It may be only the end of July but I’m turning my attention to September as I think it’s worth planning for now. September has always had a feel of New Year, back to normal about it, but this year what kind of normal will it be? Even if you’re going to keep working from home well into next year, as many organisations are planning to do, September is still likely to feel psychologically different. So whatever your working arrangements are likely to be, here are five things to consider:
1. Still Working From Home
After four months, it’s easy to assume that you’ve cracked WFH, but there’s a difference between a short term fix and a long term way of working. This is a good time to stop and review how things are going. What might you need to do differently, individually and as a team? Here are some questions to consider:
What’s working well and what could we do more/less of?
How well are we maintaining and respecting boundaries between work and home (our own and each other’s)?
How are we maintaining our well-being and resilience?
What’s going to be different as we move into winter?
Is WFH becoming impossible for anyone (there is only so long someone can work in their bedroom in a shared flat while their furloughed flatmate watches daytime TV in the next room)? What alternatives can we find (e.g. co-working space)?
Is anyone really struggling and how can we support them?
What’s our policy on meeting clients?
How do we support any new starters?
2. We’ve all been changed by this – some more than others
For some this has been a time of incredible pressure, which has taken a great toll. For others, it’s been an opportunity to reflect on what really matters to them. Don’t assume that your team or your colleagues are in the same place they were in March. My sister in New Zealand (several steps ahead having handled things well) tells me that, when things returned to a degree of normality, some of her team didn’t come back at all. Some of your colleagues may be:
Exhausted and operating on the last of their resources.
Preoccupied by some other aspects of their lives – a relationship under strain, teenage kids who’ve lost direction, elderly relatives they haven’t seen for months.
Disengaged after months of furlough, wondering if this is really want they want to do with their lives.
Generally depressed and fearful about the state of the world.
Bereaved, whether through Covid or not, at a time when normal mourning rituals and support networks are less available.
One of the unlucky ones whose recovery from Covid is long and drawn out, featuring fatigue and brain fog.
People may not behave as you expect them to. We all need to make allowances for each other.
3. We’re all potential bio-hazards – and we don’t like it
I saw a tweet recently complaining about shops treating customers as bio-hazards. It had a definite whiff of “You can’t think I’m a risk, I shop at Waitrose” about it. But potentially, any of us could transmit the virus to others. There are legitimate discussions to be had about how much risk there is and how to contain it. But that fact that we are all potential bio-hazards is an inconvenient truth (unless you wander deep into conspiracy theory territory and I’m not going there).
I think that’s hard to live with. We know it logically but it cuts deep into primal fears about disease, cleanliness and disgust. If you want an example of that, look at the harassment received by a man who informed his local pub that he’d tested positive. Suggesting that we might be carrying a disease can make us feel contaminated and dirty and yet we want to think of ourselves as fresh and clean (especially if we shop in Waitrose). That cognitive dissonance is hard to tolerate and leads to four risks:
We focus on protecting ourselves, rather than minimising the risk we pose to others.
We take slight offence when someone treats us as a hazard – a wince, a flash of irritation if someone moves away or doesn’t want to touch something we’ve touched.
We relax too much around familiar people because they can’t be hazards, can they? I know you, I trust you, you’re probably fine.
We may be more wary than we need to be around people who aren’t like us.
In a conversation recently about when we might have face-to-face business meetings again, someone said he’d be considering “Are you, like me, someone who’s been taking reasonable precautions?” A very sensible judgement, but how can you tell? And how soon does the end of the sentence drop away to become simply “Are you like me?” Bye bye tolerance and inclusivity.
4. The paradox of relaxed vigilance
If you’ve started, or are planning, to return to the workplace, you will no doubt have conducted risk assessments and implemented numerous H&S measures. But how do you ensure the right behaviours? This should not be about enforcing compliance. That leads to resentment and to someone having the job of telling people off. The aim should be to embed this in the culture.
I think the key to this is to be very human about it and accept that we will forget. It’s all too easy to slip back into normal behaviours with your familiar colleagues, like huddling over the same computer screen. This is the paradox at the heart of the new normal – we want a relaxed atmosphere and yet we need to be constantly alert and vigilant. Some suggestions for achieving relaxed vigilance are:
Be really clear about the behaviours expected. When should masks be worn? Is it OK to make someone else a coffee?
Role model the right behaviours. For example, I’ve heard of offices where some junior staff would like to wear masks but feel too self-conscious to be the first ones to do so. Leaders need to step up here.
Identify the situations where you are likely to forget or trip up – getting too close to each other’s desks, all using the same pen to write on a whiteboard, standing in the wrong place so people can’t get past safely.
Give each other explicit permission to mention unsafe behaviour. This is not about shaming or ‘calling out’. It’s acknowledging that we all forget and need to support each other to behave safely.
Use visual reminders. “Keep calm and keep your distance”; “This is what 2m looks like”. Apparently, TV presenter Richard Osman is exactly 2m tall; is there a market for cut outs reminding you to keep an Osman away?
5. Expect some team disruption
This pandemic has been collectively and individually unsettling, so it would be surprising if there wasn’t some disruption to team working. This is especially the case where people have had different experiences, which can lead to an us and them mentality. Places to look out for potential divisions include:
Differences in readiness to return to the workplace and perceptions of risk.
Furloughed staff feeling ignored and out of the loop, while non-furloughed staff resent those who’ve had a paid break.
Staff who have to go into the workplace resenting those with the option to work at home.
Those who have to come in on specific days resenting those with more autonomy.
Working parents feeling others don’t realise the pressure they’ve been under.
Close knit teams getting all their social contact from each other and ignoring other teams, reinforcing silos.
People in the office on different days losing touch with each other.
The dynamics of your team may have shifted and leaders may need to put deliberate effort into maintaining team cohesion.
I’m currently exploring ways to support leaders to navigate this complex space. There are new and different people issues to address and we’re all still finding our way. If you’d like a chat about handling these issues with sensitivity in your organisation, do get in touch: email@example.com