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Learning from the pandemic

By Karen Plum, director of Research & Development at Advanced Workplace Associates (AWA)

The past year has tested the mental resilience of workers across the UK. While the beginning of a vaccine roll-out has given everyone reason to hope, there is a way to go before we see a return to any form of normality. Restrictions still dominate daily life almost a year after the first UK national lockdown; it’s unsurprising that many employees are feeling burnt-out and struggling to motivate themselves.

Adapting to life in lock-down

The financial sector is well-versed in business continuity plans so many adapted well to the move to remote working. Being so dependent on well maintained technological infrastructure meant that firms ensured the practicalities were in place from the beginning.

However, as with every sector, no amount of online interaction can replicate the experience of being in the office among colleagues. Prior to lock-down, the sector had relatively few people working remotely so IT support and management alike had to work quickly through any challenges that presented themselves.

Organisations across the country have directed time and energy into maintaining engagement with remote staff. But the suddenness of life in lockdown gave few managers the time to prepare and learn what worked best to engage staff. Now in our third national lockdown, many employees have tasted moments of freedom, only to have them snatched away again. It’s inevitable that after so much turbulence and disappointment, people are failing to fully engage on a daily basis. Understanding the science behind stress and wellbeing will be vital in addressing this as we await the vaccine roll-out.

Stress and the brain

The human brain is adapted to use as little energy as possible. It is incredibly good at filtering the information we take in and only processes the important elements. In daily life, this means that we only see or notice the things we are actively focusing on or the things that are new. For those that have returned to the workplace over the past year and been inundated with signs to maintain social distancing and wash hands regularly, it is this process which allows those signs to quickly retreat into background noise. However, the brain reacts differently in times of high stress or when facing the unknown. Stress signals from the body are a sign to the brain that you might be in danger and therefore to remain vigilant. The brain processes far more information in the hopes of spotting any threat before it is too late. Of course, now we are no longer in a hunter-gatherer society, at risk of becoming prey to something larger, these processes can be maladaptive. In the case of a global pandemic, after a long period of living and working with so many unknowns, many do not have the energy left to be creative or go the extra mile in their work.

There are also the additional strains of loneliness or a busy stressful household, and the lack of colleagues to bounce ideas off and collaborate with. It is unsurprising that leaders are finding a workforce that is less creative and passionate even when they are managing to maintain their levels of productivity.

Good leadership will recognise these challenges and work with them rather than bemoan them. This is particularly important because work in the post-pandemic era will not look the same as work prior to last year. Despite the challenges, working remotely has been revelatory for some, saving them time and energy on long commutes and offering them greater freedom. Now that employees have demonstrated they are capable of working remotely and maintaining productivity, many will likely wish to continue working from home part-time after the pandemic. Managers will need to ensure that the practices they put in place now will effectively support remote staff in the long-term.

Karen Plum

Karen Plum

What matters?

AWA’s research into cognitive performance has identified a number of factors that impact team performance during such times. Ultimately, wellbeing sits at the heart of boosting cognition. Lack of sleep and exercise, poor hydration and nutrition all have a negative impact. The environment also plays a role. Too many distractions can be very detrimental.

Managers should be taking a holistic approach to caring for their teams, checking in on their working conditions and providing extra support where it is needed. But ultimately, they can’t control these factors. At best, they can encourage everyone to look after themselves. So, through our research, we’ve identified the factors that managers can influence. These are our ‘proxy measures’ – factors that strongly correlate with improved team performance. Social cohesion is the most important of these. The better team members know and like one another, the more likely they are to share ideas and information and to collaborate effectively. This is the case in both virtual teams and in-person so investing in team building is important regardless of how much longer the pandemic lasts.

Moving forward

Times of high stress can be an incredible trigger for growth and transformation. The skills that workers develop to see them through the challenges will be brought into the workplace when the pandemic is over. This potential needs to be effectively directed. Having demonstrated their capacity to work remotely, staff won’t appreciate returning to an office only to have a manager breathing down their necks. Working in the post-pandemic era needs to bring together the best of the workplace with the growth and innovation of the last year. Social cohesion is core here too. Staff will return to the workplace to collaborate and be inspired and in turn, they will feel more valued for their unique input. Those that build strong relationships with their colleagues will then find it easier to communicate when they are working remotely.

Returning to the workplace will be telling; organisations that have invested time and resources into the people throughout the pandemic see their efforts returned.  For those that feel they could have done more, there is still time to take what they have learned and use it to build a stronger and more resilient team.

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