New (and not so new) perspectives about humour and management

Juan Dávila, BA Global Politics and International Relations alumnus (returning to Birkbeck to undertake an LLM in the next academic year), discusses resilience, virtual socialisation and productivity in these challenging times.

In the last decades much had been written about the relationship between humour and good management. Still, considering the current global pandemic crisis originated with COVID-19, it is necessary to revisit a few key concepts that help us to contribute to the preservation of the right spirit and motivation in our organisations. After all, institutions, either seeking profit or not, are human constructions, and human nature is and has always been resilient.

Having said this, hundreds of thousands of original videos were produced in the last months, proving that self-isolation can be positively a time of self-discovery, where humour is a crucial element to enhance mental health and to deal with constant mediatic bombarding. Like Roberto Benigni in ‘La vita è bella’, people use their creativity and imagination under the worse circumstances.

Furthermore, a beneficial link between laughter and the boost of the immunological system had been traced as a result in scientific studies, since when we laugh our body produces substances like endorphins, adrenaline, serotonin, and dopamine that helps to relax our muscles and potentiate a feeling on mindfulness.

Once again, institutions, profit and non-profit, have in the last months made radical efforts to adapt their operations to the new circumstances affecting all type of practices and routines. Stress and anxiety are common symptoms that can later change the core of the organisation if they are not dealt with collectively. The challenges are indeed enormous, but also opportunities to be embraced.

But how can we apply humour to motivate our work environment? Like in any human interaction, speakers and listeners produce and exchange verbal and non-verbal communication. The effectiveness of communication is the base to reach mutual understanding. In that context, humour is an exciting tool to be used organically. Our difference with previous generations is that in times of social distance, much of our daily interaction is done online through devices that can, fortunately, allow us to retransmit image and voice in real-time.

In terms of effective communication, being funny is always about taking risks, considering the timing and other people points of view—also, project confidence and intellectual agility. Co-workers can eventually feel stimulated to work with someone that knows how de-dramatise the complexity of some operations. But, inappropriate jokes and remarks can undoubtedly cause the contrary effect and can eventually evidence incompetency. In any case, teamwork and good peer feedback are encouraged to safeguard fluent and effective communication, that at the end impact on the work environment.

When the dog is barking, or a child is crying in the middle of an urgent conference call, some things are indeed beyond our control. We have all been in similar situations. In these circumstances, a laugh can help to humanise these kinds of situations. It is essential to always take into consideration that the best humour is still coming from laughing about ourselves. In this context, leaders with a sense of humour are more approachable, helping to build up trust and boost the morale of the team.

Simple team building dynamics can also motivate people and encourage productivity. Here some tips and ideas:

  • If you want to keep your privacy at home, make sure that you use a professional virtual background. You can have a few of them to change accordingly to the situation.
  • You can all agree to wear a particular colour or dress code to attend a meeting. For example: ‘Red on Tuesday, and Green on Fridays’
  • Celebrate small steps or achievements is also a way to show appreciation to your colleagues.
  • Sharing ideas about what to do during social distance can also help to motivate people.
  • When working with colleagues in different time zones, it is vital to empathise. It could be the beginning or the end of the day for them
  • Also, working with people using different languages, it is crucial to formulate ideas and questions using simple vocabulary to facilitate understanding.

Moreover, being positive will not guarantee to succeed, but being negative will ensure that you will not. So, let us be the reason why someone smiles today.

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I’m not looking for a career in accountancy, engineering or anything that needs Maths. Why do I need to think about my numeracy skills?

It’s National Numeracy Day 2020 on the 13 May and Birkbeck Futures takes a look at why numeracy skills are important no matter what career you choose.

Picture of dominoes

Many jobs that we typically don’t think involve numbers usually require some level of numeracy.

Being numerate means that you can confidently and effectively use mathematics to meet the everyday demands of life.

You may not be asked to solve complex equations, but you could be required to complete tasks that involve numeracy skills. For example, if you’re in Human Resources, you may be asked to provide a report on gender diversity figures. Similarly, if you’re in the Arts, you may need to put together a budget for an exhibition. Both of these require some level of numeracy.

The OECD reports that there is a direct relationship between wage distribution and numeracy skills. The better your numeracy skills, the greater your earning potential.

Why?

Because all those things you learnt in Maths help build the skills employers are looking for.

Employers aren’t just looking for technical skills and subject knowledge when they recruit someone. They need you to have employability skills – transferable skills that enable you to do the job successfully. For example:

Digital Skills

Digital skills are required in at least 82% of online advertised jobs across the UK.* We live in the digital age and as a result, we deal with more numerical data that we ever have before. You need good numeracy skills to be able to work with computers, otherwise you’re unable enter the right data or identify if the answer is in the right area.

Problem Solving

Problem solving skills are vital to any graduate level job. Maths is all about solving problems; take working out an equation for example. You need to pick out the important parts of the problem and then work out the knowledge required to solve it. This skill is transferable to solving any problem, mathematical or not.

Communication

When studying Maths, or working with numbers, you will have developed your ability to assimilate and communicate information in a clear and concise way. Everything we do in the workplace is a result of and requires communication of some kind.

Employers are increasingly using numeracy tests as part of recruitment processes.

As numeracy is such an important skill for employers, many use numerical reasoning tests as part of their recruitment processes. These types of assessments measure your ability to interpret, analyse and draw logical conclusions based on numerical data presented in graphs and tables.

Students can find out more about these tests and have a practice on the online Careers Portal (accessed through your My Birkbeck Profile).

But what if I’m not good with numbers?

We all have areas of ability that we feel more confident in than others. You might not think that you’re good with numbers because of experiences with Maths in school, for example. But chances are you’re much more competent than you think.

Our level of confidence often impacts our ability to take on new challenges or face up to things we may usually avoid doing. To reiterate the problem-solving example above, when we don’t know something, we can find out how to do it. Embrace your numeric abilities and enhance your skills to help boost your confidence in this area.

Birkbeck is supporting National Numeracy Day for the first time this year. Join the conversation on Twitter or see if you can build your everyday Maths confidence by taking the challenge.

Get in contact with Birkbeck Futures at employability@bbk.ac.uk or follow us on our social channels:

*Source: “No longer optional: Employer demands for digital skills” report – June 2019

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Managing staff who are working from home: business as usual?

Professor Gail Kinman, Professor Almuth McDowall and Dr Kevin Teoh from Birkbeck’s Department of Organizational Psychology share tips on how to manage staff who are working from home.

Empty office

Steps to manage the Covid-19 virus mean that working from home is now mandatory for many people. This will help contain the virus, but such a major shift in working practices will not be easy. Some employees will be working from home for the first time and may struggle to accommodate to their new environment. It may also pose challenges for managers who are required to ensure ‘business as usual’ but have little experience of managing people who work remotely.

The skills required to manage staff during these challenging times are quite different than those needed face to face. Below, we provide some guidance on how to manage remote workers effectively.

Set expectations from the outset signalling support and understanding

The move to remote working will make communication more challenging and you will have less insight into what staff are doing each day. The first step for any organisation is to communicate with all workers affected, setting out clearly the support you are offering, how you will communicate with them and the expectations you have for their performance.

In the current special circumstances, this may mean waving goodbye to previous management practices such as mandatory core hours and operating a flexible “work when you can, as much as you can” policy. Some workers will have challenging circumstances and may have little time or energy for uninterrupted home working. It is important to acknowledge these challenges from the outset and keeping conversation streams open will help you become aware of any changes in people’s circumstances. Also provide clear information on who staff can turn to for advice and support and issue regular updates.

A settling in period is crucial

Staff will need some time to process the change, access the necessary equipment and systems, establish channels of communication and negotiate and adjust work tasks. Do not make assumptions that people who work at home will be more productive as they have more flexibility and their commuting time is eliminated. People will typically take a lot longer to do things and be unable to work to full capacity, especially during the early days of home working. Keep reassuring your staff that you do not expect them to be as productive as usual – maybe the best that you can do in the short term is to identify priorities and work out how best to meet them. Ensure that you have a mechanism for staff to feed back on how things are working out for them. Double check also that appropriate hardware and software is in place. For instance, there are reports already that some organisations are running out of virtual protected network (VPN) licenses.

Be sensitive to role stress

People experience role overload when they are expected to fulfil multiple roles simultaneously without the resources to do so. Resources can be time, energy or attention. Role conflict occurs where fulfilling the demands of one role (e.g. work) is incompatible with meeting those of another (e.g. caring for children). Understandably, both role overload and conflict can be distracting and impair wellbeing and productivity.

Staff will have to dedicate considerable time and energy to craft a balance between their work demands and domestic responsibilities. They are also likely to be anxious about obtaining household provisions and need to monitor the health of themselves and their family members.

Build trust and avoid micromanaging

Building trust between you and your team is crucial. Jointly negotiated goals will help your staff feel engaged, productive and motivated. Deadlines can be set but, as discussed above, flexibility will be required as personal circumstances are likely to be subject to change. Bear in mind that the communication process should be two-way. It is important for managers to check in with staff to monitor their progress and their mental health, but your direct reports also have a responsibility to provide you with updates. Managers are unlikely to have the time to set up cumbersome and intrusive reporting processes, but avoid bombarding people with unnecessary requests, forms, procedures and guidelines.

Use meetings sparingly

Tools such as Skype and Zoom make organising meetings for remote workers straightforward but be aware that online meetings can be time-consuming. Ensuring that all staff members have an input is also challenging. Try not to organise meetings over lunchtime to ensure that staff have a break and are able to prepare meals for children. Send out clear meeting etiquette guidelines. Ensure that meetings are never booked backtoback, as they can become very draining. A shared diary will help mitigate this.

Be aware of the risks of being ‘always on’

Discourage staff from working long hours even if they are willing to do so, as they will be less effective and more vulnerable to health problems. Encourage people to have regular breaks away from their workstation throughout the day. As well as stopping work physically, staff should switch off psychologically to replenish their energies and to enable them to meet their domestic responsibilities. Role model the behaviour you expect from them, such as making it clear that there are times that you are not available, are resting or are meeting your other responsibilities.

Be aware of people’s personal circumstances and conscious of the challenges they are facing

What caring responsibilities do your direct reports have? Are they home-schooling? Do they have the necessary equipment and a quiet working environment? Some people may have access to a dedicated office, while others have to work on a kitchen table, a bedroom or the sofa. Encourage people to take steps to create boundaries (both physical and psychological) and avoid distractions wherever possible but accept that this will sometimes be inevitable. Children will interrupt meetings, dogs will bark and internet connections will inevitably fail.

Treat your staff as individuals

Your staff will experience the change to remote working in different ways. Some may feel anxious, while others will relish the challenge and break from routine. You will find that some people will need more support than others, so you could offer them short goal-setting meetings at the start of each day and a catch up at the end. Others, however, might find this intrusive and prefer to be left alone to get on with it. Be aware that some people will be prone to over-working and may need encouragement to switch off. Asking staff to share with you any difficulties they may be experiencing will help you gain insight into their individual circumstances, needs and preferences.

Encourage socialising and bonding

Working at home can be isolating; this will be a particular problem where staff are largely confined to their homes. Loneliness can reduce motivation and productivity and increase the risk of stress, anxiety and depression. It is important therefore for people to maintain social bonds and feel part of the team. Take some time before a meeting for people to share something personal. Encourage other social bonding opportunities such as ‘virtual coffee time’, a video chat over lunch, or a joint exercise session. Continue to celebrate people’s birthdays or other special occasions. Be creative – one manager we recently spoke to distributed a mini ‘pub quiz’ to help relieve the pressure and encourage team bonding.

Be kind, compassionate and respectful

Show genuine concern for people’s wellbeing and understanding of their personal circumstances. Provide praise and positive feedback so that people know their efforts are recognised and provide affirmation of confidence in your team. You can encourage staff to be open about any difficulties they are experiencing by disclosing that you too are struggling at times. People’s home environments are now their workspaces, but they should not feel that the organisation has moved in with them. It is important, therefore, that communication is measured and considerate.

What about your own wellbeing?

It is equally important that you show the same kindness and compassion to yourself. Expectations of managers are high, and many are now responsible for keeping the business afloat while endeavouring to support their staff through a major transition. Recognise that these are unusual times and it will be a learning experience for everyone.

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Twitter trolls – it’s nothing personal…

This post was contributed by Dr Tim Markham, Reader in journalism and media in the Department of Media and Cultural Studies.

Twitter phoneTrolling has been all over the news this week, with lurid details of spiteful, sometimes threatening tweets targeting feminist campaigners like Caroline Criado-Perez and politicians such as Stella Creasy, combining with instant punditry and small-p political tribalism to create a media frenzy. The nature of the abuse is certainly eye-catching: at a time when a list of banned insults can be drawn up and distributed to fans of Liverpool FC, there’s something about seeing people being so rude that breaks through the seamlessness of our ambient, often amiable trawl through media.

Others have pointed out that it has the unmistakable whiff of a classic moral panic about it, amplified by the involvement of celebrities, half-recognised public figures and a technology still just new enough to provoke unease about how it’s wormed itself into the banalities of everyday life. This is part of a two-decade shift from the early days of the internet when fluid, un-pin-downable identity was something to play with, to today’s predominance of identity management coloured by perceived risk, actual or otherwise.

But why so nasty? For those already endowed with a particular flavour of public profile it’s a novel and often effective means of garnering attention: the mutual invective hurled by Lord Sugar and Piers Morgan can be fun to watch, though we know it’s no less confected than Gordon Ramsay’s vituperative televisual self. For others it’s a way of performing authenticity in a moment when that’s a scarce commodity and we’re open to recognising it in 140 characters or fewer on the screen of a smartphone. Irvine Welsh’s tweets are disarmingly filthy, and Caitlin Moran’s sometimes outré swagger seems unaffected, though her casual use of impolitic terms of derision has wearingly provoked accusations of hypocrisy in the current debate.

But trolling is different, right? It’s common at this juncture to evoke the driving metaphor: put a screen between yourself and the world and you experience a different kind of anonymity to what you feel on the high street or in a pub, a protective bubble that gives you licence to swear, sing, gesticulate and make (usually) hollow threats. If Twitter encourages similar disinhibition, then the solution might be to ban anonymity, Facebook-style.

Whether that is really an option depends on what sort of space we want Twitter to be, and while thousands of academic and commentators are gleefully holding forth on this question at the moment, there are four basic answers. The first comes from the network society evangelists who claim that by placing as few restrictions on social media as possible, new self-organising cultures will emerge and the best ideas will float to the surface. Well, no. Sure, Twitter is capable of making innovations and insights better known, but no more than it provides a platform for trolls – there is nothing about its architecture that naturally gears it towards democratic ends.

Next, others argue that with the right kind of restrictions on communication, including the responsibility that comes with being known to others, social media can furnish us with a new kind of public sphere where we can be more engaged, better citizens. But this expects media to solve what is essentially a problem of politics – disengagement – and while there’s no shortage of debate on Twitter, and not all of it vapid, it lends itself towards the kneejerk exchange of opinion, often entertainingly, sometimes uncomfortable, that should not be mistaken for the hard, usually boring work of public deliberation.

In the past week or so we’ve seen another vision of Twitter rear its head: a means of self-expression, a voice.  There is a real fear that trolling could lead to women writing about rape or domestic violence being silenced, and underlying this is the notion that Twitter users should above all treat each other with respect. There’s plenty of evidence of this on the platform, with some corners dripping in unctuousness rather than venom – a deluge of praise that makes some, like commentator Charlie Brooker, squirm. But this raises the difficult question of what relation tweeters actually have to one another, and what they are capable of doing to each other social media, for good or for ill. Is Twitter really a viable medium for a relationship of mutual respect between individuals with no other connection? It should go without saying that credible threats of violence should be taken seriously, and there are laws in place to make this so. Intentionality, though, is tricky, as you’ll know if you’ve joked about blowing up an airport. But what if the intention is to offend, not in the sense of being generically offensive, a cause with many supporters, but to inflict personal torment?

This is trickier still. The argument you often hear is that intention is irrelevant: if someone feels offended, then offence has been caused. But while this makes sense in the workplace, it’s not self-evident that Twitter is that kind of space of interaction. True, it’s different from being offended by a TV programme, because it feels personal, but just how personal is it? This is not to say that being trolled isn’t upsetting, nor that the internet is just a virtual space where nothing really matters. And severing the link between an author’s intention and the meanings their texts engender certainly gels with the spirit of postmodernism. But we know that people feel some kind of relation to disembodied others on social media, though it is different from interactions with people we know, or could identify if we wanted to. It can feel intimate, too intimate, to be thrown into a hostile flurry of tweets aimed at you, but it can also be put into perspective, distanced. Cambridge prof Mary Beard is adept at this, responding to tweets speculating about her genitalia by pointing out that such insults are ubiquitous in history and as such mundane, as is the sort of trolling that imagines out loud the various tortures and humiliations they’d like to see meted out on someone. It’s still uncomfortable, but not an attack on her because – to use the sociological lingo, interactions online between individuals who don’t personally know each other are not interactions of authentic selves.

Ah, the authentic self. The other cry of despair heard across the media this week has been about what trolling reveals about what people are really like when the niceties of normal social interaction are foregone. Suddenly exposed is a hard-wired culture of misogyny and violence, or, on the other side of the argument, a crisis of masculinity, an incoherent, badly spelled howl of rage from those men – working class, presumably – society has left behind as it has become more enlightened, respectful, tolerant. But to be a bit methodological about things, this implies that a twitter stream reveals the soul, the true identity of the tweeter. And this brings us to the fourth way of thinking about Twitter – as a communicative, rather than existential, space. Years ago Erving Goffman examined in great detail the rituals of interaction that people have to learn in order to participate in all manner of communication, whether through media or face-to-face. He was particularly interested in the difference between the ‘backstage’ work we do in order to present a coherent, competent self to others in social situations, and his ideas work well in the context of social media. But when asked what he felt this revealed about the true self underlying our everyday performances, he replied that he just wasn’t interested in the true self. I like to think that I am interested in other selves, but I take his point about not looking for them in the wrong places. Our selves are not manifest in our social media interactions with unknown others, and the cheering corollary is that we are not as fragile on Twitter as some have been suggesting.  Making no excuses for trolling, it can at least be put into context as a form of communication: narcissistic, certainly, and expressing alienation and animosity, but in a way that is generational rather than endemic to the social media age. It would be counterproductive at this point to diagnose a new form of evil in trolling. It may be hateful, but it’s usually nothing personal – even if it looks like it is.

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