Has the Covid-19 crisis put us under pressure to be ‘always-on’?
By Jo Faragher on 3 April 2020
It’s one of the undisputed ‘winners’ of the Covid-19 crisis; if there were to be any winners. Shares in the video conferencing platform Zoom jumped from $70 a share in January to $150 at the end of March. The market capitalisation of the company is now around $42 billion, more than eight times that of much older established companies such as British Airways.
The past two weeks has meant a new regime for all of us: from regular video check-ins on Zoom or Microsoft Teams to Slack notifications and virtual company announcements. Then at home – as we follow government guidelines to only go out in emergencies or for specific reasons – there are family drinks on HouseParty and a constant stream of WhatsApp notifications. Facebook groups offer us impossibly creative ways to home-school children, while most of us are fighting for kitchen table space so we can work at the same time as a partner.
Melissa Whiting, VP of inclusion and diversity at Philip Morris International, reflected on this recently in a LinkedIn post. She talked about how she has felt “completely overwhelmed” by not just the pandemic crisis but the pressure to use the time “productively and creatively”. Instead, she says, we should feel it is fine to slow down and take time to process what’s happening and do the best we can.
For some, however, the pressure to show they are being productive while working remotely can lead to a kind of ‘virtual presenteeism’ at a time when employees’ mental health is already under attack. A survey by market research firm Opinium this week found that 47% of adults believe their mental wellbeing has been impacted by the coronavirus outbreak, with more than a third feeling worried about the future. But while many are more digitally connected to their families as a way of coping with this uncertainty, it’s also leading some to over-connect in a work context – a feeling that if they are always available and jump at every task thrown at them by their employer they will escape potential furlough, temporary pay-cuts or redundancy.
In more typical circumstances this would be unhealthy, but this is happening at a time when boundaries are already blurred – our colleagues can quite literally see into our homes via a webcam. Psychotherapist Noel McDermott says: “Under normal circumstances if your staff were working from home as an employer or HR manager you wouldn’t be getting involved in how they are doing in their other job, as parents. It’s their private life and none of your business. But these are anything but normal times, these are corona times and the rules have changed.” He urges organisations to be mindful of these extraordinary circumstances as many employees will be “caught in the headlights like a rabbit” dealing with not only their own conflicting emotions but those of children or other householders.
How will you be judged?
Matt Stephens, author of The Engagement Revolution, argues that the sudden shift to remote working during the coronavirus pandemic will test relationships between managers and teams. He says: “COVID-19 has meant that many companies have rapidly shifted to remote working, leaving HR with its biggest challenge yet – how to manage and maintain employees’ mental and emotional health remotely through such uncertainty. This change of working patterns and self-isolation may make or break the trust employees have in the organisation and could have a profound impact on their psychological wellbeing, let alone productivity.”
Trust is hugely important at this time, as is managing expectations: just because someone is not physically present or constantly checking in does not mean they are not productive. Likewise, few of us are likely to be at our most productive when we’ve been thrown into such an unusual situation that we did not really get a chance to prepare for. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s tips for managing remote working include “foster relationships” – the importance of making time for non-work chats to replace those water-cooler moments in the office. This also enables managers to get an idea if someone is struggling – whether that’s with their workload or something in their home life they need time to deal with.
Taking a more human approach to managing this new situation also feeds into the wider diversity and inclusion agenda: we’ve already seen how certain brands have treated employees during the crisis can be judged positively or negatively. Cultures with high empathy tend to breed managers that check in regularly on workers and adjust their expectations based on the situation, so will hopefully come out with better engagement and fewer mental health issues. When we eventually emerge from this period, workers will judge organisations on how they treated them – was it with one eye on the future and how they might do things better and more inclusively, or was it as a financial risk that needed to be minimised?
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