appreciated the space while they navigated the challenges ahead.
I also used the time as an opportunity to work on my own development. I participated in some courses that had been in “Quadrant 2 (Important and Not-Urgent)” for a while. I spent a lot of time reading, researching, developing Live Online content and joining international forums (at all hours of the evening) to collaborate with the learning and development community and find out how global organisations were moving forward in a COVID-19 world. It has been great to be able to share this information with leaders and participants in Australian organisations as they navigate this new world.
What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
My biggest passion outside of work is skiing – particularly in Japan. It’s been heart-breaking not to be able to ski this year. I promised myself that I would not look at the snow report and I failed! Travel restrictions have encouraged me to continue to explore NSW and over the last year I have enjoyed everything to do with getting outdoors whether it be hiking in the Blue Mountains, swimming down on the South Coast, panning for gold at Trunkey Creek and exploring our beautiful regional towns.
I also love cooking and most recently I have enjoyed experimenting with food over fire. I’m partial to an open flame and my Instagram feed is dominated by food enthusiasts! At the end of a busy week, my ideal night is spent with friends enjoying a good meal and a glass of Pinot Noir.
Tell us something about yourself that we may not know?
I’m an avid Landline-ABC watcher. On a Sunday, you might find me glued to this show. Sometimes, living in the city, we can feel removed from what is happening in regional Australia which is why I love Landline. I grew up in the countryside and I enjoy hearing about what is happening in regional Australia especially related to agriculture and primary industries. I think it appeals to my inner country ‘Akubra’ wearing self!
Tags: change, communication, covid-19, dealing with difficult situations, emotional intelligence, future, Government, leadership, managing emotions, priorities, Public Sector Service, resilience, time management, uncertainty, Working in Public Service
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