While there are few positives to draw from a pandemic, our responses to it are important. Understanding and evaluating how we react to the crisis will, hopefully, ensure that we’re better prepared the next time we are tested. As social distancing has led to lockdown in the U.K., I have been looking at our business — how it was before COVID-19, and how it will change after it.
March: When Everything Changed
Long before this new reality, we had thought hard about the type of business we wanted to be. One goal was to be able to allow team members to work from where they worked best. Before March, just over 5% of the U.K. workforce worked predominantly from home — but we saw it was a growing trend and invested in remote technologies. At the beginning of 2020, we had people plugged into our physical offices from virtual ones across the U.K., Europe, North America and Australia.
Staff members who had opted to work away from the office were mostly senior and had home office spaces where they could self-isolate from the kids (long before that became a thing). They had ergonomic chairs and desks to maintain their posture, along with ultra-fast broadband that could send a 50 GB video across the web in the blink of an eye. All of this performed with great élan across our remote working platform.
We felt pretty pleased with ourselves — until March, when everything changed.
Contact With The Enemy
By mid-March, it was being reported that many workers had shifted to their homes. All of our staff members were working from home by that point. Despite preparation, we, like many other businesses, were learning that working from home at scale is a completely different ballgame. To quote German military strategist Helmuth von Moltke’s famous adage, “No battle plan ever survives first contact with the enemy.”
Suddenly, we had employees who had to balance their laptops on chests of drawers and sit on rickety chairs that folded their spines into sciatic origami. We had employees who had to carve out “offices” in homes shared with housemates and employees who tried to attend high-definition video conferences on creaking Wi-Fi networks only really designed to stream reruns of Friends.
To meet the challenge, we’ve dispatched desks and chairs to employees across the country, made grants available to upgrade to full-fiber broadband and we’re even looking into subsidizing rent or buying property so that our people have the best work-from-home environments possible.
The Emotional Office
We have also realized that the mental workspace is at least as important as the physical. We had invested in mental health support for team members before the pandemic. This worked well in a physical office, but the emotional office is harder to manage remotely.
I believe we need to ensure that self-isolation doesn’t become emotional distancing. While on lockdown, we’re making sure that all of the members of our far-flung team come together at least three times a week on video calls. It’s a vital opportunity to retain and reinforce the sense of family we created and took for granted when many of us all sat within 20 feet of each other.
In This Together
The received wisdom is that in times of crisis, businesses adopt a defensive posture. This emergency, however, seems to be different. While we are (thankfully) fairly well armored against impacts, we know that some of our clients and suppliers are not. Protecting our business ecosystem is a priority. We need them. They need us. It’s that simple.
This mutuality is inescapable. On March 26, millions of people stood on doorsteps to cheer for those who work for the U.K.’s National Health Service. Alongside delivery drivers, factory staff and supermarket employees, these workers now (quite rightly) receive the adulation once reserved for national sports heroes.
These are extraordinary times. In the U.K., we see a conservative government, more commonly associated with rowing back state influence, embedding an unprecedented social safety net. It is paying the wages of millions of workers while backing billions in loans to businesses. Normal rules do not apply.
We Are Family
There are many, many negatives aspects of this crisis, but we can learn some valuable lessons from it.
The first is that COVID-19 has accelerated years of changes to the working environment into weeks and months. It’s given us unique insights into the future, and I believe employers need to think carefully about how we use these insights to support our businesses and staff through these changes in the longer term.
Another is that globalism, whether we like it or not, makes us interdependent. Responding to this pandemic has demanded cooperation between nations and businesses. United we stand, and divided we fall.
Perhaps the most important lesson I will take away from this is that we — individuals, teammates, neighbors, countries, continents and regions — are family. We need to look after each other — we have no choice. It is a lesson that I truly hope we carry forward into the post-pandemic world.
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Author: Kirsty Leighton, CommunityVoice