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Just when we thought it was safe to go back to the office…

Published on 12 January 2021

Just when we thought it was safe to go back to the office…

There’s an old expression I’ve heard – ‘It’s the hope that kills you’. I think it’s most often used to describe the lives of fans of certain football clubs, if I’m honest, but I’m certain it applies in all walks of life. Its premise is simple – if you have no sense that things may improve, you can easily suffer deprivations. However, once you are shown hope that things may one day improve, you will suffer the pangs of disappointment when improvement fails to materialise. The beggar is only truly down at heel when he is aware of the millionaire, I suppose.

That’s the overwhelming feeling I’ve had right at the beginning of 2021 as the UK has been plunged into another lockdown. Normality, or at least the faint scent of it, was tantalisingly close and everything was going to be OK. And then it was snatched away in early January. Personally, I’d grown quite blasé about Tier 2 and 3 restrictions – it was OK to not be able to visit family or go to the pub because this was becoming normal and everything was going to be different and better in the near future. I saw hope. I, if you like, became aware of the millionaire. And now I feel more crushed by the lockdown announcement than I ever expected to be.

What we are feeling right now is different to what we were feeling when the word ‘lockdown’ stopped meaning a situation where two pairs had the same score on 'Pointless'

There’s a reason for that – it’s called grief. That is what we are all going through. We feel that, once again, the world has changed and, whilst we suspect that this is temporary, it doesn’t really feel like that at the moment. This is the point at which everything changed, and this is therefore the point that generates grief. We’ve lost a sense of normality and connection with others; we fear the economic impact all over again. We’re grieving for better times.

And – and this is REALLY important for us all to understand – what we are feeling right now is different to what we were feeling when the word ‘lockdown’ stopped meaning a situation where two pairs had the same score on 'Pointless'. Then, whilst there was a sense of anger and disgruntlement at having to give up some of our liberties, there was an almost-perceptible tang of the unknown about it. We were experiencing something unknown to most of us – whilst that made us all anxious, that sense of grief for something lost simply wasn’t as keenly felt in March 2020.

So, if the situation is different, the experience is different and the emotion is different, we can safely surmise that the impact on ourselves and our colleagues is going to be different. Last year, I was proud of our industry as I watched how it prioritised the mental health of workers in all of the changes that were being made, despite those changes being made at what can only be described as breakneck speed. Our colleagues suddenly stopped being numbers or shift patterns or ‘overs-and-unders’ and became people. Enormous amounts of energy and time were spent trying to find ways to make the ‘new world’ that people were temporarily living and working in as pleasant an experience as possible. Blue sky thinking was practiced and brave new ways of trying to ensure the wellbeing of our mates and our colleagues sprouted up everywhere – regular communication, ways of replacing the ‘water cooler’ chatter, work/life balance checks, mental health check-ins, a more relaxed approach to certain not-at-all-key-really KPIs.

If we acknowledge that the situation is different, we have to acknowledge that our responses may need to be different, too.

What we can’t now do is think that what worked in 2020 will necessarily work in 2021.

At our conference in November 2020, I presented a keynote which talked about the need for flexibility in these current circumstances when thinking of Business Continuity. That same flexibility is required when trying to protect or influence mental wellbeing – the ground beneath our feet may well be shifting and the only way to counter those feelings of discomfort is to be prepared to change to meet the new challenges.

If we acknowledge that the situation is different, we have to acknowledge that our responses may need to be different, too. If you were trying to put out a fire in a wastepaper basket by pouring small cups of water on it, you wouldn’t continue to use small cups of water if the fire was suddenly destroying the whole building. On the whole, focussing your attention on the mental wellbeing of your colleagues should continue but you should look to see if your approaches are still as effective as they once were.

With that in mind, here are some pointers to help you out.

  • Make sure you have supplies of compassion – individuals will respond to situations in hugely different ways; everyone will have different levels of grief and fear and these emotions will manifest themselves in a huge variety of ways. Not everyone will have a full-blown emotional outburst; many people may just react differently to stimuli than they ever have before, some people will be quieter, others louder and more disruptive. Others may seem a little more considered in their responses and less spontaneous than normal – all of these are valid responses to their own situation. Be aware of this and be prepared to allow for it in group situations
  • Perform regular temperature checks – by this I don’t mean physically checking someone’s temperature! We are not advocating that – instead, keep checking in with your colleagues on key issues. How are they feeling about their work situation, about the lockdown, what are their plans post lockdown regarding working arrangements, how is home life at the moment? These are all great questions – gauge responses and see if there are any trends. Follow up on these questions, too – how can you and the business help to make things better?
  • Ask people what they need – the worst thing that we can possibly do at the moment is trying to guess what people actually need from us. Or, just as bad, actually assuming that we have the answers and that we understand what everyone needs. Simply ask people what would benefit them – more / less / different communication, change of focus, breathing space, virtual team activity, to be left alone to get on with stuff; whatever it is, the best-placed people to tell you what your colleagues need are your colleagues themselves. Get it straight from the horse’s mouth and try to come up with the best solution for the majority.
  • Make it easy – colleagues will have hundreds of different concerns; make it easy for them to address them for themselves. My wife works for a major high-street pet retailer and they’ve just launched a video for their staff directing them to a knowledge base where staff can find help on a multitude of subjects to help them get through these increasingly-unprecedented times. Self-service is a great option to have in periods of uncertainty. Having some form of online portal where people can find sources with help and answers to tricky situations – financial, employment, personal – will be a great benefit to your colleagues. Give them time and space to access these resources, too.
  • Stay on your toes – everything you have in place will need to be regularly reviewed and, if necessary, changed. Don’t let your guard down and keep an eye on how people’s coping mechanisms change over time.

And finally…

  • Be kind to yourself – it is important to remember that this has been a difficult time for EVERYONE, including YOU! Make sure that you use all the tips above to ensure that you are looking after yourself as well. There is a reason why we are advised to put our oxygen mask on first in the event of a safety incident on a plane. You cannot look after anyone else unless you are taking care of yourself. We are still learning about this situation and what the future will hold. We will make mistakes, that much is almost guaranteed – but don’t beat yourself up, learn and improve. Give yourself a break, in all meanings of that phrase.

Author: David Preece

Date Published: 12/01/2021

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