When circumstances change, as they have for so many - and rapidly - over the last few weeks, our reaction is often to initially panic and then to ask how we're going to cope. We’re all adjusting to a new way of doing things. Family life for many has become a strange combination of balancing effective home-working, home-schooling, and burning off excess energy by pacing around the garden.
We’re trying to work out how we can continue to do our jobs when working in an unfamiliar place, isolated from the many things that have given structure, perhaps even motivation, to our day.
I've taken the word "cope" to think about how we can shift from being in survival mode to taking positive action. Here are my top 4 tips on how to COPE:
This is all about having a plan. It’s impossible to plan very far into the future, but try to at least come up with a plan for the day. Think about the key tasks you need to get done and set aside the time to focus on those activities.
It’s good to work out when you have the most energy and use that to focus on the things that are important, of value, or going to require a bit more thinking to get done. Don’t use this valuable time to get the admin done!
People want to keep in touch but, unlike in the office where you can see someone else, it’s impossible to know if a colleague has their head down in work or is available for a chat. We need to get beyond the fear of thinking that empty space in a diary, or showing as “available” on one of the instant messaging platforms like Teams or Jabber, means we’re not doing anything.
One of the best things you can do is to change the settings in your calendar to show not just the free/busy time, but the meeting titles too. Not only does this help others to get a sense of the time you’ve got available for a chat, but people will see what others are working on and can start to spot overlaps and share ideas. Remember you can always set things to private mode if you’re worried about the diary stalkers.
Finally, remember to give people the time to express how they may be feeling – either about the situation, a piece of work or just life in general. Those are the conversations that often happen walking from meeting to meeting, so you need to be deliberate in creating the space. You don’t always need to ask questions to prompt people who may feel uncomfortable to open up, just let them know they can if they want to.
It’s easy to find yourself engrossed in a task and forget how long you’ve been sat in the same position, so set a timer and make sure you get up and move around regularly. If you no longer have to walk to the office or train station, then find another time to get outside. Fresh air really does make a difference and doesn’t need to involve anything strenuous.
Look for opportunities to double-task as well – if it’s an informal catch-up you’re having with a team member, then why not suggest a walking call and move around as you chat. It’s not only good exercise but it can also change the dynamic of the conversation.
With less time face-to-face, we all have to work harder to pick up on the non-verbal cues that someone may be giving, and also think about any that we may unconsciously be giving back. No-one is asking you to bounce into every video call, but taking 5 minutes before it starts to just reflect on how you’re going to approach that meeting can make a massive difference.
Being aware of what others may be experiencing and the language we use are other ways in which we can help each other to adjust to this new way of working. If you’re leading a team, then check if people understand the task and have everything they need to get it done, and if there are any blockers - this is more helpful than just asking if they’re okay with everything.
To support each other, we need to make it easy to say “yes” to needing help rather than just assuming everyone else is okay, and so you had better find a way to be okay too.
Finally, don’t forget we’re all humans in this and things happen. Children make appearances when they shouldn’t, the doorbell will ring, we’ll suddenly realise an embarrassing photo is in the backdrop to our video. Let’s be slow to judge and quick to embrace the diversity that we all have in our lives and find ways to bring that and our work better together.
By taking some time just to think about your approach to life, we hope that you’ll not just be able to cope with the situation, but use it to your advantage, build better relationships with your teams, and find a way to be productive, even when it feels like a huge challenge.