Supporting Employees and their Relationships through Covid-19 lockdown

(Updated 23 Apr 2020)

These are unprecedented times of rapid change and uncertainty, as everyone “battens down the hatches” at home.  By now, most organisations already have a good start on the technology and practicalities to support this.  Any others that plan to survive won’t be far behind.

For the vast majority of employees however, this mass move to work-from-home combined with the closure of schools and hospitality venues, means that they will be experiencing a new intensity of life with partners / children / family at home, while also needing to manage long distance relationships with colleagues and clients alike.  Now, more than ever, relationships at home will impact wellbeing and productivity at work. 

In January we published the results of a YouGov survey showing that high pressure jobs with long hours, intense deadlines and time apart are taking a toll on personal relationships. And the mass move to work from home does nothing if not exacerbate the situation. No surprises then that leading Divorce lawyers like Baroness Shackleton are already sounding the alarm that divorce rates are likely to spike as a direct result of  covid-19.  Latest stats out of China confirm this is already happening there.  As work and home collide under lockdown however, what is becoming increasing clear, is that there is no more personal / professional divide.  Employers need to be proactive in supporting their people through the impact that this “new normal” of work-from-home will have on their personal relationships.

There are three key actions employers can take to support their people through the inevitable pressure points of being home-based, so they cope well through the weeks and months ahead::

1. Help people improve their “Relational Intelligence” – especially with regard to home relationships

The reality of invading space, upsetting routines and changing previously established rhythms of work and life at home can be a bumpy ride in the beginning.  Employees will need to manage expectations with their partner and/or children around their physical presence vs their availability, renegotiate roles and responsibilities for life at home, share space and share Wi-Fi – which is traumatic enough if there are teens present!  

Chances are, there will be increased moments of tension and conflict.  Just being more physically present means there will be more interactions and more opportunities to grate against differences in personalities and work styles.  Everyone in the household will be going through their version of responding to this change and uncertainty, and sometimes the words will come out wrong.  

Now more than ever, employees need to be equipped with the skills and habits that allow them to strengthen the key relationships that will support their wellbeing and productivity during this season and beyond.  Learning how to understand and respect differences, make allowances for and adjustments to different personality styles, manage expectations and resolve conflict, build mutual trust and respect, have courageous conversations about core issues when necessary and build emotional connection through communicating value and appreciation effectively – these are just some of the fundamentals of relationship capability that they must master – with urgency – for this remote working strategy to succeed. There are many things on offer to help.  A great place to start is by mastering The 4 Habits of ALL Successful Relationships as outlined in our recent TEDx talk (which we’re delighted to report blew through 1 million views over the Easter weekend)!

2. Help people build/maintain relationships of trust and respect with their “now virtual” colleagues

Recent Covid-19 directives to work from home wherever possible mean that for many people, business as usual is now having to be done remotely with virtual teams.  Where would we be without Zoom, Skype, MS Teams and the like!  However, while it’s great having the technology to connect with colleagues remotely, the virtual dynamic brings with it a whole new set of “people” challenges.

Lockdown just upped the burden on leaders for success in their teams.

Two things need to happen for success:

A) Team Leads need to focus on building strong relationships of trust and emotional engagement over distance.

It’s often enough of a challenge to build relationships when people are sat right next to you. However, include the additional dynamic of your colleagues now being remote, and the challenge becomes even more acute. The mistake all too often made is that people assume everything will continue as normal… just from home!  Success however comes from innovating, rather than merely trying to replicate the office environment while people work from home.  

Often roles and responsibilities will need to be renegotiated based on circumstances.  Understanding strengths in differences is vital for all effective teams, no question – it allows people the opportunity to play to their strengths, and to cover for individual weaknesses.  But in a virtual set up, this understanding of differences can’t be superficial knowledge.  Team members – and team leads in particular – need to really understand each other’s differences to be able to anticipate behaviours (especially under pressure!), adjust approaches and maintain effective communication long distance.  Expectations will also need to be re-examined – around work hours and availability, for example – so that trust and respect can be maintained when people are out of sight.

The reality is that where relationships are strong, people find creative ways to make things happen; where relationships are weak or broken, people tend to create obstacles and justify why things can’t be done.  Now more than ever, the quality of people’s relationships will be the glue that holds teams and companies together.

To build and maintain emotional engagement long distance, team leads will need to get better at creating “virtual water cooler” moments – including it as a scheduled item on the agenda in calls / video calls if necessary – so team members can talk freely about what is really going on. This insight into “real life” will help everyone “be team” for each other, spot opportunities to give support where needed and help manage everyone’s inclusion so people feel “cared for”.  Some people might be isolated and feeling alone while others might be feeling stretched with a full house.  Some people might respond to uncertainty with optimism while others might be anxious or afraid. Creating moments for honest conversations will help strengthen relationships in the team so they become even more engaged and committed.  Get this wrong and the reverse is true.  People will end up feeling disengaged and resentful.  Knowing how to manage emotions and relationships has never been a more crucial skill for team leads.

B) Leadership / Work Cultures need to shift (if not already) to help employees understand that it’s okay to be human – essential even! 

In most organisations, the leaders are the culture carriers, and the behaviours they model become “the way we do things around here”.  Often this creates an expectation which pressures people to edit and shove out the people/things they care about the most, for fear of looking less than 100% “professional”. 

The famous Robert Kelly interview with BBC news comes to mind.  He was in his home office on live TV when one, then both of his children merrily wandered in.  He tried to ignore them – unsuccessfully. His wife rushed in to get them, clambering on her hands and knees and trying hard not to be seen – except the whole world saw!  This made me reflect on how I would have responded, but for the privilege of seeing it modelled differently.  In mid-flow during a seminar I attended some time ago, with over 200 pairs of eyes watching, a little 7yr old girl wandered up to the speaker from the back.  Without losing his stride, the speaker bent down, scooped her up and carried on. Thank you for modelling “presence” as a father and a professional Brian Mayne.

It might take a culture change amongst the leadership, but we need to help people live their real lives without the stress of having to “perform” artificially.   And that’s not just for Covid-19 protocol.  As work and home blend more than ever, it’s time to dispel the myth of a personal / professional divide.  The reality is that this hasn’t really existed since mobile technology invaded the home decades ago.  However, now that employees are home-based, we need to open up the conversation about life, and intentionally give them time / space / permission to talk freely about the people and things that matter to them. They can no longer leave their personal lives at “the office door” – assuming they ever could.  Bringing that conversation into the room allows them – and you – to be more human and takes the pressure off of them having to pretend to be “all professional” with partners, kids, pets, household chores screaming for their attention as well (sometimes literally!).  This is a real opportunity to discover and support the “whole person”, perhaps for the first time.  

3. Help people re-design schedules to respect and support a better balance of work, home and life 

For many people, one of the challenges of working from home is the silent pressure to be “always on” during the working day, and often well beyond too!  Depending on the culture of the organisation and the management style to-date, employees might feel guilty about the need to attend to other home matters, run errands (though less likely these days!) or work flexibly around home “pressure points” like mealtimes.  Huge amounts of time and energy are wasted trying to camouflage or justify the use of time outside the office, or to be seen as logged on to the computer when they are way past doing anything productive. 

A far more effective approach is to help employees develop and agree a rhythm of work, reporting, meetings and deadlines that allows them to manage the “when” and “how”, while delivering the “what” on time.  Instead of being focused on the clock, a better approach empowers employees to develop a schedule that respects their need to be present for home relationships, allows them to choose their times of peak concentration and gives them the freedom to include things that re-energise them and feed their soul – even during conventional working hours.  

There is so much creative energy and innovation bound up in feelings of guilt and stress, with people trying to reconcile expectations of work around the life balance that would truly motivate them.  For too long, at least half of the things that inspire, ignite, energise and drive us in life have been edited out of our work conversations.  We have an opportunity now to breathe life and health back into the workforce by helping our people create a more real, more integrated, more purposeful work/life balance which becomes “rocket fuel” in the way they turn up to work, to relationships, to life.

Not many people take the time to think about what is truly important to them and might not know how to start designing the life balance they desire.  A while ago, we wrote a blog on Scheduling First Things First to help people begin that journey.In every challenge there is an opportunity and in the midst of the Covid-19 tragedy, there is a gift for organisations and society.  Underlying many of the strategic people concerns around engagement, belonging, workplace conflict, performance, mental health and wellbeing, is a consistent theme of stressed out people with broken relationships.  Empowering employees to embrace this moment of being home, to redesign a work/life balance that energises rather than drains them and to strengthen the relationships that support them, will deliver a healthier, more productive, more robust workforce on the other side.  That is a return on investment worth working for.

Want to find out more?

Here’s a 5-min video clip we put together to help Heads of HR/People/Wellbeing/Culture and other decision makers within organisations better understand the challenges (based on our 25 years’ experience of working in this space) and develop strategies to Support Employees in their Relationships through Covid-19 lockdown.

Contact us to find out more about our Remote Support Package For Employees. We can help you empower and equip your people through Covid-19, keep teams connected through this time of uncertainty and develop a healthier, more resilient workforce for the future.

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