“Life was great... and then this suddenly happens!" A friend told me wistfully a few days ago. Was it really going well? Hmm... hard to say, but let's say yes, it was going well (or pretty well) for many of us. Yet this is a misleading view. Hindsight positions us in a privileged space. By viewing the past through the spectacles of the present, we gain the clarity that we’d liked to have had back then and, of course, it makes it easier to analyse, voice opinions and assess; and it even lets us be a little nostalgic.
That soundbite, repeated millions of times, which states, "You don’t know what you’ve got until you lose it," is perfect for today. Many of us miss such everyday situations like going for a coffee at noon with our favourite office co-worker, meeting up with the family on any old day, going out freely, or hanging out with friends over a beer on a Friday night. Such scenarios are beginning to look rather distant nowadays.
For some time now, I've been cultivating optimism almost as if it were a discipline itself but being optimistic doesn't stop me from confronting reality. The reality is that many months will pass before we can take up our lives with the normalcy we had. The governments of many of our countries, with clear and good intentions, keep extending, fifteen days at a time, the days we must spend in overall isolation. It is sensible and reasonable to do so. It allows indicators to be reviewed and social and health measures to be readjusted, but the overall scientific data shows that the date of return to our past routines is as yet impossible to predict accurately.
A creative meme is circulating on the web; it asks something like this: "Who was the main driver of digitization in your company? A) The innovation team, B) The HR team, C) Coronavirus."
It’s great and very telling! Essentially this is all about change! What’s one of the processes that has drastically changed recently? Work. It's changed in many ways. Intense implementation of teleworking is a clear example. Let’s discuss this now.
Several tools, perhaps the main ones, that we are using nowadays for teleworking have been part of our routine work for over a decade. Are you surprised that it’s only just now out of an external force majeure such as an epidemic, that we have begun to telework massively? I'm not surprised. Not because we finally ventured to do it. No. We've been forced to do it. We people may have many sophisticated aspects to our lives, yet we consistently maintain one basic fear: the fear of change. Of the unknown. We resist change. We resist having to "rethink", to "re-create". It’s normal. It’s human. Let's accept that.
Our lives will never be the same. Logically, our work won’t be either.
Constant daily teleworking presents us with a number of challenges we didn't have before. The routine is quite different. How can I adapt better and faster to teleworking? What should I rethink in my leadership style if I am in charge of a team? How should I report my management in my role as a supervisor?
- We are human beings working with human beings. Humanize your relationships (more, always more) with all team members. Strive to know—respect and within what’s comfortable and non-invasive—each team member’s personal situation. Does he/she live alone? Do they have small children? Does an older person depend on him/her? What routine should he/she follow at home? Familiarity with everyone's situation lets you be as flexible and understanding as needed.
- It's the time to plan better than ever before. If you head a team, make sure you convey the goal to be achieved accurately and in detail. Communicate it and keep it permanently under watch. Don't set the deadline for task completion yourself. Ask. Each of your team members is an expert in his or her field. They are the best ones for defining the times frames (Besides, giving them that responsibility spurs more commitment to the goal!). Take into account what they say. Seek consensus. Be encouraged to try or finally implement (if you haven't done so yet) collaborative tools such as Trello, Google Docs, Slack and others. Choose the one that best fits the needs. They are very intuitive and allow collective visibility over the progress of the project you are working on. They will help you optimize the use of time and avoid re-processing.
- Lack of information leads to rumours and rumours breed mistrust. We need to avoid this. Organizations as structures are experiencing moments of greater or lesser complexity. This leads to making decisions that impact us directly as employees: readjustments in working hours, staff cuts, layoffs or shutdown of operations (hopefully the last three aren’t necessary). All employees without exception deserve to know the reality in a timely manner in order to take action. This is the time to convey a sense of urgency or serenity. If you head a team and you have access to first-hand information, pass it on. If the information you handle is partial, transfer it as it is. Do your best to avoid rumours.
- Don't let the operation win. Be encouraged to spend a portion of the day rethinking and simplifying processes. But don't do it alone. Get input from those who are in charge of these processes and who are stakeholders in some way (team, partners, users...). Ask them, “How could we do this better? Is there any link in the chain we can cut? What do you propose? Where do you think the "bottleneck" is?”
- Teleworking does not mean 24x7 availability. Yet to assume that someone is sitting down in a chair at home from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., just as if they were physically in the office, is unrealistic and as foolish as wanting to discipline someone who isn’t seen to be connected during the working hours of the day (I’m telling you this because I have actually been asked: "How can I reprimand him if I can't find him when I call up?) Prioritizing presenteeism is always a mistake, even more so in a new context such as teleworking. This is an ideal moment for sowing or reinforcing the bases for a powerful cultural change in which the "product achieved" is prioritized over presenteeism per se. Read point 1 again for more details.
- Common sense, lots of common sense and to set an example. Setting an example teaches and unites more than words do. For instance, if you demand commitment, show it yourself first and at all times. Here’s a situation for you; as implausible it maybe, it’s real. An HR manager tells part of her team that during quarantine they must be onsite. The nature of the business doesn’t allow them all to telework; but she can. One day she decides to send a motivational video message, in which she says something like this: "Go for it, guys! You are the real heroes representing the company. The words are great... except she decides to make the video at her beach house revealing the sea in the background and making the screeching seagulls be heard. It's not hard to imagine the team's reaction when they see the video from their jobs onsite at the production plant—a clear and extreme example of several errors due to a lack of common sense and consistency. I like these powerful examples. Once again be consistent and use common sense!
- Don't saturate communication channels. It’s good to define which communication channel(s) to use. Again, use common sense here. Yet avoid doing "channel after channel". What do I mean? For example, it’s been agreed that e-mail is the channel for commenting non-urgent situations. If you send one, avoid immediately sending a WhatsApp message asking the recipient if they got what you just sent, and then calling five minutes later to ask why they didn't respond to either. Respect the agreements.
- Meet your team daily for follow up. Only 10 or maximum 15 minutes. Ideally in the morning. Objective: review progress from the previous day, review the current day’s challenges and learn about any obstacles someone may be encountering to reach the goal. I assure you that these will be the best minutes invested during the day.
- Over-demanding puts you at the risk of burnout and burning others out. In times like these, it is unlikely anyone would choose to leave the job (unless they have a better offer already made), but that shouldn’t be an excuse for over-demanding. Do demand quality, that yes. Strive for team building. Communicate expectations and difficulties. Deal with situations productively. How? With high doses of reality.
- Empathy, empathy and more empathy. Whether you head a team or not, make an effort to empathise, to become familiar with and to understand the other's situation. Less e-mails, less chats and more direct communication. More face to face visibility. Working at a distance requires a high dose of confidence. Empathy is a key element to build it.
To wrap up, let me make the following suggestion. Write down the four values of the Agile Manifesto. Use 4 bits of paper or post-its. I have paraphrased them, but they don’t lose their essence:
- "Value people more than processes."
- "Value added value more than excessive documentation"
- "Value collaboration where everyone wins more than disputes"
- "Value adaptation to change more than strict compliance with planning"
Place them in front of you in a visible part of your workplace and use them as a constant guide!
If we have so far kept our jobs, if we can telework, if we haven’t undergone a drop in our assets due to this crisis, then let’s not lose sight of the privileged position we have in today's world. Let’s be grateful. If you have been impacted by any of the cases I have mentioned, I can only wish you, patience, calmness and faith.
I hope you soon recover from this situation. Take heart! If you fall, it's okay, you don't have to be strong all the time, but I also wish you all the strength you need to overcome it.
True, crises are hard, they hit us, they mobilize us, but they also give us the chance to look within ourselves again, to reorganize priorities, to evolve. They also lead us some doors that may bring new opportunities beyond them. Opportunities for new victories. Persevere. Keep going.