You are not working from home, you are at home during a crisis, trying to work

There is a lot of discourse about working from home right now. It’s understandable, COVID-19 has forced us to embrace working virtually from home offices.

This is not ordinary remote work. Traditional work-from-home scenarios have been up-ended as people try to simultaneously juggle work, family and self-care under a higher amount of stress. Some days are better than others.

Outside of the context of a crisis, it is generally considered good and healthy to maintain some self-imposed expectations when working from home. You want to be able to demonstrate your productivity each day, whether it means completing a portion of some deliverable, sending or absorbing a certain number of emails, or participating in several meetings. 

Under COVID-19, many are finding that tasks that used to take under an hour can sometimes take several. Is it appropriate for people to hold themselves to the same standards and pressure during a time when the landscape has so drastically changed?

Meeting yourself where you are

It can depend on the day. This diagram showing different emotional “zones”, that has been circulating on social media, does a good job mapping out how I can feel on any given day. In discussions around this diagram some people report progressing through the zones, while others self declare they are “stuck” in one zone, and others still (including myself) flip-flop between all three.

Source: Unknown

Personally, my productivity shifts depending on which zone I find myself in that day. On a good learning zone day, I want to go above and beyond to support my colleagues. On a bad fear zone day, I beat myself up for not accomplishing enough and compound that anxiety with fears of me or my family facing challenges as staggering numbers of Canadians apply for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit.

The needs of employees change depending on which zone they’re in and it is a challenge for management teams as they try to keep up and give employees the support that they need. This is doubly challenging, while workers are navigating between zones, management teams need to provide support to workers who could be in any of these zones on any given day. More challenging still is that this messaging needs to be consistently voiced from the growth zone.

I stumbled across this tweet recently. It articulates the kind of  messaging that workers need to hear from management teams, especially when they are in the fear zone. I’ve shared them here (quoted):

  1. Your physical, mental and emotional health is far more important than anything else right now.
  2. You should try not to compensate for lost productivity by working longer hours.
  3. You will be kind to yourself and not judge how you are coping based on how you see others coping.
  4. You will be kind to others and not judge how they are coping based on how you are coping.
  5. Your team’s success will not be judged in the same way it was when things are normal.

These types of messages are often implied in organization-wide emails, all hands meetings and weekly individual check-ins, but employees in (or near) the fear zone may need them to be spelled out clearly and consistently for the messages to resonate and land with them. 

This is an incredibly difficult situation for management teams as well. Psychological safety is the #1 driver of high performing teams and, now more than ever, management needs to support employees. Management themselves are operating in unfamiliar and shifting contexts, and are beholden to business models that have not yet adapted to the contexts that COVID-19 has introduced. Organizations need to bring in money to carry on, but won’t be able to achieve this for long if its people are perpetually stressed or distracted. The job of making sure that everyone is not only okay, but has what they need to be anywhere near their best – while simultaneously keeping the ship on course is an incredibly difficult one, and employees can support their managers by understanding this challenge – and checking in with them in the same ways.

Depending on where you sit in your organization, there are a variety of considerations to take into account as we all navigate this unfamiliar workplace environment. Accordingly, our advice is separated into distinct categories aimed at employees, managers, and the collective. 

For employees

  • Be outcomes focused
  • Being kind to yourself is just as important as being kind and helpful to others
  • Give, and accept empathy
  • Communicate as much as you can – particularly your needs
  • Know that consistency in your schedule won’t happen every day – and that’s ok! 

For managers

  • Meet people where they are
  • Stay connected with your employees
  • Encourage experimentation and innovation
  • Maintain and share situational awareness to avoid duplication of effort
  • Empathize, and share your own experiences
  • Let your employees know that you know this is not “business as usual” 
  • Encourage flexibility 

For everyone

  • Let yourself be vulnerable and communicate authentically
  • Help where you can, and accept help from others
  • Communicate well and often (overcommunication is a good thing in this context!) 

A team effort

At Systemscope we know how fortunate we are. We are a team who is privileged to support the Government of Canada, and are also dedicated to supporting one another. Every manager and employee is having good and bad moments, days, or weeks during this crisis. We know this because of the countless check-in calls and messages happening at all levels of the organization. We know that sometimes working from home can’t mean an 8 hour work day – and that’s okay. Better to find a balance, be as productive as you can in the moments that you can, ask for help when you need it – and offer help when you can. We know that the empathy and support that people need from one another right now needs to flow upwards, downwards, and across the organization. At the end of the day, we know that ultimately, taking care of and supporting each other is the only way we will get through this. 

Mary Aksim is a consultant with a focus in information management and contract bid preparation. She started at Systemscope as a co-op student and transitioned to a full time consultant in 2018.


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