Every day this week, we’ve published parts of an article on how leaders and managers can avoid social isolation and engage their people in working towards success in the post COVID-19 world.

We’ve been here before

We always have a choice

Working in isolation: what does good look like?

after yourself

How are
you doing?

Day Three: Working in isolation – what does good look like?

‘Connectedness’ is more than a jargon word: it is what makes work meaningful and engaging for most people, and it is what makes organisations both productive and innovative. In good organisations our interaction with colleagues enables us to share problems, plan and schedule our work together, celebrate our successes, generate ideas for innovation and improvement, and help shape future directions and strategies. Even day-to-day gossip helps us to feel part of the work community. Above all, connectedness gives our work purpose – not just focused on a narrowly specialised task but aware of our part in a bigger product, service and organisation.

Remote working can easily become the enemy of connectedness. During the first few weeks of isolation at home, some people may even enjoy the novelty whilst others will experience a sense of dislocation and unease. Yet, over several weeks, there is a real danger that more and more people will feel disconnected and disengaged from their organisations, simply performing expected tasks within an increasing sense of disconnectedness.

But it needn’t be like that. The Corona crisis is an amazing opportunity to work in new and better ways – and in many cases doing the  things we should have been doing anyway.

Everything we know – from decades of research evidence and practical experience – about what makes a productive, innovative and healthy organisation does not disappear until the end of the crisis. On the contrary, it is more important now than ever.

The challenge is to translate these well-understood principles into the new reality. You might find the following guidelines useful:

  1. Job Design. People need fresh challenges and an opportunity to try new things in their day-to-day jobs if they are to learn, develop, and remain engaged and healthy. Does the current situation enable people to rotate jobs, cover for unwell colleagues and learn new skills? E-learning, and even virtual and augmented reality can be valuable resources in helping lone workers solve problems, learn and develop, and remain engaged.
  2. There is an incredibly strong association between empowering teams to plan, schedule and improve their own work, and achieving high performance. Communication and relationship building lie at the heart of successful teamworking, and webinar technologies can fill the gap when people can’t all be in the same room. Planning meetings at the start of every day enable people to make decisions together, but don’t forget the importance of ‘productive reflection’ –
    • how did we do?
    • where could we improve?
    • what can we celebrate?

Think too about online coaching for your teams, helping them work and learn effectively together, avoid blame when things go wrong, and always search for the better argument – no matter who it comes from.

  1. Measure what matters. We’ve heard that some mangers are asking :But how will I know if they’re actually working at home?” Wrong question! Firstly it demonstrates a culture of mistrust and secondly it suggests that they’re more interested in measuring an individual’s mere presence at work than their productive contribution. That’s a bad idea even in normal times but it makes even less sense now. People’s domestic circumstances vary enormously and they may need to work at different times, especially if they have children at home. Focus on coaching conversations that help each individual to achieve their best possible performance in what may well be unfamiliar and challenging circumstances. A member of staff from one company told us: “What was hardest to discover is that it’s very easy to feel “unproductive” when working from home; however when you truly add up your time in the office, it’s common to be unproductive in the workplace too – the “water cooler” moments take a few minutes, chatting to your desk-mate . . .”
  2. Employee-driven innovation and improvement. The best ideas happen when we learn, reflect and experiment together, but we just can’t afford to call a halt to innovation and improvement during the crisis. Online suggestion schemes and ideation platforms can be useful, but they work best when people have the opportunity to generate new insights and thinking collaboratively. There are many ways in which we can use webinars and other online technologies to create innovation labs and creative spaces that bring people together across the whole organisation – and create a great sense of engagement.
  3. Employee Voice. This is a time of great anxiety for many, feeling that they are out of the loop and worrying that decisions are being made that affect their work and jobs without them having any say. Many organisations will be faced with difficult decisions in the next few weeks, but the real challenge is to minimise long term damage – to competitiveness and workforce engagement alike. Experience from past crises shows that the best decisions – those that help ensure longer-term sustainability – are made openly and inclusively, enabling everyone to contribute their own knowledge and insights. Connected communication systems and channels, available to all employees irrespective of location, enable real-time two-way dialogue and involvement in decision-making from the shop floor to the senior team.
  4. Leadership in troubled times. Effective leadership in a crisis (and even in normal times!) requires self-awareness, reflection and sensitivity to others. Your own reactions and behaviours will have a profound impact on others – either by increasing their anxiety or by engaging with them as collaborators and addressing the challenge together. You need to be visible, open and reassuring – brief ‘Welcome to Work’ and ‘Thank You’ video calls each day can make a massive difference. Your role as a leader in these (as in normal) times is to help others perform well by listening and by helping to remove the obstacles that get in the way of them doing a good job. Peer-to-peer dialogue with people in other organisations can also be amazingly powerful at times like these: you’re certainly not alone in facing these challenges. Start by considering your own health and well-being, seeking the support of friends and family, and finding quiet times for mindfulness and reflection – this is the subject of the next article.

We have an exciting opportunity to use digital technologies in amazing and innovative ways – but always remember that the basic principles of communication and engagement still apply. For many of us, previous experience of video calls has been very transactional and focused on specific agendas – but now more than ever we need to embed ‘social bonding’ into our online interaction if we are to build and sustain effective virtual teams. If nothing else, start your meetings by asking “how are you feeling?”

During the crisis we’ve been providing coaching for teams in several organisations, including Emotional Intelligence profiling followed by one-to-one sessions online. High Emotional Intelligence supports resilience in the face of change and instability, making this the perfect time to support employees in this way. The outcome is a series of daily activities and goals for each individual, and we’re already finding that it’s leading to changed behaviours and improved relationships with others. This is a valuable investment, both for now and for when normal working resumes.

A frontline manager from one company told us “I cannot advocate video calls enough – even just for a 5 minute chat. For some people, it may be the only conversation they have that day, so it’s important to ask how they are doing as well as whatever you need from them.”

But she also offered a note of caution: “We have a team “stand up” and “stand down” via video call every day at the start and end of the day, which I personally find really useful. It started off as a ‘what have you got planned for today/what did you achieve’, but as we’ve got used to working from home it’s become a check in on how we are and any joint projects, plus any updates from senior levels. However it’s probably worth noting that some of my colleagues initially saw this as a lack of trust that they would be at their desk. . . .

Making a Smooth Transition to Home-Based Working

When Booth Welsh temporarily closed its Head Office in line with the Scottish Government’s COVID- 19 guidelines, the transition to home-based working was eased by the company’s previous investment in workplace innovation. A specialist engineering company, Booth Welsh has created opportunities for people to collaborate and innovate across the entire workforce during the last 3 years. Collaboration and communication have become part of the company’s culture and mindset, and its team leaders are now using video technologies to sustain their 9AM morning meetings, project meetings, and cross sectional improvement and innovation meetings. A Team Tea at 3pm has also been introduced – a  virtual gathering to see how everyone is doing where work isn’t discussed – and where tricky quiz questions, quirky teasers and social chat keeps motivation high.

Talk to us to discuss the positive actions YOU can take now.