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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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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Top tips for studying at home

In this blog, Rob Martin, a Learning Development Tutor at Birkbeck, shares five tips to help students be productive while completing their studies from home.

Photo of woman looking on computer

Studying at home can be tricky, particularly when you are in lockdown with family members or housemates. Those of us who usually use the Library to find some quiet time may be finding things even trickier. Below are some suggestions to recreate the sense of focus of studying in the Library.

1. Create a dedicated study area

If possible, find a place in your home that you only use for study. This enables your brain to become conditioned to get into gear when you are in that area.

2. Use a timer

Pomodoro Technique suggests that we can better focus on task in small bursts. The suggested timing for this is 25 minutes of the task (e.g. reading, writing) then taking a five-minute break. Use the free Timer setting on your phone or digital watch.

3. Distraction blockers

It can be tempting to use your phone to find the definition of a new word while you study, but this opens up the possibility of seeing other distracting notifications such as social media. There are apps available that block other apps and websites. For mobile devices: Forest distraction blocker is £1.99. It grows a virtual tree in your ‘Forest’ for every completed time block. The app also contributes to real reforestation according to how many people have focused that day. Cold Turkey is available for laptops and desktops. You can specify which websites to block for a length of time of your choosing.

4. Using background noise to help you focus

If you like to study with the general bustle of the library or a coffee shop, try a website like Noisili, which plays background noise themes like ‘coffee shop’ or ‘rainfall’. Alternatively, music streaming apps like Spotify and Apple Music offer continuous playlists that might drown out some distracting background noise. Calming instrumental music like Classical can help you resist the temptation to get up and dance instead of studying.

5. Connect with study buddies

In times like these, you may have less contact with your fellow students – catching up about assignment progress, sharing ideas, helping each other to understand. You could keep it low tech: schedule a series of calls with fellow students to address particular issues. Otherwise, you could use a free video call app like Zoom to stay in touch. You could study ‘together’ online, for example, using the Pomodoro technique. Spend a few moments discussing your immediate study goals, study in silence for 25 minutes still connected to the video call. Use the five-minute break to discuss what you achieved and establish your study goals for the next 25 minutes.

 

 

 

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