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!
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:
Last November Patricia travelled to Ethiopia with Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia as part of a major fundraising campaign. She saw firsthand what has been achieved through the dedication and leadership of Dr Catherine Hamlin and her husband Dr Reg Hamlin.
The Hamlin’s life and work is one of the truly inspiring stories of the modern age. In 1959 as Australian obstetricians and gynaecologists, Drs Catherine and Reg Hamlin travelled to Ethiopia at the behest of the then Royal Family to set up a college for midwifery training.
In the early years of their stay, they noticed the wretched plight of obstetric fistula sufferers, a terrible childbirth injury almost unheard of in the first world, who at that time were treated as incurable cases. No -one anywhere in the world was doing anything to treat this catastrophic, life altering condition. These seemingly incurable patients so touched their hearts that they resolved to do something to help. Together they perfected the modern technique for obstetric fistula surgery. They negotiated with governments, survived through very difficult times politically in Ethiopia, raised funds to set up a number of hospitals, clinics and a midwifery school and have trained people to run the enterprise.
Catherine herself has been recognised for her amazing work. She is a Companion of the Order of Australia, a national living treasure of Australia and a two time Nobel Peace Prize Nominee. Reg Hamlin passed away nearly 20 years ago, and Catherine now in her 90s, continues to inspire a team of surgeons and her loyal Ethiopian staff, some of whom have been with her since 1959.
To date their team has treated more than 40,000 women and radically changed their lives for the better.
Travelling around all the facilities in some fare flung corners of the country, it was interesting to ponder on what made them such effective leaders and change agents. A number of characteristics were clear:
- They were passionate about the cause. Catherine, now 92, says she wants to see obstetric fistula eradicated, if not in her lifetime then in in ours. They dreamed big and with this clear vision they could enthuse others and set plans in place to achieve them.
- They developed the skills necessary to achieve their goal. It took them a few years to research, study, develop and refine the skills required. They became the leading experts in this field and then set about training as many others as they could. They recognise they made mistakes but learned form them and never gave up.
- They were able to recognise talent in people and took the time to develop and nurture people. One of their major successes was training a cured patient to become one of the leading fistula surgeons in the world, a wonderful woman called Mamitu. They have ensured their work continues by developing a well trained staff and recruiting effectively.
- Humility and kindness is a large part of Dr Catherine’s charm. She downplays the praise she receives from many quarters and deflects it onto her team. Those who work with her directly adore her and quite literally will do anything for her.
- They never gave up, persistence being a key part of their success. When there was political turmoil in Ethiopia they stayed and found a diplomatic way through it. Key skills for any good leader.
- One more endearing characteristic is that they didn’t seek personal gain. As specialised doctors they could have had the choice of roles in any prestigious hospital. Instead they chose to work with some of the most marginalised women in the world. This has been a role model for the doctors they have trained and employed and many said it was Dr Catherine’s example that inspired them. One of their surgeons commented that he had high paying work offers from all over the world but he could not take them as it would be letting Dr Hamlin down.
Patricia often presents on behalf of Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia. Her trip was both educational and inspirational on so many levels. To find out more about these amazing Australians go to www.hamlin.org.au
Why is it that some people thrive in the face of challenge and adversity at work, while others panic and withdraw into themselves? And why is it some people appear to get ahead while others tread water, or slowly drown in the turbulent waters of life? Resilience is not a characteristic gifted to some individuals and not others. The key is that resilience is not a passive quality, but an active process.
In organisations it is fair to say that the effectiveness of large scale change is in some part due to the resilience of individuals to cope with the stress entailed in implementing or being on the receiving end of the change. While people can experience some stress as energising and exciting, too much stress is disabling and the circumstances that brought this about seen as adversity. Everyone has different resilience abilities and resources and luckily they can be built and enhanced.
Resilience is the ability to adapt well to stress, adversity, trauma or tragedy. It means that, overall, you remain stable and maintain healthy levels of psychological and physical functioning in the face of disruption or chaos. If you have resilience, you may experience temporary disruptions in your life when faced with challenges, for instance, you may have a few weeks when you don’t sleep as well as you typically do. But you’re able to continue on with daily tasks, remain generally optimistic about life and rebound quickly. Resilience is very important to assist people cope with change and deal with stressful situations.
Resilience can help people deal with disappointments and setbacks without becoming depressed or negative, endure loss, chronic stress, traumatic events and other challenges. It will enable individuals to develop a reservoir of internal resources that can be drawn on, and it may protect against developing some mental illnesses. Resilience helps people survive challenges and even thrive in the midst of chaos and hardship. Resilience is a form of emotional buoyancy.
So how can we develop it? Some actions and topics for training that help build resilience are: