In a matter of months, it’s not an exaggeration to say that the world has experienced a seismic shift. In the ways we move, the ways we commune, how we plan for the future, what we consume – information, food, media, products – and crucially, how we adapt our professional lives and relationships from partial digitalisation to a completely virtual, screen-based reality.

In the face of a global pandemic, translating businesses and services online has been necessary and in some senses, opportunistic. For those fortunate enough to a, keep a stable job and b, fulfil their work more or less efficiently through a screen, the transition has also been willing and even welcomed by the majority. Many believe this was inevitable; the arrival of COVID-19 simply sped the transition up somewhat. But what does this mean for the companies, individuals and organisations who’ve spent their working lives commuting to a desk job or congregating and holding seminars, conferences, workshops and other communal business activities in 3D? How does remote productivity and progress translate for a business’s KPIs or performance goals, let alone a cohesive company culture and solid working relationships?

Getting the balance right: finding a flow state on lockdown

Gravitating into a total digital, home-based working environment is something the Guardian predicts many will want to maintain after the worst of COVID is over (whenever that may be).  Working from home means less commute time for everyone, and a corresponding range of ‘benefits’ that might include less undue stress from say, unreliable public transport or traffic jams; time in the morning to workout, practice yoga or work on a creative side project; more freedom to work outside of regimented 9-5 norms; preparing and eating lunch with your family instead of a snatched sandwich at your desk.  Undoubtedly, these small lifestyle wins add up to a considerably different experience of the average working day. So far, so positive. But transitioning into an entirely digital framework at home, in lockdown, is not without its challenges. We know; our agency has been 100% virtual now for over two years. We’re accustomed to providing digital marketing strategy, web builds and social media campaigns without our teams meeting in an office, in person. But the advent of COVID has been a curveball, largely because suddenly home represents so much more than it’s ever had to be. Overnight, cloud based working and remote digitalised business best practices became part of the new normal. So did a significant spike in back-to-back conference calls, performance anxiety and a sense of always being on, without the physical boundary of an office to compartmentalise work and life (and other family members demanding your attention).  And did we mention the joys of juggling a virtual conference with home schooling three under nines? Understandably, people in lockdown may be placing greater significance on work than before. Fear of job losses, anxiety over your professional worth and even using work as a means to distract from the larger anxieties of an unknown future have been cited as legitimate reasons for spending up to 3 hours longer working online, suggested a recent article on business site Bloomberg. Sounds stressful, because it is. Confinement doesn’t just take its toll physically; the psychology of blurred boundaries around work, rest, play and relationships has felt at times (for our teams, and quite possibly yours) an impossible formula to get right. But we’re learning, and we’re learning fast. As with any great challenge, we’re convinced that with the right strategy in place, there’s a real opportunity to leverage this new normal for a smarter, shorter, deeper working day. One that gives colleagues the autonomy and flexibility to work in a way that serves their lives, with a positive ripple effect into the organisation as a whole. But how?

Communicating your digital boundaries

Clear communication coupled with watertight professional working boundaries is vital. Knowing where a business stands on fluid working styles, daily check-ins, flexible time sheets, most productive work hours versus workers’ needs for downtime with family all enable employees the confidence to know they can begin to carve out a flexible yet efficient home office and that their bosses trust them enough to get out of their way. Likewise, communication needs to happen vertically and horizontally between teams, and for teams to respect their fellow team members’ individual working methodologies, as if they were in an actual office. Not surprisingly, smart time management when working from a family home is a common challenge. Just like non-essential travel, non-essential conference calls need to be critically reconsidered to avoid the legitimate growing problem of screen fatigue associated with excessive digital calls and screen time. One of our associates, a Strategic Account Manager for a high-profile medical company who chose to remain nameless, relayed how his diary was recently blocked out with a whole week of 6 hour daily back-to-back Zoom calls. None of them were booked with the idea that participants might fancy a coffee, or even a trip to the loo. “I finished my Monday needing another weekend, with tired, dry eyes and total brain fog and knowing I had four more days of this to go.” Unfortunately, this is being seen and experienced across industries everywhere. Fixing these digital energy leaks isn’t difficult, but it does highlight a need for companies to push for more considerate, humanised approaches to how the digital day is experienced, work catch ups scheduled and energy levels maintained.  Some businesses are segmenting the day into clear chunks, getting conference catch ups done and dusted early, stand-up agency style, to allow workers ‘deep work’ for the rest of the day. We’ve started doing this. Without endless Zoom, Teams or Skype (disconnecting at random) punctuating our afternoons, productivity is notably better.

Human relationships breed success, not more Zoom calls

Certainly, COVID-19 has illuminated the need for greater human-centricity in the online professional space. To acknowledge the humanity of parents juggling exec level roles with home schooling, or the isolated new associate who experiences a deep anxiety from never having the onboarding she needed to feel ‘psychologically safe’ within her new team. Seeing and meeting colleagues with proactive support and good HR leadership is more important than ever, shows a recent article in Forbes. The way that companies treat and care for employees will doubtless be remembers for months and years to come. Mental health benefits, the right technology, software and caring communication that’s disseminated from the top down go a long way to build a sense of solidarity (and staff loyalty) during an unprecedented crisis. Other businesses are showing a people first stance through the provision of free medical care consultations online, or free home yoga and gym memberships to keep staff motivated to take care of themselves and prioritise wellbeing alongside work deadlines. David Gibson, Chief Scientific Lead at Healthcare Company ApotheCom, a global medical communications company, in San Francisco, California, sits on the leadership team. During his nine year tenure, the business has expanded exponentially and remote working for its international teams has become common practice. For David, this shift has meant it’s never been more vital to build key protocols into the business to ensure staff felt seen, heard and valued. It might not sound as sexy as the free yoga passes and chair massages, (yes, ApotheCom offer that), but David’s convinced the company’s tricky transition from rigid timesheets and time keeping into a flexible format made a big difference for colleagues. After several ‘town halls’ (invitations to staff to openly vocalise their needs and pain points) it was clear that the option of splitting required work hours over weekdays and weekends (a common request by parents wanting to attend a kids’ school play or football match midweek for example) would make a big difference to how workers could manage their life commitments more easily.
“Leveraging the technology and cutting through the red tape to facilitate this wasn’t easy. We’ve always been bound to the traditional model of weekday timesheets and time trackability. But it’s been a key shift for our company, not only to encourage far more accurate timekeeping for projects, but ultimately, it’s a sign to staff that we trust them to hit their hours in a way that supports the often frantic realities of family life in 2020.”  says David.

Tech can only take us so far…

It’s both ironic and unsurprising that in a moment of global transformation, technology fulfils the role of both friend and foe, spanning the spectrum of uplifting Zoom dance party and weekly family lockdown quizzes, to exhausting 11pm WhatsApp business calls. For all the smart software we’ve discovered (favourites include Flux’s free circadian lighting software or Stay on Task – lets you track and limit your access to social media) the onus is ultimately on us. We’re the ones who must continue to monitor and implement the invisible boundaries we know we need to deliver our best work, without compromising our health or relationships. Because if COVID has taught us anything this year, it’s that there’s nothing more valuable than that. Talk to us to learn how we’ve helped other businesses successfully market themselves during these uncertain times.
Jeff Lunn

Author Jeff Lunn

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