In conversation with HR - Remote working, mental health and rebuilding after COVID

3 June 2020
8 minute

Meet Gillian Ward, a seasoned HR leader who has seen it all in her experience spanning over three decades. In her latest role as Head of Human Resources at Thomas International, Gillian has her work cut out for her from day one! In this candid conversation, she breaks down the challenges of remote working, proven strategies to make people feel cared for so that they deliver results, and of course, what lies on the other side of COVID-19. 

Q: What are the biggest challenges that employees are currently facing? 

Early on in the lockdown, we ran an engagement survey across all our offices. The key insights were less around the actual work (although an increased workload was a concern), but more around the personal and practical challenges that come with working remotely for such a long period of time. Managing ambiguity, working in isolation, balancing work with home (multi-tasking, home-schooling), and generally the boundaries between work and home becoming blurred, were just some of the challenges people face.  

Q: How are you trying to address these and what’s your advice to leaders? 

The first step is transparent, frequent and open communication. We’ve been proactive with information, including where we stand as a business, what lies ahead, and how we can help and support employees. We use a range of communication channels Stand-ups, virtual pubs, Friday all-hands, emails and 1:1 conversations.    

Other aspects are the mental health and wellbeing challenges that our employees and indeed society as a whole, are currently facing. I know from experience that one-size-fits-all interventions can be more detrimental than useful. At Thomas our measures consider broader aspects like diversity and inclusion, health and safety, and personal insights like management styles and preferred communication styles including coaching.  

My advice to other HR and business leaders is to empower people to take responsibility and ownership of driving organisational wellbeing initiatives.  A plan where people managers are working closely with their team members is going to see far more traction than HR (seemingly!) imposing things on the business. Invest in developing the skill of your line managers; help them to have deep, insightful conversations without being intrusive, and use employee feedback along with their personality insights to have a bespoke action plan. Of course, our managers are fortunate enough to have access to all the Thomas tools which means they have insight into their employees at their fingertips. Through the use of our behavioural, aptitude, emotional intelligence and personality assessments, they have a greater understanding of how to converse with and manage different members of their team. 

Q: Is remote working affecting your ability to help employees with day-to-day needs?

In remote working, we all need to work harder at our listening skills. We need to proactively seek areas to ask about - and then increase opportunities for people to speak up.

Frankly, I miss the immediacy of face-to-face communication, to pick up those vital non-verbal cues of our employees. I really value the informal input from our people. But as a company, we have developed our Managing Remote Workers report, which we've been using to identify the strengths and limitations of each person when working remotely. It also helps people to speak up when they need help in an area.

And we're now even more intentional about maintaining a culture of engagement, trust and genuine connection. We have developed a Remote Working Pledge that sets out the Senior Leadership Team's (SLT) commitment to supporting employees while they are working remotely, including individual behaviours we can all adopt.

Finally, as a business with offices across 60 countries, technically, we're well-resourced. We've been using Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Yammer (internal social network) and a range of tools to enable people to connect and share their experience. The door is always open for our staff to find a listening ear.

Q: How can businesses ensure that teams continue to function well together and deliver results? 

While building a culture of support and flexibility, we need to deliver to clients and customers and drive the business forward. So, there is a balance to be negotiated. Managers are the key here. They need to understand their team dynamics, have regular 1:1 catch ups, set objectives and OKRs and build a relationship of trust and accountability with their team members.  

As a manager, I try to maximise comfort and reduce anxiety and stress for my team. The more control people have over their work and life, the less stressed and more productive they are. 

Q: If you could give one recommendation to people managers to improve team performance, what would it be? 

As I’ve said before, one size doesn’t fit all. Get to know the best way to connect with and communicate with individual team members. Use psychometric tools (like Thomas) to get understanding and insights. Using the Thomas workplace personality assessment, for example, can give you valuable insights into how your employees approach their work and whether their strengths can become derailers.  However if you aren’t sure you know how a team member wants to be managed, just ask them! 

Q: As HR, what are the top 3 things you are focusing on post-lockdown? 

1. Health & Safety is paramount, and this includes wellbeing. We recognise there’s a significant mental health impact on those who are working and those who have been furloughed, and we don’t underestimate the work we need to do in this area. We’re are also putting in plans for a safe workspace and working practices that comply with local legislation and takes account of the fundamentals such as how people will commute to work. 

2. We want to capitalise on the fact that teams have developed different relationships during the lockdown. They probably understand and respect each other’s personal circumstances far better now. We’ll focus on retaining that understanding and respect, along with an increased acceptance of flexible (and not just remote) working practices generally. 

3. It is also important that there is no judgement of others for the individual decisions they need to make about their working arrangement as the lockdown eases. Individual employees should feel empowered to make the right decisions for them and their families. 

Q: Any tips for keeping employees engaged and focused as we start the long journey out of lockdown?  

To keep your people feeling engaged and cared for, frequent, open and transparent communication is vital as well as understanding what motivates them individually and collectively (through pulse surveys) is important.  

To keep people focused and motivated, use mechanisms like workload management, regular review of OKRs or KPIs or BHAGs or whatever team metrics you use in your organisation.  

To engage your employees, there needs to be a wellbeing support system and positive practices

Q: What warning signs should managers look for in their employees so that they can address them quickly? 

Both manager and teammates should be able to understand each other to recognise any behavioural red flags, but without making any assumptions as to what might be behind those flags. Some of the typical early signs can be poor concentration, worrying too much, distracted, subpar decision making, tearfulness, irritability, talking faster than usual, jumping around the topic, or being withdrawn.  

If you do notice these symptoms, start a conversation by sharing your own experience first. Conversation starters like “This is tough, isn’t it?”, or “I find this situation stressful, how about you?” will often help someone open up. 

Q: How can business continue to develop their people even taking account of the challenges associated with remote working and likely budget cuts?  

Development doesn’t always mean upward progression in fact it's often about personal growth.  An individual employee is as responsible for their personal growth as the organisation, in fact probably more so.  Businesses can encourage people to grow through online learning in their line of work but picking up a new skill, a new musical instrument or language, or just getting involved in anything that makes you feel happy or content (voluntary work etc) will go a long way to achieving individual personal growth. 

While L&D budgets may be tight, companies can actively share creative routes to personal growth, run them as employee engagement initiatives, encourage employees and incentivise achievement. 

Q: Any tips for businesses that are recruiting, or will start recruiting soon? 

We're not entirely sure yet, but it’s very possible that post-lockdown will be an employer’s market. In other words, it will be easier to recruit but there will still be competition for the top talent. One tip for businesses is to encourage self-sufficiency amongst the hiring managers as they lead hiring for their roles. HR can add value in the interview process (ensuring fit and cultural alignment) and in the onboarding (facilitating appropriate training). Psychometric assessments are a real help during this time as they help you find the best person for the role in terms of behaviours, aptitude and personality not just technical experience. They help hiring managers to really find who will suit your new working practices, such as remote working, which candidates will be behaviourally compatible with the rest of their team and their speed of learning which will be integral to onboarding and getting up and running in their new roles, potentially remotely. 

Q: How’s recruiting remotely going to be different than face to face interviews? 

Well, it’s less easy to replicate the informality of a F2F session that puts the candidate at ease. Having a coffee with someone leads to different insights than meeting over Zoom.  In addition, ascertaining cultural fit of a candidate is harder when we interview them virtually. Dependence on psychometric insights to understand their personality and behaviour will increase. 

Q: What comes first? Competency or cultural fit? 

Well, my feeling is that cultural fit comes first. While interviewing a candidate, HR looks at their cultural fit and likely alignment with company values, and the hiring manager focuses on identifying the candidate’s competencies, fit with the team and potential.   

Q: How can HR (and leaders) support their managers to stay motivated so that they can support their teams? 

That’s a great question! Unfortunately, most people assume that managers and leaders are always doing well mentally, probably because they have a higher remuneration or are just more senior, more experienced so they can ‘deal with it’. As the Head of HR, I support senior leaders by providing a safe space for coaching conversations and sharing. It’s important to engage with senior leaders objectively yet personally to support their wellbeing.  

If you have any questions for Gillian or are struggling with any remote working challenges, contact us here

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