By Mridula Kashyap
As we complete 2 months of staying at and working from home, there has been a considerable change in the way we look at the current situation and even the future. After the initial confusion, while most of us learnt to settle into new routines, the easing of the lockdown has stirred the false sense of calm and created questions around managing work, productivity and anxieties in what is being called the ‘new normal’. Increasingly, remote working is being hailed as the future of the workplace and the realisation that the post-covid world will be drastically different has led to more vagueness than clarity.
The realities of this world are changing – many businesses are adopting work from home (WFH) policies in a more permanent fashion and in-person interactions are likely to stay reduced for a long time. This ‘new normal’ is bringing with it new challenges and yet, new opportunities. And these changes, while impacting our external realities in a huge way, are also impacting the internal.
What does all of this mean for our businesses, organisations and teams? How do leaders deal with the challenges as they try to manage morale and motivation while accepting a permanence of work-from-home cultures and limited social interactions? How does all this impact the mental wellbeing not only of employees but of those responsible for managing their teams? And what are some of the solutions that can help overcome these challenges?
To answer these and more, Arthan organised a closed virtual roundtable with leaders from a variety of organisations in the impact sector on Friday, May 22. And here is what they had to say.
Arjav Chakravarti, Founder, Lumen Consulting
Working remotely was something that Lumen Consulting had already been used to before the onset of the pandemic. Even then, it wasn’t difficult to notice the reduction in productivity levels – no matter how used one is with the idea of remote work, the uncertainty in the world and about the future is bound to impact every individual. And so, Arjav and his team have come up with ways that can take away some of the isolation that sets in with working remotely:
- Video Calls: While communication over devices has increased, it got limited to audio calls – and there is something to be said about being able to see a person’s face and their expressions while talking to them. And so, wherever and whenever possible, the team at Lumen Consulting talks to each other via video calls and for some calls has even made the same mandatory
- Leaves and off-days: As we stay and work at home, there doesn’t seem to be a need to take an off; after all, where will one go? But, by pushing team members to take a leave, not only does it help them get a break, but helps them rejuvenate and come back with more energy.
- Fun Team Activities: While these have been going around for a while, identifying something that the team can truly enjoy is essential – for them, it was solving a murder mystery, kind of like Cluedo gone online.
Jaspreet Gurm, Senior Practice Leader, TechnoServe
For most organisations, adapting to the remote working model has been filled with challenges and struggles. And even as teams settled into a new routine, working hours have gone up across the board. With that, the added pressures of ‘over-communicating’ can lead to many calls – some that are not necessary and only take away from productive work hours. To counter this, Jaspreet shares ideas that have been employed at his organisation:
- Using tools & technology: Many times, many calls that break a person’s flow can be avoided by managing work and workflows better – and for that, tools like Slack or Trello have come in very handy.
- Regular communication: Not taking away from the need for regular interaction, various forms can be used – from phone calls to video meetings. Having a mix helps and allows team members to balance work and communication.
- Maintaining connection while maintaining health: One of the group activities that the team at TechnoServe can partake in is Zumba classes – not only does it add an element of fun, but also adds much needed physical activity to our days of being locked at home.
Nandita Banerjee, Head HR & Capacity Building, ASER Centre
For an organisation like the ASER Centre & Pratham, which has over ten thousand employees, eight and half thousand of which are field workers, working remotely has not been an easy task. By having started digitizing some of the programs earlier, staying connected and helping the beneficiaries has been possible. But, remote working also has led to lesser possibilities of teamwork and for piloting new ideas and programs, thereby affecting creativity and innovation within the organisation. The team at ASER realises that this situation has impacted the lives of their employees, field workers and the beneficiaries in more ways than one and has tried to provide relief in all areas, wherever possible:
- Capacity Building: The team has been learning online courses – together through Zoom meetings – that help in building the capacity of the team. In fact, one such course was learning how to use Zoom!
- Connecting beyond work: Calling it ‘lockdown ka ASER’, the team connects on a regular basis, monthly so far to connect beyond work and share ideas on dealing with this forced isolation.
- Online counselling: As homes and offices merge, levels of stress and even instances of domestic violence have increased. And so, the organisation has extended its in-house counselling sessions online so that help can be given to those going through some difficult times.
- Flexible timings: As work environments have changed, so have working styles for many. Keeping in mind the requirements of having to manage homes and families, an emphasis is placed on letting employees work according to their timelines by providing flexible work hours.
- Communication guidelines: A lot of information gets spread, especially around topics such as a pandemic and government’s rules & regulations – not all of which ends up being true, but may cause unnecessary panic amongst people. To avoid that, guidelines have been put in place to ensure verified information gets shared with the team.
- Staying humane: Those living alone and away from families tend to find it tougher than most to manage in a lockdown situation. The organisation has in this case, tried to ensure that they reach out, keep a check on such employees and keep in mind the requirements of paying for rent and arranging ration and provide help wherever possible.
Rachana Iyer, Advisor & Consultant on Mental Health Advocacy and Head CSR, IDFC First Bank
Joining in a personal capacity as an advisor and consultant for organisations and individuals on mental wellbeing, Some of the ways that Rachana believes will help individuals and organisations go a long way are:
- Provide assurance: As donors/funders/CSR leaders, by providing assurance to non-profit organisations about the continuation of funds, they can help in reducing anxiety and uncertainty, both for the non-profit and everyone within.
- Funds for mental wellbeing: Similar to how corporates function, nudging NGOs to set aside funds for the mental wellbeing of their employees will help boost morale and productivity, not just during times of a crisis, but in general as well
- Peer to Peer Support: With an increase in demand for mental health professionals in the face of a fixed supply, peer-to-peer support groups prove to be very beneficiary. By providing a safe space for sharing of fears, anxieties, concerns, in a non-judgmental way helps individuals in dealing with many of the challenges they face that they may not be able to all by themselves. These can be formed within or even beyond organisations.
- Physical health for mental health: While different people have different coping mechanisms to difficult times, keeping the physical state fit and healthy supports the mental state greatly. Whether it is walking around the house, doing yoga or any other activity, carving time out on a daily basis for physical activity is important.
Shruthi Iyer, CEO, Foundation for Mother & Child Health, India
Knowing that we all are facing similar challenges helps in getting some validation and a feeling of ‘I’m-not-alone-in-this’. For Shruthi at FMCH, India, having 40 field-based staff working along the management team has brought its own set of challenges. There have been instances where the beneficiaries reach out late in the night for relief material leading to late night work, especially for the field staff. A fear of developing empathy fatigue has also arisen. Sharing her ideas for possible solutions, Shruthi points towards:
- Employing mental health professionals: Getting professionals to speak to the management teams and the field workers has helped in identifying and working towards solving some of the challenges being faced. Attending many free webinars that professionals have offered in these times has also helped to break down the uncertainties that exist.
- Building a vocabulary of feelings: Institutionally, building a vocabulary about feelings is important. Normalising care at the organisational level indicates to the teams that they are valued and are cared for. As long as work is getting done, team leaders must refrain from micromanaging or asking for teams to work in a certain way/at a particular time.
- Remote organisational culture: As working remotely slowly becomes the norm, questions must be asked around how work cultures can be maintained. From understanding the employee’s issues and concerns (are they facing Zoom fatigue/are calls being mandated where emails could have sufficed) to letting the teams come together for light-hearted activities such as playing ludo online or getting dressed up for a call, small things matter. One of the things that the team at FMCH, India does is invite external people (clients/collaborators) on video calls – helps in seeing new faces, or just to listen to new perspectives!
- Celebrate successes: When times are tough, it is all the more important to celebrate small victories – they help in finding the energy to keep moving forward.
Anchal Kakkar, VP Strategy & Partnerships, Arthan
One of the things done at Arthan from Day 1 has been to keep the uncertainties as minimum as possible. We may not have answers to a lot of questions at this moment, but by keeping things about the organisation transparent to the employees helps in providing some clarity.
- Stay agile: As organisations, we must remember that with changing times and situations, the solutions also change – therefore, staying agile and keeping the teams apprised of changes helps.
- Talk to teams: While there are many debates around over-communicating vs showing vulnerabilities, as team managers and having worked with the individuals in the teams for a while, simple conversations can allow to pick up cues. Sometimes, just talking, not offering any solutions, and just letting the other person know that we’re there and in it together really helps.
Mahamaya Navlakha, Co-founder, Arthan
As a manager supporting teams, one needs to step back and remember the human side of things. Whether it is an organisation that needs reassurance of funding remaining intact or managing an organisation struggling with ideas and pivoting its program strategy to stay afloat or team members unsure of the future, we need to remember that all are facing similar challenges.
One also needs to maintain a balance between helping a team raise its spirits and helping one’s own self. Times such as these have helped develop a sense of higher empathy. And for those who were used to working in a certain style (specifically, those who drew energy from working alongside others), having to reorient their working styles is definitely a skill gained!
It is important to understand that these are not normal times, and we may not feel the way we used to. We must learn to accept, acknowledge and work with the new conditions that have been handed over to us. And along with ourselves, spending time and energy in learning how to care for others, whether it is through a simple conversation or building peer support groups, all efforts are necessary and have their own place. As always, we take it one day at a time!
If you have tried any of these or something new that works for you, please share with us at firstname.lastname@example.org