GQ Magazine asked me about how post-pandemic behaviours might shift and change – here’s the Q&A that was used in their article on going back to work after lockdown.
GQ: How might the lockdown and enforced working from home have affected your colleagues – are there any pandemic-specific behavioural changes to watch out for?
Pam: We have all been under enormous pressure to adapt and survive through a crisis, but we need to be careful not to bring our crisis habits into our new normal. Many of us have had back to back meetings 5 days a week, and the time we’ve saved from commuting has been given back to yet more (badly run) meetings and (too many unnecessary) emails. We are filling up our working day and leaving no time for development of others, relationship building, or learning from each other. Without the distractions of the commute, the downtime between meetings, the watercooler conversations, we have become all work and no play. We need to deliberately reset to work at a more sustainable level, and leave some time for downtime, thinking time or team building time, beyond transactional meetings.
One thing we know everyone wants to keep is the respect for each other’s time. When people are meeting face-to-face, make sure people prioritise their time and attention for that meeting by having a reason to be in the same room as each other. Don’t waste live time with one person presenting a long slide deck — that’s the kind of thing that can be done online, or even pre-recorded. Live time should be discussing debating and creating ideas, where everyone in the room has a contribution to make and a reason to be there. Don’t let’s go back to pre-Covid death by PowerPoint!
GQ: Is it likely that existing hierarchies, reporting lines or relationships may be challenged once everyone is back in a more formal setting? Perhaps tolerance for workplace bullies, domineering bosses, or shirkers might evaporate?
Pam: The last year has been a huge time of renewal and reflection, and people are re-evaluating their lives and careers more than ever. Resetting your team for the better in the next few months will be essential to retaining your employees and keeping team spirit strong.
It is tempting to think that the people we work with are like our families – we can’t always choose who they are, we get to know each other well over time, and we sometimes see their worst sides under pressure. The problem is, like families, toxic teams have developed a strong pattern of behaviour, and habits are hard to break – but we need to stop excusing bad behaviour at work. High performing teams by contrast see themselves like sports teams not families – we are here to win together, which means being our fittest, best version of ourselves, and playing well together. When we do great work we win our games, and we enjoy ourselves too. It’s no longer acceptable to just say “that’s the way it’s always been”. Instead, we need to bring our best selves to work, and make sure other people do too. Consider how to reset your team from a family mentality to a sports team mindset instead.
GQ: Are there any tips for navigating any tonal shift that comes from dealing with colleagues face to face again? Are there any ways to turn this to your advantage
Pam: Teams perform better when people trust each other, so put in unstructured team-building time to develop your relationships with each other as people, beyond work. You will need to create space and time for downtime together with your team, for example have lunch together once a week without an agenda (remotely or in person), or share hobbies and interests with each other once a month. Especially when we are probably still working in different locations and online at least some of the time, this relationship building is essential – and should be booked into the day job, not just for after hours.
Hybrid working makes it harder for younger or new members of the team to learn from the other people in the team by osmosis. Make sure to schedule for shadowing and development time for new team members, or assign them buddies from their management and leadership group, so they have the chance to overhear meetings and learn from the conversations that more experienced people are having.
It’s easy for misunderstandings to happen when we are working in a hybrid workplace. Encourage people to give and receive fast feedback, in the moment. If someone seems upset, or if a person didn’t get what they were expecting from someone, create a culture of being able to immediately pick up the phone and clarify, positively and constructively. Make sure teams don’t let things fester or worry, and definitely make sure they don’t only communicate by email. Give your teams permission to check-in with each other, especially when the tone seems off. In these times of uncertainty, we need to communicate more often than ever.
Hybrid working means a degree of flexibility in how we show up for work, and when and where, which is good except that flexibility may mean blurred boundaries and unclear expectations. Hybrid working isn’t about creating one permanent set of rules for the whole company. Every team should decide between them how they best want to work well together in a hybrid environment. This means giving people permission to experiment and try out new ways of working until they find a pattern that works for them. When new team members join or when a new project starts they might need to change how they work again, so keep the options open for improvement.
GQ: What might some of the most common back-to-work arguments or debates be about?
Pam: For many the crisis has helped us develop new habits and skills, and showed how resilient we can be when we work well together. However, for others, it has highlighted bad behaviours and team conflict. It may be that these were always there and were amplified, or the pandemic threw up new barriers to previously effective team working.
Pre-Covid there was a sense of being in the same boat – we’d all get held up on the tube, train or stuck in school-run traffic. As we return, some people may have been office-based throughout the pandemic, others are returning after a period of furlough and some may yet remain at home with others wanting to be at the office and resenting those who aren’t. If you’re not careful, these differences can breed resentment. An open and deliberate discussion about how and where you will work, and what is and isn’t acceptable, is vital in this time of transition.
GQ: Many of us will have seen a change in workload and lifestyle from working from home – any tips for raising issues or requests with management now you’re all back in the office?
Pam This is our chance to reset the way we work for the better – we don’t need to go back to how things were pre-Covid, and we certainly don’t want to keep working in the same way we did during Covid. Tell your boss how you feel, ask them for help and offer to join them on the journey to create an even better normal than we ever had before. The earlier you express how you feel or what you want, the better. Start with “I feel…”. Or ask “How can we…” . For example “I feel concerned that we might all go back to the way things were and waste a lot of time travelling to meetings that could be done on Zoom” or “How can we use this chance to make the office a more positive place than it was before Covid?” If you’ve got something worrying you, explain the issue and have a couple of different solutions ready, showing you are proactive and can contribute to solving the concerns. Instead of handing over a problem to your boss to sort out, offer to join them to work together to solve it. That way you are their partner in crime, rather than leaving them to it and wishing them luck as you walk out the door!
Pam Hamilton is the author of Supercharged Teams: 30 Tools of Great Teamwork. There is a free assessment you can take for your team, with advice on which chapters and tools you can use to help overcome conflict at work and make your teamwork better.