As we near day 150 of lockdown in South Africa, we can reflect on how the past 5 months of remote working have challenged and changed us. It is a good time to pause and look at how we have reshaped our behaviours, ways of work, and our mindsets, as well as considering how this will play out going forward.
Thinking back to a time when our schedules used to involve driving to work in traffic, greeting colleagues and clients, setting up our laptops at our desks, attending meetings, shaking hands, completing our days with an office full of people, and then driving home in traffic again.
Now, our days involve getting up, putting on the washing and doing other house tasks, sitting down at a desk or table at home, dialling into several meetings on Teams or Zoom during the day, seeing our children while they attend classes from home, making dinner, then working some more.
The lines between our work and personal lives have become a little more blurred. While some of us may continue to work remotely and others return to the office, what we have learned and taken from of the past 5 months is of great importance.
Typically, the lessons that we learn do not happen at the time of the event, they happen afterwards when we start to look back retrospectively. Over the past 5 months, however, we have been constantly learning. New opportunities have been presented to us, situations have been magnified or reduced, we have come across some new problems and we have also had some wins.
So, what can we learn from this uncertain and ever-changing situation that we found ourselves in?
1) Managing and Motivating Teams
Motivating staff is already difficult in a physical office environment, but it is more complicated when working remotely.
When teams are physically separated from each other and rely solely on technology to engage for a small amount of time each day, this further complicates how to manage teams as well as methods of motivating teams. There is no specific motivation tool or technology for virtual teams. What we can do is still set objectives, measure performance and outputs, provide recognition to colleagues during team meetings and ensuring that team members feel able to discuss concerns – Everybody is far more comfortable with video calls and talking to colleagues over the phone than they were before, and the methods of managing and motivating teams might evolve more rapidly now that this possible gap is more noticeable.
During this time, there have been genuine interactions and efforts to reach out between colleagues. This may have been the case previously, but it is more noticeable now – possibly because interactions are restricted to short video calls instead of sharing 8 or 9 hours in the office together.
Platforms such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom have had a substantial increase in usage during this time. People that did not have technology or these platforms as a central part of their day-to-day working lives or had not embraced it fully previously, will have felt even more isolated or will have needed training or guidance on how to use it. Many people wish they had embraced technology before so that they could ‘see’ friends and family without breaking social distancing rules.
3) Behavioural Change
After what we have all lived through over the past 5 months, how will future behaviours look as a result? Will international travel be ‘normal’ again? Is the ‘handshake’ culture gone? How will we ever plan activities or trips in advance with all the uncertainty that came upon us overnight? Will we ever be able to move around without feeling cautious about how many people we come into contact with? Will masks become a natural part of all large social gatherings? There are many questions, to which we do not know the answers just yet.
It is unusual to have an issue so widely understood by different ages, industries, and social classes. Almost everyone over a certain age knows what is going on as they have been forced to change their day-to-day lives.
It is also interesting to understand how when we self-impose isolation (if there is a deadline to meet or, as an introvert, do not feel like seeing anybody), by willingly not leaving our desks or going outside, but when isolation is compulsory, it feels inflexible and the thing you want to do most is to go outside. We are still learning what lessons come from missing social interaction despite all the technology surrounding us that ‘closes’ the physical distances.
4) The Home Office
The argument between working from home versus the office has blatantly come to light. Questions such as “What is work going to be like when this is over? Will we need office space? Is working from home going to be part of the new ‘normal’?
Some organisations have seen the same or better output while not being in the physical office together, but what will this mean? Are we going to eliminate the office entirely and have all meetings on Teams or Zoom, only meeting in person when we really need to?
It might be too soon to tell. Lunch with colleagues, dropping by colleagues’ desks, after-work drinks, and all general social interaction is something that is missed in-part. But is this the best environment now that we have seen how it is on the other side of the spectrum?
5) Human Interaction
Something that seems to be agreed on, despite all technology, capabilities, and resources that we may have, is that human interactions have been desperately missed. Despite our ability to connect through internet on our phones and computers, it does not bring us as close to those interactions that we were having every day. Human and social interaction and interpersonal relationships are something that people need for their mental and physical health.
This type of interaction helps us to cope with stress and major life changes because it helps to create a feeling of being valued by others. It is important psychologically as it helps us to forget the negative parts of our lives and to think more positively about our environment. Human interaction is always more rewarding.
Without physical human interaction, we could also lose a sense of real connection to people where we become unaware and desensitised to social cues that we would have unconsciously witnessed while being around people.
Although technology has brought people together in many ways by enabling us to connect at the click of a button, we cannot replace all human interactions with technology – the coexistence of humans and technology is necessary, but technology is supposed to make human lives better and easier, not replace it.
6) Dependency on Technology and Entertainment
The past 5 months have made clear the reliance we have on technology and connectivity while working from home. Load shedding often put a spanner in the works and the recurrent “can you hear me?” and “you’re on mute!” conversations we have had with our colleagues have sometimes been the only entertainment we had in a day!
Speaking of entertainment; comedians, musicians and other professionals in entertainment have had to adapt to continue to provide entertainment, because they know that nobody wants to be deprived from switching off and being entertained. This has been even more important while other activities have been banned – being able to find enjoyment, laughter, and not miss out with the help of technology.
With this resilience and adaptability, there is a key lesson for organisations here on how important a business continuity plan as well as a contingency plan is – in order for your business to survive, it has to remain resilient and adapt to any changing situation.
7) The Need for Consistent Routines
A lot of our schedules that we were used to have changed since lockdown. Some bad routines have come to light, which have had an impact on mental and physical health.
Despite this, lockdown has given us the opportunity to also start new routines. Whether this involves putting different items in our calendars, working with international colleagues or clients at different times than we are used to, or by ensuring your work calendars and home ‘calendars’ are distinctly separated. As with any routine, however, it is necessary to put in the time to build these consistently.
Motivation to do this while working remotely has been difficult in the absence of having the in-person support of friends and family – not being able to catch up with a friend over coffee or not being able to be a friend to a colleague by listening to them vent. We are forced to self-comfort and self-manage ourselves during lockdown and while working remotely.
If there is one overarching lesson that we can take from lockdown, it would be that it is essential to embrace the opportunity for change. Some of these lessons will remain with us for a long time, if not forever. Although it is important to acknowledge the difficulties that have been present (health dangers and consequences of the virus, economic impacts, as well as the feeling of missing out by not being able to spend face-to-face time with friends and family), we must still embrace the opportunities we have been given through this (the potential free time and lack of distraction to take on projects we have put off, being able to learn how adaptable we actually are and how much our family and friends really mean to us) – this has brought life into focus and has allowed us to put our attention to where the real importance lies.
It also is another opportunity to remind ourselves that “we are all in the same storm, not in the same boat” (The Wall Street Journal) – Everybody has gone through this experience with different challenges and fears (financial concerns have been greater than health concerns for many people; essential workers have had to continue to work without the safety of being behind a computer screen; the trauma families have gone through by losing loved ones to the disease) – this gives us perspective on how the challenges have been relative to one’s personal situation. It is important to find gratitude in a crisis and figure out how we can use the lessons from the crisis going forward. We cannot go back to the way things were and must consciously create a new ‘normal’ shaped by the positive and negative effects of this crisis.
No matter how remote we are, we will be back to ‘normal’ at some stage – whatever this new ‘normal’ will be. Remember the lessons you have learned during lockdown as we move into this new ‘normal’.