How can we manage our organisations and families out of the COVID-19 crisis? 

As we move out of crisis mode and settle into new patterns of working, Professor Almuth McDowall shares her advice on managing work and family life over the coming months. 

In MayI had the opportunity to deliver an online webinar for Barclays Eagle Labs together with their CEO Ben Davey. We tackled important and profound questions, not only about how we manage work itimes of crisis, but also our families and wider networks. 

Ben shared his experience of managing work-life balance. Initially, he explained, he fell into the trap of working very long hours and not having enough time to rest and recuperate. Now he makes an extra effort to go out, get fresh air and then comes back to his desk feeling reinvigorated. I could relate to this so much. During the first two weeks of the crisis, I must admit that I barely slept or ate, as there was so much to do, so much change to manage. Things have settled down now and we are working virtually as teams and organisations. 

Ben asked me if I had any advice for how to make this happen effectively, particularly in international contexts. The research on virtual working tells us that teams work better if they have had initial face to face meeting and bonding time. Well, none of us has had this. It might be something to go back and revisit – have you agreed a set of principles for how your team will work? Has everyone signed up? Regarding international teams, it can be really important to establish and preserve local identity, particularly during this time of crisis and uncertainty. Maybe each team could agree on a ‘strapline’ that summarises their identity and ways of working? Then provide teams with the opportunity to express their needs for how they want to work with others. Provide regular ‘feedforward forums’ so that the spotlight is not only what needs to be done, but also how you work together.  

The attendees in our online session were as concerned about managing their families as they were about managing their work. Many of them had noticed that energy levels are starting to wane. Also, how do you communicate with young children and teenagers? As the situation is so uncertain, a good approach is to focus on the short and medium term. Think about what is precious to you as a family, and what you can control. No one can control the media, or government policy, but we can control how we communicate with each other. Having been stuck in our homes for so long, it can be easy to fall into a rut and take each other for granted. Make sure you actively seek opportunities to talk to each other and share experiences. 

Another question was about how to keep teenagers motivated to do their homework. I shared my own experience. My middle daughter is doing, or rather not doing (in a traditional sense) her GCSEs. At first, we had several heated arguments as I wanted her to do more work, yet she was lying on her bed and talking to her friends. Being honest, I had to adjust my own expectations. This is an unusual situation. She is at an age where her peer group is more important than family. Will anyone really care about the grades she gets in her GCSEs this year? I think not. So I now let her be and chat to her friends. She is happier for it, and so am I.  

How can we help young children make sense of the crisis? Well, limit exposure to news at home, as ‘big words’ said in a serious tone are likely to unsettle. Children appreciate honesty, so don’t pretend. But find a way for them to express themselves. It might be helpful to get them to start a scrapbook, or a journal, where they can draw and chart their experiences visually – then talk about what you see together.  

Finally, we talked about the importance and power of goals at work, and at home. At work, many of us have been in survival and crisis mode. Now might be the time to agree what the priorities for the next few months are and state these very clearly. Then check in on progress and give each other feedback about how things are going. Revisit and revise as necessary. The same applies at home. Is there something you want to learn as a family? Something that you have learned through the crisis which you want to take forward? Get everyone involved in planning. Express your vision – write this down or draw it – but be sure this is shared.  

The crisis is hard, and we are in this for the long haul. Focus on what you can control, this will help you to sustain motivation. Don’t forget – we are in this together. Talk, share and reach out to others where you can. 

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Back to normal? The government is underestimating the scale of change for workers.

As the UK government looks for a path out of lockdown, Professor Almuth McDowall considers the psychological impact of transitioning to a new normal.

Picture of people waiting for the tube in London

On Sunday afternoon, we were on our way back from a socially distanced walk with three moderately enthusiastic teenagers when the phone rang. BBC Radio London asked if I was happy to discuss the Transport Secretary’s announcement that the government was considering a phased approach to businesses reopening their doors. The suggestion is to put a number of safety measures in place to safeguard individuals from getting infected, but also minimise pressures on transport and infrastructure.

For employers, the key propositions are to minimise the number of workers using any equipment, to stagger work start and finish times and to maximise home working. The idea is also to encourage people to engage in more active commuting, including cycling and walking.

Many organisations have of course been open and operational throughout the crisis, including our now much appreciated local shops, which have introduced social distancing measures such as limiting numbers allowed in at a time and protective screens.

But will the transition back to the workplace be as easy as some might suggest while extra precautionary measures are implemented?

When quizzed on the radio, I took a rather cautious and even cynical view. Quite frankly, I do not think that the implications of what will be a gigantic organisational change exercise have been properly thought through.

First, let’s think about infrastructure constraints. Many returning workers have children who, we hope, will return to normal nursery and/or school hours sometime soon. This would make it difficult for all workers to shift start and finish times, as there will be practical issues such as school pick up times to work around. Transport will also be a challenge for this reason, given that peak demand is also due to children travelling to and from school. 

Furthermore, not everyone lives in cycling or walking distance from their place of work, quite the contrary. Surely, we also must avoid a scenario where more people are taking to their cars and driving alone, as we are already witnessing in our neighbourhood, to avoid public transport. 

Let’s also think about who will and needs to return to work. There will be workers who are scared about returning. There are also people who will not be able to return, at least not for the foreseeable future, because they are vulnerable, or someone in their family is. 

On the other hand, there are people who are desperate to return, because they currently live and work in crammed conditions, or because they live in areas with insufficient connectivity.  

Each business has to start with a detailed analysis of how a phased return to a mix of onsite and virtual working will play out in practice and accommodate individual needs and preferences. This is not a quick solution, but takes time, skill and effort. 

Research tells us that to make virtual working effective, particularly during times of crisis and uncertainty, managers and leaders need to take an individual approach to help people feel secure and build up trust and effective ways of working. Again, this is no quick fix. 

Some organisations are getting this intuitively right, others not exactly. One of the keys is a combination of communication and clarification of expectations and roles. This will become much harder as businesses are required to adjust and manage a staged transition to open their doors again. If we are not careful, businesses will spend all their energies on managing logistics, rather than concentrating on the core business to keep their customers happy and deliver a good service.

The literature on organisational change firmly agrees on one issue. Change is hard and stressful, even where it is for the better. Humans are hardwired not to like it. This is why times are tough at the moment. Acknowledging this, and our own vulnerability is an important step to manage sustainable change. My fear is that the UK government is considering too complex a range of practical measures without due acknowledgement of the physiological impact on people. It’s time for a rethink.

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