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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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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How to set up your home working space to support mental and physical health

Dr Rachel Lewis, Registered Occupational Psychologist and Senior Lecturer in Organizational Psychology shares her tips for creating a safe and productive work or study environment at home.

Home office

The coronavirus pandemic and ongoing lockdown have meant dramatic shifts in the way we work, much of which is beyond our control. Many of us are now working from home, sharing study space with housemates or family members and juggling childcare and other responsibilities into the mix. 

One thing we can take control of, however, is how we set up our workspace to support mental and physical health during this challenging time. The tips in this blog will help you to create an effective workspace, plan manageable routines and mitigate some of the stress that comes with adapting to a new way of work. 

Step 1: Choose your workspace 

As we continue to work remotely, it may be tempting to gravitate to your duvet or sofa and work in comfort, but doing so makes it difficult to manage the boundary between work and other areas of your life. 

Ideally, your workspace should be a separate area of your home that you can go to and leave as if you were going to work, whether that’s an office, desk or seat at your dining room table. This prevents disruption to the rest of your home and helps you psychologically to feel ready for work in that space. 

Step 2: Give your environment some love 

It’s amazing the difference that a few small touches can make to your work environment. Do you have access to natural light? Do you have a plant that could provide you with a more natural environment? While we’re in a state of uncertainty about how long lockdown could last, it’s important to create a space where you feel comfortable working. 

Think also about how to set up your desk to support your posture – could you put a few books under your laptop, or place a cushion behind your back, to help sit in a way that won’t lead to back or neck pain? Physical and mental health are closely linked, so by taking care to avoid aches and pains, you’ll be helping your mind too. 

Finally, scan the area to make sure it’s safe – are there any stray laptop wires that could be trip hazards to you or a family member, for example? 

Step 3: Define your working hours 

Without the physical boundaries that come from commuting to work, it’s tempting to just work around the clock. To ensure you take time to rest and recuperate, set (and stick to) a time to finish work each day. This time may have changed from your usual hours to accommodate other commitments – you could specify your new working hours in your email signature, so people know when you will be available. 

If possible, try to use separate devices for work and leisure – if you have been provided with a laptop or phone line for work, turn these off at the end of your working day to avoid the temptation to keep connected. 

Step 4: Be kind to yourself 

The situation we’re living through represents a significant period of readjustment, so don’t be too hard on yourself if working from home still feels alien. Set yourself goals, but be prepared for those to flex sometimes. Be kind to yourself, be kind to others and let’s help each other through until we meet in person again. 

Further Information: 

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