To return to the office or continue to have staff working from home? That is the question that is facing many businesses across Australia.
LBWco CEO Kylie Bishop explains why she made the difficult decision to bring the team back to the office sooner.
It was hard to find the usual sense of business control when the COVID pandemic struck. Decisions needed to be made daily based on information that was less than clear, and that had both health and financial implications for all of us. A sense of reactivity prevailed, and it demanded that we move faster as best ‘first followers’ than ever before. To say it was tough is an understatement that the business owners I know, resonate with.
Whilst business of all sizes are facing challenges of a scale that most people will only see once in their lifetime, the experience for small and medium sized business owners is amplified to one of vulnerability, responsibility and a sense of a complete lack of control. Many sleepless nights have been spent questioning the best course of action for our business, our staff, our clients and importantly our mental health – each with competing needs and priorities.
Early on we made two decisions that have held us in good stead, and continue to work for us now. Firstly, that we would be responsible at all times, and secondly that we would act as quickly as we could.
We leaned hard on the risk mitigation plans and technology we already had in place; we communicated with full transparency with the team; and we set our COVID-Safe Plan in place well before we were required to by the government. By accepting and creating an environment where providing support and protecting the health of our team was our first priority, we were able to weather the storm better than many and come out stronger and wiser than before.
A ‘Working from Home’ trial in early March allowed us to test our system and make sure everyone had the tools in place for the anticipated lockdown– it turns out we were ready! This also encouraged us to carefully consider the roles and responsibilities of everyone in the office and how they may need to be adapted to fit the changing environment. We communicated our intentions to our team every step of the way, even when that meant admitting some uncertainty.
When the time came, leaving only a skeleton team at the office, we took our laptops and went home to work with almost no disruption to our business. As essential workers we maintained our field work programs safely in our dedicated vehicles, and used EDi – our data intelligence system – to stay as physically distant as possible while we shared electronic data with each other.
For a number of weeks this worked well, and we rode out the height of the health uncertainty in SA from home, staying connected through online channels and remaining focussed on what we could do rather than what we couldn’t. As time went by, the cases in SA dropped and the steps put in place by state and national leaders seemed to be working to mitigate the community transmission here.
What became harder was keeping people together and mentally strong when they were physically displaced and working reduced hours. When so many people were being stood down or made redundant around us. When the statistics related to stress, anxiety, and death trended alarmingly upwards.
It was time to make our next most important decision – to bring everyone back together faster than others were able to. We remain grateful that our office was large enough, and our team was small enough, to be able to meet the requirements for physical distancing. We were also able to meet the need for human connectedness that keeps people stronger during crises.
We still have a strict daily cleaning regime and a staff roster; we sign weekly declarations of our health and interactions with others; and we remain ready to follow instructions that will keep everyone safe.
“Together we can” has been one of our mantras for a long time and has never been more relevant or important. The last few months have reinforced our values of “we care” and “we stay connected” and backing the team in – pandemic and all.
1. Communicate often and openly. Quickly address any concerns that arise for people without judgement. Remember that everyone’s circumstances and response to the pandemic may be different.
2. Check in with staff regularly on their physical and mental health & wellbeing. Increase communication channels and create team activities (in a responsibly socially distanced way) to foster a sense of community.
3. Create a roster system to ease the transition. Consider alternate working days or revised working hours to support staff back into the office environment.
4. Implement and update staff on new and improved hygiene practices for safety & peace of mind. These should not be tokenistic and should consider suggestions from staff.
5. Make plans for every scenario and adapt quickly… If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected!