As the country prepares for the phased lifting of restrictions and a return to work, companies are devising protocols in a bid to allay workers’ genuine concerns. But what happens when you know the parameters – and still feeling the fear regardless? CCI Associate Consultant & Change Coach, Niamh Ennis, lays out your road map back to your workplace.
“To improve is to change. To be perfect is to change often.” This quote is attributed to Winston Churchill, but of course he wasn’t talking about how to manage the changes to our working lives we all face in the aftermath of Covid-19.
When surrounded by uncertainty, it pays to focus on what we do know for sure. What we know is that we are on our way back to offices, slowly introducing previous structures back into our lives. We know the process is phased, and we also know that it’s a moving field and may be pushed forward or back, depending on certain outcomes. We know it will be different, and we are becoming more accustomed to the idea that our working lives will now feature heat thermometers, perspex dividers, foot push plates, health packs and disposable masks and gloves.
We can at last see a way forward, and there’s a certain comfort in that.
But what about the individual worker? How can we reassure those who are now feeling anxious, not just about their job security but also with how returning to work might impact on their health?
How can we support those who, even unknowingly, have been traumatised by all that has happened over the last few months and are now feeling fearful about the prospect of leaving the safety of their own home to re-enter the working world?
Recruitment is a good barometer of any economy, says Barbara McGrath, managing director of the Brightwater Group.
“Just like so many others, we at Brightwater had to make some tough decisions regarding layoffs, pay cuts and reduced working hours,” McGrath says. “But against that difficult backdrop, we are now looking at slowly getting people back into work and have an initial framework of early July for that to begin happening, albeit in a staged phase scenario. Our staff are by nature ‘people people’, and many are bursting to get back.
“We are putting everything in place that we need to, to ensure their health and safety and to enable those who want to, to come back. It’s about offering choice. It’s about improved communication and discovering what each of the individual needs are, and meeting them.”
The reality is that not all employees are peachy keen to get back to how things were before. Moreover, many are feeling “institutionalised” at home. The idea of returning to work is stirring up feelings of fear. So how should they handle this at a time when we are all feeling a lot more vulnerable?
Clinical psychologist Dr Elizabeth McCrory believes that management has a real duty of care to their teams and employees, now more than ever.
“Communication is going to be paramount in helping all workforces come through this,” she says. “Regular, open and honest dialogue needs to continue between management and staff. HR policies will need to be rewritten to reflect the new working conditions, including clarity around our working environment and set up, expected working hours, the addition of Covid-19 sick leave, annual leave – the list goes on.
“I’m also hearing a lot of talk from employees who are struggling to manage their own guilt. Guilt that they are not doing enough, watching their colleagues upskill, doing online courses, being available for meetings.”
What this proves is that experiences of how we are coping are varying hugely. Barbara McGrath is sure of one thing. “An engaged and informed workforce is most definitely a happier one and by default a more productive one,” she says. “If your employees are kept fully informed of your key decisions along the way, they won’t feel blindsided and it will go a long way to alleviating their own concerns. Talk to them. Look at all options. Giving your employees more choices is always the right way to do this.”
Since the introduction of lockdown, we have witnessed so many people learning to really slow down. The “busyness“ of everyday life was removed and in its place was a forced period of reflection. How many of us succumbed to the sourdough or banana bread production lines? How many discovered their green-fingered tendencies and found themselves hunched over window boxes or grow bags with the promise of popular herbs and vegetables? We can’t deny there has been a return to nature, to a much simpler way of living.
For some, this has resulted in them questioning how they want to live their life going forward. What if they have experienced a shift in priorities and just don’t want to go back to the old way of doing things?
Elizabeth McCrory has some clear guidance for these employees. “Don’t make any rash decisions,” she says. “We need to rediscover the rhythm to our lives again. Allow yourself a few months, as the restrictions are being slowly lifted, to find that rhythm again in your life – and then, armed with more information, you can decide down the line what is going to work best for you.”
Remember that upheaval happened so suddenly. One day you were at your desk working away surrounded by your colleagues, the next you were at your kitchen table with your computer for company. Add to this the financial worries and the challenge of processing all that is happening in our world, and it is no wonder that so many have felt overwhelmed.
Employees are adapting to working without the usual office support systems, to varying degrees of success. Staff morale has also taken a massive dent now that there are no more watercooler moments, shared laughter or in-person connections within offices and teams.
McCrory encourages employers “to consider ways that they can facilitate the coming back together to connect, laugh, smile and chat. Staff are missing this right now. They’re really missing their community and that sense of a shared connection”.
What, however, happens when a majority of employees prefer to work from home, and are being facilitated to continue in this vein?
Vanessa Tierney, chief executive of Abodoo.com, concedes that their business is benefitting from this new way of working. Its online platform empowers people and businesses with smartworking, helping companies become more agile and adaptable, and people to provide and improve their skills virtually in their remote careers.
Tierney reports a significant increase in people registering with their platform in the past two months. “Before, we had to spend some time selling the benefits of remote working to employers,” she says. “Now we don’t. They can see the benefits for themselves unfolding all around them right now. Remote working is here to stay.”
The past few months have shown us that even the most robust strategies are no defence against something like Covid-19. We can see that nothing in work or business, or indeed life, is certain, and that ultimately we have little control when it comes to global crises such as the one we are living through.
So what have we learned about ourselves and our working lives, and how can we collate everything that we now know and use it to best support our workers returning to work?
We have learned that improved two-way communication is going to be critical in how we come through this, and we’ve recognised the importance of creating space for our teams to feel free to speak openly and honestly to their managers if they have any concerns around health and safety.
If you are feeling anxious about using public transport for your commute, for example, share this with your manager. Ask where the flexibility lies. Open the dialogue and you may be surprised where it will take you.
If childcare is an issue for you right now, speak with your manager with a view to an arrangement where you are not measured on being present but on your output and results. Again, look for the flexibility.
Where you can, regain control with things such as creating a better balance in your life, connecting with your community and tuning in to what you have learned about yourself and others during the past few months.
Things will never be as they were before. But perhaps that’s okay. If we have learned just one thing from the last two months, it is just how versatile we are, from people cutting holes in their shopfronts to serve coffee from, to those who quickly brought their businesses online despite never previously thinking about doing this.
As a transformation coach, I know just how capable humans can be when adapting to change. While we have adjusted well to social distancing and lockdown, the next stage will also evolve in front of us. And while that’s happening, it’s time for you to find your rhythm again, what feels right and comfortable for you and then set about making that work for you, in your own way and at your own pace. Always at your own pace.
Niamh Ennis is a leading transformation coach working with clients who feel ready to make significant changes in their lives, as well as those who need help navigating the unwelcome changes in their lives. She is hosting her next free online workshop entitled Don’t Dim To Fit In this Friday, 22nd May, at 11am. For more information, or to register for the workshop, go to niamhennis.com