I am used to working from home and, over the years, have developed a number of strategies to make the working day efficient and to create a contrast between the working day and the non-working evening. Some of them sound obvious – having a defined working space away from your living room (if possible), taking breaks, avoiding distractions and making sure your posture is right. Working from home for two consecutive days is usually fine. You are more productive and rested – particularly if you normally have a long commute. On the third day, however, I have noticed that some things change – albeit subtlety. You tend to feel slightly isolated – not overtly but enough to lose a degree of focus. You might also notice that the boundaries between your working life and home life is blurring when you don’t have the commute to separate these. In short, you don’t have the time to wind-down. After many weeks of lockdown, it is highly likely that third day syndrome has morphed into three-month syndrome.

The UK is in an unprecedented situation where millions of people are working from home and for many of those, it is still a new experience. I have argued that it is vital for organisations to develop strategies to avoid the sense of isolation that many workers will be noticing. It is clear that Covid 19 will continue to affect all of our lives for some considerable time, so it is imperative that we all consider how we inform and listen to our staff in these extreme circumstances.

Informing staff about what is going on is vital to address feelings of isolation. However, in these difficult times, people are likely to be more anxious over the here and now as well as the future in terms of their health and job security. Organisations will not have all the answers but the need for an outlet to raise fears and concerns may become as important as the strategic messages designed to provide people with perspective. In these unique circumstances, providing people with perspective through factual information is, arguably, the greatest challenge facing organisations right now.

There is, as expected, plenty of fake news about the virus on social media. The government is setting an example for regular communication with daily briefings using expert knowledge to present key messages. Organisations should be communicating what these messages mean to their particular staff through a series of similarly regular briefings – this should not be difficult if senior managers remember that this will be critical to keeping people engaged and that technology is used to ensure everyone feels involved and included.

The technology available to keep in touch with people is highly effective. Microsoft Teams, Zoom and Skype are being used regularly by many organisations but I have noticed that there is a tendency to try to replicate the usual meeting format with large numbers of people logging in. This is fine if people mute their microphones (the background noise can be overwhelming if they do not) but the chairing of the virtual meeting can be tricky, especially if people start to speak over one another. Based on my own experience, I would suggest that 12 people is a realistic number for these types of meeting. This may not be possible for some organisations but it is important to remember that these meetings are vital to keep people informed and involved – if there are too many people on a single call, the feeling of isolation may not be overcome. It is also important to remember that some people are less technologically experienced than others and I have heard of a number of meetings where people have become frustrated either by the technology or their ability to effectively input.      

Regardless of the amount of information we give to staff, it will not completely stop people from worrying. This is why an effective channel for voice should be at the top of any organisation’s priorities. Many organisations have staff forums or trade unions and they can play a key role in facilitating high quality communication. This situation is, however, different to ones that these representative bodies have been set up to address. People working from home will need regular contact with their organisation on a macro level, but they will also need to talk to their colleagues.

Sharing stories, concerns and good experiences will help everyone to feel more engaged and involved. Some organisations are scheduling regular team teleconferences so that people can keep in touch with the business and each other. Others have set up Whats App groups or have used Facebook and Instagram. In normal circumstances I would have some reservations about the use of social media as a voice mechanism for workplace issues, but these are not normal circumstances and we all need to keep open minds about what is right for now.

Managing people who are working remotely is challenging in normal circumstances so organisations must ensure that their line managers are fully supported during this crisis. They will need to allocate work for people, keep in touch with their staff personally and talk to their peers. I am sure they will make mistakes and they will need to feel that they will be supported to address them. This is why everyone – managers, HR teams, trade union and staff representatives – will need to work together. If there are organisations where battle lines exist between managers and trade unions, for example, these battle lines need to be suspended now.

Anxiety might be the biggest challenge facing people at the moment. It is vital that managers offer one to one sessions with all of their staff on a regular basis. This is where applications like Zoom and Microsoft Teams will be equally important because face to face discussions will help managers assess how people are coping far more accurately than a voice call. Whether managers have the skills and confidence to handle these difficult conversations is a question they really need to ask themselves. This is a time to seek help and guidance to gain those skills and that confidence rather than feeling it might be a sign of weakness. Line managers need to speak to their managers and these senior managers need to act as coaches.  

It is also important that we do not lose sight of the need for people’s development. As I’ve already mentioned, line managers will need a greater level of support at this time. It is quite understandable that conventional training workshops and conferences have been postponed but I have already run four shorter sessions for new staff representatives via WebEx, so the technology is there for us to use – it just takes some preparation and planning.

I have been suspicious in the past of government claims that “we’re all in this together” but, this time, we really must be. Feelings of isolation will create more cynicism and suspicion amongst people when the priority is to build trust. In these times, that trust will be built on regular, factual information to staff together with inventive voice mechanisms. There is really no excuse to leave anyone out.            

Derek Luckhurst is Training and Development Director at the IPA

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