*This post is an unedited extract of an original article published and featured as the cover of the Association of Corporate Counsel’s July/August 2020 publication, the ACC Docket. CLICK HERE for the full edited article. 

It goes without saying that 2020 has so far been a multitude of negative descriptors. What is particularly unique and interesting is globally individuals are all experiencing their own individualised versions of challenges, as a result of the exact same pandemic. Every single person in the world is in some shape or form, some more so than others, feeling the effects of Covid-19.

The pandemic has forced everyone out of their routine behavioural patterns, both at home and at work. Forced everyone to change how they plan for, think about, react to and approach daily tasks. We all know with any kind of change, it’s uncomfortable – let alone change spurred on by living in a sudden health crisis. But equally with change comes growth and opportunity. Consider how you might take this situation as a chance to improve your connectedness with your teams? Or try out alternative ways to motivate others? Embrace new effective working habits? Supercharge team morale? Whilst difficult circumstances can cause gloomy sentiment, they also have a way of unifying people under the right leadership.

Right now emotions are heightened and varied; some of the most common adjectives describing how people are feeling are not the most comfortable ones: unsettled, anxious, concerned. Someone quite aptly pointed out that processing the Covid landscape is akin to experiencing the key stages of dealing with grief – denial, anger, depression and acceptance. In many ways we are certainly grieving over the loss of our ordinary ways of life. That however doesn’t mean going overboard and inadvertently conveying a manufactured, cliched proliferation of empathy and understanding to our teams. Be sensible. Be sensitive. And recognise everyone is dealing with their very own unique state of affairs at present.

Easier said than done but it is worth exploring some of the opportunities that are currently on the table for many of us to engage with to lift our spirits, ensure longevity through social distancing, and enable us to emerge from lock down, enhanced and energised.

Put effort into positive connection

Most of us office ants have now swapped walking into work, post-detour via a favoured coffee haunt, with rolling out of bed to a desk at home – sans makeup and shirts. Working remotely has the benefit of enabling greater focus on tasks without interruptions (rejoiced by all the introverts), although those interruptions are often a key part of gelling as a team. Whether it’s important communications, throwing around ideas or sharing the discovery of a new amazing bagel place – the interruptions add value. Don’t underestimate the value of chatter over which bagel on the menu is the best lunch option.

It is straightforward enough to utilise Zoom for all formal and necessary work communications, but what happens now to those valuable, fun (albeit sometimes unwanted) interruptions? How can that connection be re-created? Every team and organisation is going to be different, but take stock of what can be done to ensure positive interactions can still occur with everyone working from home. Be sure to consider your team members and reflect on how they derive and perceive positive interactions with their peers – in particular have regard to the mix of introverts and extroverts and the myriad of needs that should be juggled and balanced.

One very simple and unobtrusive tool that has been adopted by the HESTA legal team has been to maintain a running Zoom team chat that has naturally developed to include things like quick call outs to one another for work questions, to sharing memes and cookie deliveries. People are naturally logging on at the start of the day and saying good morning, just as they would when arriving at their desk in the office.

Niki Haralambidis, Legal Counsel, HESTA, “Though you might not be talking to people 24/7 you know you can – the feeling of knowing your team is there is sometimes all you need”

Additionally, having the ongoing team chat has fostered a heightened level of inclusiveness as all the former in-office hallway tete-a-tetes are now with the whole team – although perhaps sometimes to the chagrin of others.

Implement new working habits

Each person has a way of getting into their working rhythm. For some it’s blocking out a few hours with headphones in to draft that gnarly contract. Others need to discuss ideas with their colleagues on how to best advise on a regulatory change impacting the business. The processes underpinning those contract or regulatory change outputs that are being targeted, are made up of behavioural habits that have been developed and ingrained over time. Old habits serve us well, but what if you used now as a time to hit the reset button to reconsider new ways of working effectively, that could develop into new habits workable post-lock down?

Right space for the right kind of work

This may sound trite or even silly, but certain kinds of work lend themselves to being done in certain types of environments. Finding the right space for doing the right work can naturally increase productivity and quality of output – or, may simply allow you to multitask. Using your laptop in the living room with some reality tv on in the background and the fun of your household bustling around you may not be a bad idea if getting through administrative tasks. Like submitting your expense form or other relatively low concentration items, with the added bonuses of petting your dog and finding out who is missing out on a rose. You then naturally reserve the serious study set up for reviewing tedious legislation and other to-dos that need a lock down in isolation to get done.

Setting hard boundaries

Working from home during this extended timeframe means we are forced to allow the professional to bleed more into the personal. Home is now also office. It is hard enough for people to set boundaries to maintain work-life balance and wellbeing with the physical segregation between the spheres of work and play, but now that work is invited into our personal spaces it is even more important to be ensure you and your teams are setting clear boundaries to ensure longevity of team morale and effectiveness. Without the boundaries, we are not building sustainable work practices and people will find themselves losing hold of their valued and necessary home/family/personal time.

Respect the time and personal space of all your team members and ensure you do your part in supporting one another’s boundaries. And whilst it may be tempting to finish reviewing that document straight after dinner, is it really going to make a difference if you pick it back up first thing the next morning? Now is the time to reset your personal boundaries. After dinner time may be better spent arguing with your partner on who is likely to win Masterchef.

Eating at your desk also becomes amplified when working from home as you are in a sense, more comfortable with the convenient luxury of Ubereats, let alone when you’re regularly rushing from one meeting to another. You’re more inclined to work for longer without getting up to stretch your legs or take a decent break from the screen. Be mindful of when you are finding yourself less focused as that should be likely cue to take a break from your screen and get some fresh air outside.

Zoom more!

For those leading multi-functional teams it can be all the more challenging to maintain your relationships and communications across all your different team members. Upping the communication channels and regularly checking in is time consuming but so important to ensuring people remain supported and motivated to get through whatever work the virus hasn’t chased away. But not every Zoom (or whatever alternative technology tool you’re using) call has to be video enabled. We have already started seeing commentary about how exhausting people are finding it to be consistently on show with days on end of video conferencing. Mixing up the communications between video and voice-only Zooms replicates some level of what those forms of communication are like and how they’re utilised back in the workplace. It also facilitates you increasing channels to connecting and discussing issues with your teams without overdoing the in-your-face stress that video-enablement can cause.

Jason Kneebone, Project Manager – Legal & Commercial Affairs, HESTA, “From a project perspective, we are doing daily “stand-ups” around the focus for each day, so we can connect outside of our ongoing project meetings. 

Interestingly in many ways it has been quicker and more efficient for some teams working from home to utilise a quick Zoom meeting to discuss issues that arise, than previously in the office where a physical meeting would be booked for a few days later as people struggle to align calendars. This more agile way of working is one to certainly maintain post-return to the office.

Test and strengthen organisational/team culture and morale

Boards and management are notoriously trigger-happy when it comes to engaging external strategy consultants to formulate statements around the organisation’s values, vision and mission. But the challenge really lies in how these flowery statements of corporate virtue are genuinely brought to life and fostered through its people and measured through culture and morale. In times of economic crisis, as the pandemic has been described by many, actions speak volumes. Now is a time where if there are shaky foundations, cracks will start to show in a business. Strong team culture and morale are pivotal to that foundation and to repairing any cracks that do form.

To that point, there are widely known things that test the foundational strength of a relationship. For a new romantic relationship many say it’s the first overseas trip you take together. For a marriage, it’s renovating a house. For an organisation and its relationship with its employees, the truth and authenticity behind its values and culture is certainly being tested by coronavirus. If team members were feeling disengaged or demotivated before, it will really start to show now.

Nikki Howie, Legal Counsel, HESTA, “ Being connected to what we are doing as an organisation makes me feel less like I’m riding solo, and more as though what we do is meaningful (especially as our members are so involved with community care at the moment).”

Further to that, acknowledging and celebrating the contributions team members make hat do in fact make a difference, is a simple and important. Whether in the form of verbal acknowledgement or, having a Zoom drink to celebrate together – embrace innovative ways of celebrating when physically separated to foster team wellbeing.

Coming out of Covid lock-down enhanced and energised

Harnessing connectedness, communicating more, strengthening team morale, effective working habits, upskilling yourself and your team, using service providers better – it all sounds like an enormous list of things to do when there isn’t quite clear what light at the end of the tunnel is supposed to look like.

The pandemic as mentioned has created a new world for all individuals at a global level and it can be hard to see a silver lining while many of us try to put out multiple spot fires. But the silver lining is there: a routine disrupted. Not for a day or two. But for a prolonged period of time that is yet to be determined. And as we all have come to accept, disruption yields newness. Improvements. Innovations. This is an opportunity to leverage the current disruption to our routine working lives to practice some behaviours, observations and reflections to come out enhanced, energised and united as teams.

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