“Stay safe”, a now familiar sign off at the end of a telephone call or email, appeared early in the evolution of the COVID-19 pandemic and along with it came a new dimension for health, safety and well-being in organisations. Around the time that this sign off was entering our vocabulary, a group of Organisational Development practitioners working in Higher Education came together to reflect on what we were learning from this disruptive period. In this blog we share with you our experiences of the well-being challenge and pose some questions to consider.
Early in the lock-down period when people first began to work remotely, there were early signs of promise that this would herald a quieter time, time to stand back, take stock, catch up, take a breather. Not perhaps for HR and IT departments who were busy supporting the transition to remote working, but many others saw this as an opportunity to work from home, saving time on a commute, with less meetings and interruptions, time to concentrate, to change pace and to achieve a more effective work-life balance. Possibly the first week was like this for some.
What actually happened was that there was intensification around our ways of working. We hurried to put things in place to work remotely, clearing offices and filling homes with work-related paraphernalia. We quickly learned new technologies to support remote working. School closures and home-schooling made work-life balance challenging for some. Back-to-back virtual meetings introduced a different kind of ‘presenteeism’; virtual meeting overload led to headaches, backache, fatigue, and a dearth of meal or comfort breaks. We had moved into survival mode.
We experienced a time of loss. Some were grieving the loss of family, friends, and colleagues without their usual support structures around them. Several organisations put new support in place for bereavement. And some experienced a sense of loss of identity as they began furlough. Debates about who should furlough now, who later, what that said about the value of their role, the impact on culture and the unknown legacy added another layer of anxiety. And the impact of this time on sector finance, personal finance and the economy more broadly brought with it cuts to budgets and the threat of redundancies.
In many ways the pandemic was declared at a helpful time; anxiety levels were high, and a long Easter weekend followed by a string of customary holidays in the UK served to provide a little respite. Several institutions gave staff an additional day off attached to one of the long weekends and one institution gave every member of staff an additional five days holiday.
We swiftly moved to identify and bring together resources for staff to manage their well-being. One university aptly labelled their resource portal ‘Remote Not Distant’. In another university personal trainers from the sports department worked virtually with individuals to develop a support plan for the lock-down period. Despite these efforts, there was concern that resources were superficial and that this was just putting a sticking plaster over a wound. There was a sense that the longer-term mental health implications of this time could be far greater than we were providing for, and that no real assessment was taking place to check how the resources were perceived/used/valued. Rather than accept these competing views, we crafted a question to bring these two dimensions together: How can we monitor engagement with, and the impact of, well-being resources to inform the support we will need to put in place for the longer term?
There have been encouraging stories of how leaders and managers have really valued and supported their people during this time and treated them as a ‘whole person’ rather than just an employee. Experiences though have varied. Some staff have spoken of being trusted to work from home; some have felt forgotten by their line manager and waited six weeks into lock-down before a catch up; others have spoken of being micro-managed with daily check-ins. One of our party asked: How can we sensitively have conversations with line managers about their blind spots when they are struggling themselves?
Leaders and managers have been stretched as they wrestle with both remote working and remote leadership. They have struggled with the best way to manage performance at this time; their levels of confidence in asking staff how much it is possible for them to achieve at home have varied according to their level of maturity as a line manager. And they have concerns about the legacy of giving people a bit of grace to work or not work depending on what their circumstances allow; and how to motivate those who are slowing down. Some have expressed concern that resistance to any form of flexible working may be futile in future now that people are demonstrating how it can work. Several institutions put in place explicit well-being support for managers to assist them in managing staff in this new environment; to reassure that it was ‘OK to not be OK’ during a period of adjustment. One institution provided 65 individual coaching sessions to managers in one single week early in the lock-down.
For some working at home has been a challenge. Lack of space or technical equipment and home-schooling have stymied productivity. Others who have been accustomed to some homeworking and used it as a time of focus and quiet concentration, or to flex the timing of their working day to suit their natural rhythms (or for practical reasons) have found this space interrupted by relentless meetings, sometimes called spontaneously on the day rather than with the traditional lead time. We asked: How can we best balance the benefits of homeworking with the expectations of a traditional workday to maximise work and personal performance?
Some have been surprised and delighted by the benefits of: a lack of commute; more time for work or leisure; no travel costs; advantages for the environment; and the sheer joy of being at home more. Such benefits have encouraged them to rethink their way of life. Similarly, many of those on furlough have been pleased to spend time doing things that they have longed to find time to do. In fact, some have reported that they do not wish to return to the relentless way of life that they were living before the lockdown. Others are concerned that we may lose talent as people decide that they no longer want to live and work as they did before. In many organisations more female workers work part-time than males; we wondered what may happen to the gender pay gap if males decide that they prefer to change the pace of life and opt for part-time work?
We noticed that some people were really ‘stepping up’ at this time, demonstrating skills and strengths that may have previously gone un-noticed. At first, we thought that this might be a good time to spot talent that has gone under the radar. However, we quickly realised that not everyone is able to ‘step up’ even if they want to, due to the challenges already outlined above. This brings issues of fairness, equality, and equity into sharp focus. We tussled with ideas about how to recognise contributions during this period. Should we recognise those who have struggled as well as those who have shone, or would this be patronising and unwelcome? How can we recognise the contributions and diversity of staff experiences working remotely in a way that is fair? Should we even hold staff award ceremonies this year?
We started this blog with ‘stay safe’, a now familiar sign off at the end of a meeting or message. An already familiar greeting when we meet someone has long been ‘how are you?’ This time has taught us that we may never really have meant it in the way that we mean it today; when we say ‘how are you?’ today, what we really mean is ‘how are you – really?’ And nowadays we seem find it easier to share how we really are. So maybe something that this time has taught us is how to open-up, to be honest, to share and discuss feelings and emotions, and to tap into the fantastic well-being resources and services that universities have developed over recent years.
At last, the door has been opened to ‘really’ address the well-being challenge in our organisations, in a deeper and more meaningful way.
Some questions to ponder:
- How are you – really?
- How can we monitor engagement with, and the impact of, well-being resources to inform the support we will need to put in place for the longer term?
- How can we sensitively have conversations with line managers about their blind spots when they are struggling themselves?
- How can we best balance the benefits of homeworking with the expectations of a traditional workday to maximise work and personal performance?
- In many organisations more female workers work part-time than males; what may happen to the gender pay gap if males decide they prefer to change the pace of life and opt for part-time work?
- How can we recognise the contributions and diversity of staff experiences working remotely in ways that are fair?
Dr Colleen Harding, Bournemouth University, together with colleagues from the Learning from Disruption sessions that took place in April 2020 during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic and lock-down:
Caroline Bryant, Regent’s University London; Lisa Stevenson, Sheffield Hallam University; Bethany Hyman, Brunel University; David Wallace, Queen Mary University of London; Rosemary Benson, London Metropolitan University; Laura Brown, University of London; Simon Inger, University of Bath; Sophie Lovejoy, Organisational Development in Higher Education Network (ODHE); Daniela Bultoc, University College, London; Sam McVaigh, Manchester Metropolitan University; Lisa Anderson, University of Dundee; Sophie Sowerby, Durham University; Sara Corcoran, University of Sufffolk; Annette Robinson, Lancaster University; Susan Kane, University of York; Saire Jones, University of Westminster; Trudie Donnelly, University of Warwick; Ailbhe Lynch, City, University of London; Sarah Akhtar, Sheffield Hallam University; Colleen Harding, Bournemouth University
What is Ours to Do? 1 June 2020
Agility and other ‘…ities’ 5 June 2020
Communication and Compassion 9 June 2020