We are five weeks into the largest experiment of homeworking in history.
After the initial panic and scramble for technology, things have started to settle down. The ‘excitement’ of getting sorted is fading, the adrenalin levels are returning to normal and new working routines are pretty much established. For some, it’s working well; for others battle fatigue is setting in and for everyone, there are anxieties and concerns which cannot be ignored. According to the CIPD, two-thirds of employers say supporting staff mental health and well-being is one of their priorities during the coronavirus crisis.
But what is the role of the internal communicator in this? We spoke to a range of individuals and organisations to find out what interventions are happening across our workplaces to help people cope with today’s ‘new normal’.
Worker wellbeing under threat
Long before the majority have been forced to work remotely due to the current Coronavirus crisis, we have been championing the use of social technologies to break down siloes in large organisations and improve internal communications in a bid to combat widespread cultural disengagement. Now, as these digital employee communication tools and intranets become critical for maintaining business operations, we look more closely at the role they can play in employee wellbeing too.
“While there are many aspects of work achievable from home, the wider social benefits of office life are likely to be taking a battering at this time,” Ed Beccle, Co-founder of Grasp.hr told us. “One of the advantages of office life is the feeling of being part of a wider team, with a chance to collaborate and connect on a personal and professional level face-to-face. In the short term we can focus on the essential tasks but without encouraging the unofficial relationship building and the informal networks which exist beyond team boundaries, we risk stifling innovation and creativity – the very qualities we will need in abundance to bounce back when this is over.”
In truth, there has been much wrong with work for too long.
CIPD chief executive Peter Cheese explains: “For the past 30 years or so, work has been driven almost exclusively by economic output, with businesses pursuing profit at the expense of everything else. Yet we have seen no increase in productivity, growing pay inequality, increased stress at work and an engagement plateau. The paradigm has shifted but progress is slow. While humans have always had mental health issues, we now recognise the extent to which this is affected by work, with employees citing hitting targets, heavy workloads, and lack of support as the reasons for their poor wellbeing. And technology has, in some cases, made this worse where data is used to control and disempower people at work. Our working culture has an innate presenteeism bias, trust is often lacking and, as many are now discovering, we were not generally well set up for agile working. The current crisis is extreme but it is also a catalyst for change – it’s the big kick up the a**e we need to accelerate the change we have been fighting for: to put humanity back at the centre of the workplace.”
Jonathan Philips, head of consulting at simplycommunicate agrees adding: “Technology has not always been used as a force for good at work, but every day we are working with companies who are using technology as driver of positive change, realising its worth in building communities, strengthening engagement and improving collaboration.”
Internal communicators have a critical role to play
Over the last month, perhaps unsurprisingly, demand for digital employee communication tools has rocketed. IT rollouts have been compressed to weeks instead of the years forecast and businesses are introducing social intranets and digital workplaces at pace.
Whatever stage you were at before, the right messages through the right channels matter. For those who have, or do experience mental health issues, a lack of certainty, fear of the unknown and the sheer scale of the situation can have a significant and detrimental effect on wellbeing.
We now have a responsibility to work with leaders and HR colleagues to ensure there is a good strategic narrative and it is explained openly, honestly and repeatedly. Everyone in the organisation needs to know what is happening, why it is happening and what the consequences for them might be.
Line managers need to be fully briefed and supported so they can continue the conversation at a more local level with relevance for individuals, empathy and understanding. Managers may not have all the answers, and they are certainly not health experts, but internal communication can help to ensure they know what help is available and how to signpost people to it.
MHFA England, a social enterprise which offers expertise in workplace mental health, launched a MyWholeSelf campaign focusing on providing guidance designed to support employees feeling the impact of the Coronavirus.
Simon Blake OBE, Chief Executive of Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England said; “Whether online or offline, bringing your whole self to work is a mindset which is better for wellbeing and better for business. When be bring authenticity, kindness and our whole self to our jobs, it enables us to work better together, boosting performance, creativity and innovation.
“In the current climate, and as more organisations move to online working, human connections are more important than ever. Nurturing them virtually will be key to supporting the nation’s mental health and wellbeing as we come together to tackle the impact of Coronavirus.”
Edelman’s COVID-19 report highlighted how employers remain the most trusted source of information. Their recent figures found 63% of employees wanting daily briefings about Coronavirus. Collating this single source of truth is an essential and ongoing requirement.
Dedicated Coronavirus sections on company intranets with associated FAQs are the most common repository, with updates from senior leaders on how the business is impacted, what steps are being taken to keep employees safe, how the business is adapting its operations in response to the crisis and how it is supporting the wider community. Regular pulse surveys can help to ensure all employees’ concerns, worries and questions about COVID-19 are being addressed in these daily briefings.
Working or shirking?
The importance of line managers, and the considerable responsibility on them, has been clear throughout these extraordinary few weeks. How are they coping with the increased demands, keeping on top of the day job as well as supporting each team member? Is it fair one person who lives alone still works a standard 8-hour day while someone juggling three kids dips in and out when he/she can? Perhaps your broadband is dodgy and your technology second rate, impacting your ability to deliver and feel good about your work. Is it all getting too frustrating?
There are certainly some employees who will work all the hours of the day to impress a boss putting themselves at risk of burn out and stress. There are others who will find it increasingly hard to focus on the job in hand and contribute next to nothing. Consideration must be given to likely individual responses to the current situation.
Every employee should be asked frequently, “How are you? How are you feeling about home working? Is there anything we need to know about your situation?” And every manager should be genuine in wanting to know the answers. Let us not forget, once this is over, and it will end, how you treat your people now will determine how they perform and whether they stick with you in the long run. At a time where business survival is in the balance, now is not the time for a heavy- handed nor judgmental approach.
Mike Blake, wellbeing lead at Willis Towers Watson shared his thoughts: “There’s a flexibility people have now many didn’t have before. My advice would be to grab this opportunity to take some control over your work. Every team leader must have conversations with their team members to agree what’s important to do now, what can wait and what is no longer important. Use the technology at your fingertips to record and measure what gets done rather than precisely when it gets done; shifting to an output focused culture will help compensate for the sense of injustice over the number of hours worked and help guide thinking towards key performance indicators that really matter.”
And Matt Jones, Senior Vice President, Global Operations at Cielo added: “This is a monumental test for remote working capabilities. But it is not simply a test of bandwidth, productivity or resumption of service. It is a leadership test of flexibility, compassion and understanding. If we can create a thriving working environment, where team members feel supported, comfortable and connected, then this unforeseen and unprecedented test of remote working could shape the way we work for decades to come.”
Business leaders must focus on morale, not productivity
Robert Ordever, MD of O.C Tanner Europe picks up this point, adding: “Technology is currently the lifeline connecting employees together. It’s allowing those in lockdown to see a smiling colleague, to interact with their teams, to show appreciation, perhaps catch-up over a virtual coffee, and to take part in wellbeing initiatives such as Zoom workouts and meditation webinars, bringing people closer together and raising their spirits despite the distance. These crucial virtual interactions can mean the difference between an employee who feels positive, valued and motivated and one who feels lonely and disengaged.”
It’s getting the basics right first which will make the biggest difference. The way we communicate internally around our organisations is no exception. Many businesses are using Microsoft Teams – we use it here at simplycommunicate. MD and Founder Marc Wright tells us: “MS Teams has been a huge success for us. It combines the deep hard work of creating content with the ability to lift your head up and ping a colleague or see them face to face to ask advice or discuss a problem. Email use has dropped off a cliff as we work out loud. It is not uncommon for several of us to be on a call all working on the same document in real time. The output is faster and more satisfying than the old game of email ping pong we used to play in the office.
“Since the crisis began, we agreed a morning stand up meeting for all the team at 9:30am. Sometimes they run for an hour, sometimes just 30 minutes, but each morning they anchor the day and serve as a huge well-being boost to us all. Firstly, they force us to get into work mode – to check emails and Teams to make sure we are prepared to report on each part of the simply operations. But secondly – and more importantly – they give us all a chance to gossip, vent and laugh about the craziness of running businesses from home where children and pets are running amok and spouses are fraying each other’s nerves. Work becomes an escape and a refuge and although I do not expect the team to stick at their laptops solidly through to 5:30pm, the work gets done.”
Robert Ordever again: “It’s vital leaders put employee wellbeing first right now, viewing technology as a way to bring happiness, calm and positivity rather than as a home-working necessity. Those leaders who don’t prioritise wellbeing, focusing on emailing rather than video conferencing their teams, for example, will find their employees in isolation begin to feel truly alone.”
Engage, connect, support
Even in businesses who are used to remote working, colleagues are still feeling the strain.
Catherine Carey, PR & Communications manager at Consumer Intelligence told us: “The factor causing the most worry and stress is that there is no end in sight. We want to ensure no-one feels isolated at this extremely difficult time and we believe by providing opportunities for our people to connect socially, we can support people’s mental health and wellbeing.
“To ensure our colleagues remain engaged, connected and supported, we have arranged a suite of virtual social touch points throughout the working week, on weekday evenings and even over the weekend. These include virtual coffee breaks, Come Dine With Me sessions (aimed at bringing people dining alone together), cooking shows and dance classes hosted by colleagues, games nights and pub quizzes, and even live music – all enjoyed from the comfort of home.
“We’ve also created a whole new section named ‘Lockdown Town’ in Microsoft Teams – our video conferencing and internal collaboration platform – featuring channels such as ‘Meme Village’ and ‘Parenting Precinct’ where people can share fun stuff likes memes, signpost interesting content to keep colleagues entertained and informed, share tips for managing working from home with caring for children, and much more.”
At O.C Tanner they also view staff’s emotional and social wellbeing as a top priority and some of the initiatives it’s undertaking during the lockdown include the following:
- An employee crowdsourced cookbook to help staff cook healthy family meals with fewer supplies than usual
- Online webinars and training around subjects like isolation, quality sleep, stress relief and meditation
- Online health and wellbeing activities using video conferencing including yoga, circuit training, stretching and cardio workouts. These are led by the company’s wellbeing team and broadcast to staff around the globe
- Daily riddles via Teams in order to get everyone interacting and to help them stay energised
- Sharing moments of recognition via video conference
- A live social feed on the intranet sharing positive staff appreciation stories from around the world
As Robert Ordever says: “As employees sit in their homes in isolation, these stories are more important and more impactful than ever before.”
Help is on hand
Not every organisation has the capability and resource to create wellbeing and team building activities inhouse but fortunately there is plenty on offer from third party providers.
Jonny Edser, Founder and MD of Wildgoose, said: “Virtual team building and support has never been more important for employee wellness and mental health. The prospect of isolation over a long period of time is not good for anybody. We want to do everything we can to put a smile back on the face of colleagues, make isolation less painful and make the working week work better at home.”
Wildgoose has three pioneering virtual experiences to help employees working from home to stay connected and motivated in these uncertain times. Whether it’s a daily creative challenge, a team social or a virtual away-day, costing as little as £12+VAT per person.
Wellbeing app REVOOLA is leading a campaign to help employers look after their staff’s mental and physical fitness while working from home during the coronavirus pandemic. Mark Williams, co-founder at REVOOLA said: “Our daily lives have changed dramatically, routines have been thrown out of the window and many workers are feeling anxious and concerned about the uncertainty in the coming weeks and months. Never has it been more important for businesses to show empathy, care, kindness and support to their staff. And helping employees stay mentally and physically fit is a very tangible and crucial way businesses can support their employees in these unsettling times.”
REVOOLA is offering all of the UK’s workforce and businesses free 30 day access to its wellbeing app featuring a huge choice of instructor-led mindfulness activities and body fitness classes.
Don’t let a good crisis go to waste
Many employees are feeling overwhelmed right now. Hopefully, we have offered some practical suggestions to address the anxieties and stresses employees are feeling and ideas to help.
Taking care of people, showing empathy, kindness and compassion is a business essential. It’s how we will build resilience; it’s how we will emerge stronger. This is an opportunity for managers to understand their teams better than ever before, to be able to identify the strengths and weaknesses, to be able to tailor support and training more effectively, and overall to create a happier, more efficient workplace. Let’s use technology to empower people at work. Let’s use data to make good choices and strong decisions. And let’s measure the things that matter in this huge homeworking experiment: workplace stress, employee wellbeing, engagement, corporate reputation. And let’s use COMMUNICATION to inform, reassure, appreciate and recognise.
Further resources to support good mental well-being
World Health Organization: Mental Health and Psychological Considerations during the COVID-19 Outbreak
Mind guidance on Coronavirus and your well-being
CIPD and Mind People Managers’ Guide to Mental Health
Mental Health First Aid England. Free resources for workplaces, and more information about the campaign, can be accessed at: https://mhfaengland.org/my-whole-self/
Post by Alison Boothby