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!
The past year has certainly thrown up some challenges and now that we are returning to offices and interacting more closely with each other, it has led to a few tricky situations arising when someone sneezes or coughs at work.
A client recently mentioned that her young son coughed in the supermarket (he swallowed some food too quickly!) and said she was met with glares and some mutterings about COVID from shoppers nearby. At a recent workshop, a participant commented about a team member repeatedly sneezing in the office. That team member suffers from hay fever and hadn’t taken an antihistamine drug that day. No-one in their team knew what to say or how to broach the questions on everyone’s mind at the time – “Have they had a COVID test? Should they go home? Who is monitoring this?”
A year or so ago we would have all been expecting people to take cold, flu or hay fever medications and deal with it themselves. In fact, we have sometimes been encouraged to go to work as it’s “just a cold” and in many workplaces stoicism over minor illness was viewed as a badge of honour. With the advent of COVID-19 all that has had to change and many of us now realise that in the past we have probably spread germs far and wide by working when a little unwell. Now we are being asked to stay home with even the slightest symptom and get tested.
What is required from organisations in this pandemic is for people leaders to agree and promote protocols for physically working together. This includes regularly reminding everyone of the importance of keeping themselves and their colleagues healthy through keeping safe distances, regular hand sanitising, temperature checks (as appropriate) and in particular stressing the need for any employee who feels sick to stay home and, if necessary, get tested for COVID-19. If this hasn’t happened in your workplace, you could ask your people leader to discuss it at a team meeting.
“I’m not currently aware of the protocols in terms of office sickness. It’s a bit unsettling and I’d like to discuss and agree on the team’s approach to illness. My suggestion is that if we have any symptoms, even if someone thinks it’s just hay fever or a cold, we get tested for COVID and then be supported to stay home until we are better no matter the result? Can we discuss this at the next team meeting?”
However, what if your colleagues haven’t been following these guidelines or you are worried about their coughs and sneezes in the office. If you know them well and generally have a good relationship with them, you could constructively observe they don’t seem well and provide some suggestions on what they could do.
“Jay it seems you have been sneezing a lot today. I know it’s a sensitive time right now sickness wise, are you feeling OK? Perhaps speak to Gisella (People Leader) about working from home until you feel better.”
“Chris I am worried about that cough of yours. Do you feel OK? How about you head off home and get yourself better? It’s important to be safe and follow health guidelines.”
If you don’t feel comfortable raising it with your colleague yourself then you can take your concerns to your Team Leader/Supervisor/Manager or Human Resources and ask them to intervene.
“Kerry has been working really hard since we returned to working in the office and seems unwell, sneezing and coughing. It’s worrying me he could be infecting others in the team. Please can Kerry be asked to work from home until he is no longer coughing and sniffling?
These can feel like awkward conversations, however it is important to raise and resolve these issues to ensure bad feelings and misunderstandings do not arise among team members. COVID-19 has taken our personal and professional lives into new and unchartered territories, however when navigating these situations, it is important to implement the fundamentals of tough conversations and approach all situations with empathy.
And if you have any doubts about yourself, colleagues or your team follow the government guidelines and inform your colleagues of your actions, this will help build a good COVID-Safe work culture.
Over the past few days we have received an influx of promotional marketing material – one reads “Massive changes have come to the workplace. In the past weeks, these times of uncertainty require your workforce to be flexible and resilient, and to reskill for the changes ahead.” It went on to say; “The most successful organisations are the ones that can navigate uncertainty, tackle challenges and pull together to drive innovation.”
Well I think we can all say we are currently facing uncertainty and challenges that we have never personally imagined or experienced before. Every day people are having to change ways of living and working. There is a lot of fear, concern, confusion and sorrow out there about how lives are being affected and changed and the impact this pandemic is having on all of us, right round the world. For those lucky enough to generate an income, it is hard to focus when we don’t know what the next moment will bring and we hear so much negative news.
During this time it is heartening to hear from clients, their stories of adaptation; learning about remote working set-ups; what it’s like to work along-side or opposite a partner (pets included) and what can be accomplished through on-line platforms such as Zoom, Skype etc. Interestingly for a number of our clients, especially in Local and State Government, internal discussions are taking place around a key question; “What is an essential service?”
For Team Leaders, Supervisors, Managers and Directors discussing tougher questions such as, ‘Is our role essential and what is our purpose?’ can evoke a lot of fear for already anxious staff. People have heightened levels of emotions related to remote working, the challenges of home schooling, what to do over the up-coming holiday period and how to care for the vulnerable, including elderly parents. We also have a generation of people in management and supervisory positions with family members at home who are facing their first experience of a recession / major economic downturn. It is an incredibly difficult time for everyone right now and for many, the discomfort that people now feel is similar to grief. We feel the world has changed, and it has. We trust this is temporary, but we don’t know how long for, it doesn’t feel that way and we realise things will be different in the future.
This is a challenging time for people leaders with emotions for everyone running high and very close to the surface. It is important that Team Leaders, Supervisors, Managers and Directors let people constructively vent their feelings and be heard more than ever. Displaying empathy now is critical for staff to feel they are supported, understood and truly listened to, which means listening carefully and acknowledging feelings and not judging or dismissing emotions.
So what can people leaders do or say to support and assist staff:
- Let people constructively vent their feelings without interrupting and validate feelings.
- Focus on single-tasking as opposed to multi-tasking. There can be many distractions for staff whilst working remotely so when on the phone or online system the focus has to be on the other person and what they are saying. This can be a challenge when others may also be at home working, schooling and/or there are distractions in the background. Using headphones, minimising other applications, turning off other mobile devices and “ping” notifications, shutting doors and thoughtful workspace arrangements may help here.
- We often say take a deep breath when things are overwhelming and this is a great thing to do to calm the mind, support physical health and aid regaining focus. We would encourage you and others to BREATHE maybe use a meditation app that might work for you and/or your staff. Ask people “What can we both do to help support you focus and to feel OK this week?” and commit to making this part of a weekly check-in.
- Maintain team rituals. Consider what can still be done to celebrate monthly birthdays to accommodate social distancing or Friday social drinks via on-line platforms. A number of clients are encouraging staff within teams to share a happy picture each day and/or week. I’ve even heard of a remote team wearing the same colour top on a particular day. The team are based in Orange, NSW. I’m not sure the colour was orange!
- Help people with paradigms of control. What are staff concerned about but cannot control? What can be influenced and what can be controlled? Coach people on actions that can be controlled to build their sphere of influence. Support people to focus on what can be achieved in the week and/or a day. Celebrate daily completion of a will-do list as opposed to focusing on the never ending to-do list.
- If appropriate now could be time to work on those jobs or tasks the team always means to do but doesn’t have time for. Try asking “What work or jobs have we often wanted to do, systems to improve or cheat sheets to develop but lacked the time, that we could start on now?”
- If you decide your team may not be seen as an essential service you can focus staff on seeing how they can help others and feel useful. Try finding this out by asking “What can we do this week to make ourselves useful and supportive to the organisation and our other colleagues?”
- This is a time for us to be kind to ourselves and others, to praise and appreciate our colleagues and our amazing front-line workers. Patience while we all work it out is important. Recognise people and provide sincere positive feedback “I know it has been a really tough couple of weeks with the transition to this way of working. Thanks for quickly adapting and having things up and running.”
Reaching out for help is a sign of strength. Please feel free to reach out to us at any time if you need assistance. Look after yourself, your teams and your colleagues in the coming weeks and/or months. Our thoughts are with you. Keep safe and socially conscious – Sarah and Patricia
The following Harvard Business Review articles below have some great suggestions to help: