Does it have to take a pandemic to bring to light the blindingly obvious?

stop moaning or else

Last week, a national British newspaper lead with the story of the UK chairman of one of the Big Four telling his staff to stop moaning about the pandemic or playing the victim card. I doubt whether this story would have made front-page news before the pandemic let alone led to the chairman in question to resign his position. Plenty of leaders have not felt compelled to hide their indifference to “people issues” in their unerring focus on the bottom line.

What is perhaps more painfully obvious now than it has ever been is that the way our workforces experience work, their wellbeing, matters! How we value and care for our staff matters in a holistic, systemic way – to individuals, of course, but also for the sake of organisations – so they can attract, retain, engage the best people and create environments where they can do their best work.

Human sustainability is as important as environmental sustainability because if we can treat our fellow humans as commodities, how likely are we to look after anything else?

WFH – what next?

The pandemic has forced a focus on the workplace – where and how we work.  Many people who are working from home (WFH) are asking themselves “What next? Will I have to return to the office?  Do I want to?”

 The answer will come from identifying how and where we are most likely to feel cared for and motivated to do our best work.  Here are some examples of lockdown working from my local community. 

Which one of these people do you associate with most, thinking about your experience of working under covid-19 conditions?

The neighbour I came across raking leaves on his front lawn. He guiltily admitted the lockdown constraints had not been too bad for his family. They’d quite enjoyed not having a commute and although zoom calls were tiring, they were all coping quite well. We said our socially-distanced-goodbyes (without the pre-covid concern whether or not a parting hug was appropriate).

The stressed-out friend whose WFH experience is entirely different. She’s trying to keep up with the demands of her job – emails pinging away even as we walked for forty minutes over lunch – while home-schooling two youngsters and sharing a “home office” space with her husband.

The office friend forced to work in an office with perspex glass separating desks. Her anxiety is one of sharing space with others when there is a highly transmissible virus about. She’d rather be WFH but her employer won’t allow it.

The teacher friend who’s having a tough time engaging pupils and channelling learning over a virtual medium which is difficult to sustain, if manageable at all. She worries about young people studying from home who are missing connection, socialising, being mentored – many who are just plain lonely.  

As you’re reading this, which category do you fall into?

  • someone who’s quite enjoying the WFH experience
  • someone who is stressed by the family dynamic, the unreliable IT, the sheer difficulty of performing their job online
  • someone without a family dynamic, missing human contact and social interaction
  • someone who can’t WFH and is forced to work in a shared space feeling unsafe

Comparing these experiences reminded me of the useful qualification of

we may all be in the same storm, but we’re certainly not in the same boat.”

What about our key workers, those working in healthcare at present or on frontline services? Their predicament is well documented but nonetheless harrowing because of our familiarity with their plight. The mental health issues of dealing with traumatic events or of having to work tirelessly without breaks because of short staffing will have longer term consequences.

Recent research has shown that many want to retain flexibility gained over lockdown and as flexible workers tend to be more engaged and less likely to leave, this should continue to be an option once the pandemic has passed.

Enforced WFH has shown employers how, far from being slackers, working-from-homers put in more hours, take fewer breaks and find it hard to draw a line between work and home (especially when social interaction has gone online too).

Organisations will need to make some hard choices for the future of their workplaces.  Ideally, they will capture the benefits and limit the downsides of working virtually, in whichever form this may need to happen.

Why? Because the duty of care to employees today goes well beyond the office walls. 

 How will people connect and stay connected in all senses of the word (with heart, body and soul)?  What provisions will be made to help people with anxiety, stress or burnout? How will collaboration be enabled to bring the benefits so fundamental to great teamwork? Productivity will increase with wellbeing, when people feel seen, heard, accepted and cared for.  Co-located gatherings will be opportunities to learn and share and generate better solutions as a result.

There are many lessons that have been learnt from the pandemic. I hope that human sustainability remains at the top of the list once the pandemic becomes a distant memory.

 

Articles citing wellbeing and health, amongst other Covid-related topics, are included in the Business Reporter special report on how the pandemic has permanently changed where and how we work (a supplement in the January edition of The Economist).

All leaders need to embrace ways of serving humanity to prevent more virulent pandemics .. How we relate to each other, how we relate to nature, needs to ensure workplaces where people thrive.

Leadership through Covid-19 and Beyond

Dr Eliane Ubalijoro

Deputy Executive Director, GODAN & Professor McGill University

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