On the one hand we have the employer who feels they lost a certain amount of control of their team during lockdown, because what precisely were staff up to when they were at home? And on the other we have the employees who quite enjoy having the flexibility to walk the dog mid-afternoon or run a quick load of laundry during working hours. Understandably companies are keen to keep their employees in the workplace as it helps them feel more in control. And, of course, social cohesion remains essential to a strongly aligned team. But as long as targets, deadlines, and KPIs are being met, is there a problem? And how can you create a safe, respectful and balanced working environment for all?
ROI vs. ROT
“People need structure, and work-from-home has blurred boundaries,” says Willemijn. “Before Covid you’d get into your car, drive to work, do your eight hours and then return home again. Things were clear. WFH means the kids asking for a snack, a delivery that needs signing for, screens freezing mid-meeting and questions needing to be repeated… The symbolic mask that we wear for work – at work you are in function, at home you can be your authentic self – has cracked now our professional and private lives have become so entwined. Calling a colleague at 4pm is perfectly reasonable, but experience tells us they might already have poured themselves a glass of wine after a full working day.”
“We’ve always been told that, in order to be successful, we must work hard. But what precisely does that mean? Is it working from nine to five, is it being busy-busy-busy whenever someone asks how you are? What precisely is the measure of success? Companies tend to think in return-on-investment: what they get in return for the employee’s remuneration. But perhaps we should start talking about return-on-time – or ROT – instead of ROI: if you are better able to focus on that report when the house is quiet, then surely that represents better value for the company. However, if your boss rings while you’re showering at 10am because you were working late, they might think you are slacking, even though the opposite is true. It’s hugely important to understand that perspectives differ and a lot of misunderstandings are due to perception.”
Going from the relative peace and quiet (and safety) of your home office to an open plan space with lots of people can be quite stressful. Even more so now that Omicron has made its entry. And you aren’t alone if you’re feeling hesitant about returning to life ‘as before’: a recent study by the American Psychological Association reported that 49 percent of surveyed adults anticipated being uncomfortable about returning to in-person interactions when the pandemic ends. It found that 48 percent of those who have received a COVID vaccine said they felt the same way. This sense of anxiety is known as the ‘cave syndrome’ and the back-and-forth between the loosening and tightening of restrictions doesn’t exactly help.
“People are understandably nervous about working in a shared environment,” confirms Willemijn. “Because what is company policy? Vaccination is still a personal choice and (in theory) employers cannot force you to have one. Picture yourself sharing a meeting room with eight people, of whom four are wearing a mask. How does that make you feel? Are they unvaccinated or just anxious? People are becoming increasingly distrustful and judgemental of one another. Are you ‘woke’ or a ‘follower’? Which side of the fence are you on? And how do you address this as a team leader? Can you even address it?”
State Your Policy
“The right to privacy means you aren’t allowed to ask about someone’s vaccination status or beliefs. So what do you do? Are you going to discuss this openly with the team or respect individuals’ right to privacy? There is a case to be made for this because you are legally obliged to provide employees with a safe working environment. The two principles are diametrically opposed, so how can you reassure your team? A lot of organisations are struggling to work out how to deal with this. Because simply following government restrictions (or the lifting of them), isn’t a company policy you can build on. The national advisory group GEMS advises one thing and the politicians decide something else altogether. Understandably, faith in the powers that be is at an all-time low and you need your own company policy to reassure your team.”
In fact, a number of organisations have already openly stated their stance on the matter and you can argue it either way. ZNA announced vaccination to be a prerequisite for all new hires and Leaseplan made vaccination mandatory for its entire staff unless they want to work from home ‘forever’, as have Google and Facebook, to name but a few. This show of strength – get the jab or lose the job – although understandable, isn’t exactly respectful towards the individual and doesn’t make for a fully aligned team. So where do you go from here?
Shades of Grey
“We need to recognise how vulnerable we are all feeling, both as employers and as employees. Everyone is deliberating, trying to work out what is ‘right’ moving forward, but the truth is nobody knows. There is no black or white; only shades of grey. We need to find a way for employers to be both respectful and vulnerable towards their employees and I think HR has a vital role to play. People need to be able to voice what makes them feel (un)safe without fear of being judged. Last year proved how much we missed the cohesion that comes from spending time together – literally ‘teambuilding’ – now it is time to create balance and openness through conversation.”
“The good thing is that we’re seeing a lot of organisations invest in connection and mental wellbeing. And the amount of subsidies available in Belgium mean that you can invest without incurring any cost below the line. In fact, done right, you could even even ‘profit’ on the cost of remuneration – as well as profiting from stronger human capital – making it a win-win situation for all. Everyone knows about the KMO Portefeuille, but lesser known initiatives like ‘werkbaarheidcheques’ and ‘Vlaams opleidingsverlof’ are equally interesting.”
“It’s a shame that it’s so difficult to find your way around the red tape, but I feel employer and employee share the responsibility of finding out what is out there. Take the time to look around, really see what you need, what your people need; be it time management training or a workshop on diet and sleep. So much is available, as an employer, you’re almost morally obliged to take advantage of the opportunities. There really is no excuse to not invest in your people; every single sector is crying out for talent, so why risk losing your most valuable assets? If you’re not preventatively investing in your mental capital, you’re not doing enough to keep them on board.”
“Any period of transition is impactful, but the past two years have been a real-time experiment in mental resilience. Unsurprisingly, stress and burnout are on the rise. In fact, according to Harvard Business Review they became ‘rampant’ in 2020. And right when our energy levels are low, we’re being asked to experiment with hybrid workplaces. When we do go back to the workplace again, that is. Thankfully, employers are becoming more aware and are placing a lot of focus on the employee. If there is one good thing to come from the pandemic, it has to be this new level of understanding of the human factor,” says Elke.
Preparing for Transition
“Evolving into a hybrid workplace is a period of transition. And as with any transition, preparation is key. You need to organise inclusive sessions that explain what the rules and expectations are going to be, and what hybrid working means to your company. Additionally, you want to invite experts who can inspire people and bolster mental resilience; who can talk about how to stay focussed, even when working from home. Change management is a combination of good internal communication, and informing people on the goals and the road to them.”
“It’s important to remember to differentiate between how you work from home and how you work in the workplace. In the office we have regular breaks that allow our brains to recuperate. The proverbial coffee breaks and water cooler chats, sharing lunch at the same table, commuting to and from work; they all give our brains some much-needed time to rest and reset. When you’re working from home, the tendency is to just keep going until whatever you’re working on is finished. But these breaks provide you with the energy to keep going. A lot of what we do is about inspiring people to recognise when they are in a healthy, positive flow or just powering on through by willpower.”
“We’re all responsible for recognising each other’s alarm signals. They come in all sorts of shapes and sizes – both mentally and cognitively – from not being able to concentrate properly, or memory loss, to being short tempered. The things that wouldn’t bother us normally become magnified when our brains don’t get the chance to take a little ‘breather’ every once in a while. Equally, physical signs like palpitations, sweating, headaches and neck pains, or trouble sleeping at night are all signs that your resilience is low.”
“If anything, the pandemic has created the momentum to embrace the best of both worlds: seeing each other in person to foster personal connection and working from home to enhance focus when needed most. At the end of the day (or working week), a good balance between these two means you should be feeling more energetic and are enjoying work more. Of course, just as each individual is different, so are their jobs. People who need to work in full focus will benefit more from being away from the busy office floor than someone who has a coordinating role. When preparing your hybrid workplace policy, it’s important to take these difference into account.”
Meeting a few times a week as a team ensures you don’t end up with a situation where who is in the office on which days mushrooms into something wholly uncontrolled. You have to create structure and touch base in person on a regular basis. Additionally, you need to communicate clearly. You’ll often see people are a lot more business-minded during online meetings, whereas meetings in real life allow for the all-important ‘how was your weekend’s’ that help give your brain a break. Allow for time wasted: it’s a lot more valuable than you might think. Chitchat helps foster that human connection, no matter how much people have come to appreciate the efficiency of online meetings. So make sure you integrate them in the digital workplace.”
“Our work persona is just one of our many faces, and the pandemic has taught us that showing more of our authentic persona helps establish better personal connections. We have all changed or grown in different ways these past years. We’ve had time to reflect on what we are doing and where we want to go from here. For myself, the pandemic has shown me the importance of spending quality time with my two young children and I’m now actively choosing to free up more time for them. I suspect a lot of people have gained new insights about their personal and professional lives and how they wish to live them post-COVID. The choice to do something with these insights and change long-standing habits is the Mental Reset we should all make if we want to live happier and more energetic lives.”
For your copy of The Mental Reset visit https://bettermindsatwork.com/en/boeken/
6 Steps Towards Stronger Resilience
- Preparation is key: be clear about what the new workplace is going to look like, what the expectations are, and bring in the experts that will inspire and enthuse your team.
- Learn to recognise the difference between a healthy creative flow and powering through on sheer willpower. Give your brain regular breaks.
- Learn to recognise when your brain is in distress, and don’t be afraid to talk to others when you see them struggling.
- Embrace the best of both worlds and be open to the fact that no two jobs are the same, just as no two people are the same.
- Create structure, but allow for time wasted: build in time to share those personal moments that give your brain a break and re-energise you.
- Take the time to reflect on what you’ve learned about yourself, your priorities, and where you want to go from here.