"I am COO at a mid-sized consumer products firm. We've been caught completely on the wrong foot when all of us in the head office in Mumbai were forced to work from home (WFH) last week. This is clearly not something any of us were prepared for. We've never done this before. We found ourselves pitchforked into action without any process or an established way of working. As a result, most of my direct reports say they feel quite uneasy about WFH. And we've found that we're working much longer hours, without any respite, leaving us all fatigued and stressed out. Some of our colleagues say they hate working from home. So we've tried to reason with them that this might not last longer than March 31 (now April 14). But deep inside, I know this may take longer—and we may need a better plan, in case this phase drags on. As a leadership team, what can we do right now to handle this disruption and help settle things down inside our enterprise?"
~ Anirban Saha (name changed on request)
Thank you for writing in. This is a difficult time and leaders across the world are wrestling with the sudden uprooting of their office and home lives! I have been working with organisations and leaders who have been working hard at it over the last couple of weeks and I must first say that you are not alone. The stress, fatigue and anxieties are all too evident. Sometimes explicit and at many other times heard as an undertone in calls and conversations.
First off, the temptation that we must guard against is to think of this as 'work from home', where work has a new location to get done from—home. No! This is a fundamental disruption of everything we know, including good old 'work from home’.
Last week a couple of prescient organisations rapidly dismantled well-laid-out desks and sophisticated desktops, shipping them to the homes of their employees. They soon realised that work and work processes were not built for work from home. Shifting the infrastructure home is the easier part. Porting work home for a few months is a tough ask. Neither is the home ready to accommodate full time work, nor has the work been designed that way for many.
Think about these. All of the immediate family is at home. And at many Indian homes that is immediate family, aged parents, in-laws, relatives, all living in a small space. I have been on calls where kids have interrupted, husbands have been shouted at and wives have been asked to bring chai—while their work selves are trying hard to focus on the call. Stressful, to say the least! Finding a new rhythm is a huge challenge.
Redrawing expectations and helping employees find a new rhythm is the chief goal for leadership teams at this stage. That also means, helping yourself find a new rhythm. Please remember, this is not going to go away on April 15. If sustained performance is your game, operating with a 'business-as-usual-from-home’ mindset is setting up the organisation for fatigue and failure. This mindset is akin to the mistake many rookie long distance runners make—they start sprinting at the beginning of the race. The experienced ones know the importance of stretching muscles before starting and pacing themselves well to be able to run the full distance well. This is a marathon. Prepare well!
So, what can you specifically do? For starters, prioritise work. Going full throttle on all fronts is a recipe for fatigue. Break targets down into even smaller pieces. Help teams establish new routines and ways of working. Much of your time will go in calls and conversations. Celebrate small wins and help the team set a new normal. Start and establish rituals like a morning video call where your people can see each other.
That involves a lot of time spent listening to people. Here’s a tip. Encourage your leaders to share their struggles of working from home with the team. Just that one act will loosen up the team and help them see that everybody is in it together. With one organisation that I am working with, leaders resolved to set listening calls with their teams members. They found interesting stories. But it started with leaders sharing their own situation. One of them shared how he has to share household chores and wash the dishes. Something that he hasn’t done in a long while. Plus, his wife who also works took his desk and the daughter took the living room for lessons that came from school. There was dead silence on the call for a while before it opened the floodgates for sharing!
The single biggest thing you’ll miss about an office setup is the informal conversations. You see, the formal stuff will get scheduled and welded into the calendar. The banter suffers. Leaders must establish the space for the same.
One more thing. With the work moving home, the physical separation between work and family time is gone. Remember to log off and encourage teams to do the same as well.
All of these may seem inconsequential to the typical senior leader, whose memory of the ways of working that has brought success over the years supersedes the scale of the current disruption. This is NOT small. This is disruption at a scale the world has not seen before. Pace your work and get going.
To sum up:
- Acknowledge disruption
- Help people find rhythm
- Break up the work into smaller parts
- Get informal stuff going
- Log off