Originally published on Matters by Designit.
The swift and stunning disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic has forced organizations around the world to radically rethink their ways of working. For many companies, remote collaboration is not a new concept, but the scale and suddenness of the shift, coupled with the uncertainty and stress in employees’ personal lives, is challenging leaders’ ability to maintain their businesses while also taking care of their workforce in critical new ways. As we’re learning to do this in response to the current crisis, we should also reflect that these circumstances are generating powerful organizational bonds between colleagues that will endure beyond the pandemic. Understanding these outcomes now will help leaders develop an enhanced, long-term focus on employee well-being.
Designit deeply values — and invests in — meaningful connections between people. This commitment is exemplified in our Ten Rules of Thumb, ten principles that express our values and guide our behavior toward each other, our clients, and our work. These rules are built on a foundation of empathy, openness, and care for teammates, and they are regularly invoked during team meetings and gatherings. They represent an ethos that is evident on a daily basis in how Designits communicate, collaborate, support, and challenge one another.
When the COVID-19 outbreak forced our studios to transition to remote work, our organization handled the new challenges with the same dedication to making human needs a top priority. We believed this approach would give us the best chance of ensuring business continuity, by providing teams with the support and time they needed to shift their work to viable remote delivery models, while also coping with the practical and psychological demands of the new lockdown scenarios.
Even before the full work-from-home order was issued, we began outlining new policies and routines that focused on keeping people connected, informed, and enabled with the tools and policies they required to manage this shift as comfortably as possible. As a team distributed on five continents, we were already accustomed to remote collaboration techniques, so much of this new activity involved building iteratively on work we already understood. There were some new pressures and hurdles, but we were in familiar territory, which was comforting.
But there was something new: intense feelings of fear and anxiety that, to one degree or another, affected the entire team. These feelings manifested in unpredictable ways and at unpredictable times, often triggered by developments in the news about increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases, worsening conditions in hospitals, or unprecedented economic crises. Designits with children, suddenly homebound and attending school remotely, were dealing with difficult new responsibilities to keep their kids focused on new academic routines and expectations. And, as the days wore on, the stress of isolation — particularly in contrast to our normal, highly social work environment — was a further destabilizing influence, especially for colleagues who are natural extroverts. In these volatile emotional states, people understandably struggled to stay focused and productive — and we all had to work hard to maintain the extra interpersonal tolerance that the situation required.
A People-Focused Response
Because our company was already wired to react to these demands with empathy, we built on the foundation of our existing people-focused culture and responded to this enhanced need for psychological support in deliberate ways:
- Regular, short surveys that take the pulse of the team’s well-being, including open-ended questions that encourage sharing of one’s emotional state and anything the group can do to help
- Confine information-sharing and discussions about the pandemic to specific communication channels, so people can ration their exposure to potentially upsetting details
- Daily morning check-ins and afternoon virtual “happy hours” to connect with the broader team, without a set agenda
- Doubling the frequency of 1:1 sessions with career managers, to make extra time for personal connection and keep a close eye on individuals’ well-being and emotional states
- Identifying ways to tangibly help others through volunteering and pro-bono projects
We’re still very much in the thick of the pandemic crisis, with many unknowns ahead of us, so it’s too early to conclude that these measures will be enough to give the team the support they need. Early feedback is positive, though; we’re learning as we go, and as the situation changes around us.
Our New Degree of Connection
It may also be too soon to predict how these new connections and commitments will endure after the immediate crisis has abated. Paradoxically, our new way of working — separately — is forging an increased degree of intimacy among the team. We’re peering into each other’s homes, openly sharing personal routines, and, for many of us, even more openly discussing our difficult feelings about the pandemic, our personal health, our family interactions, and what the future will bring. It’s hard to imagine this intimacy evaporating once we return to the office.
Before the pandemic, many companies worked hard to maintain an authentic focus on the human needs of their teams. This focus provides a motivation to continue to grow, do good work for customers, and, wherever possible, to make a positive impact on the world. The COVID-19 crisis is challenging all of us to add a sense of responsibility for providing even more direct, individualized efforts to safeguard our collective mental health. Organizations that take action to meaningfully support their employees in this way, when they need it most, will build a team that will emerge stronger and more resilient; one that will be better-equipped to tackle the future.