Abruptly sent home to work remotely, civil servants around the world are struggling to build the skills, tools and systems they need. At a Microlink webinar now available online, experts advised the 700-strong live audience on how to survive and thrive in this new working world.
The experience – common to millions of civil servants around the world – of suddenly finding themselves working from home “had a profound impact on everybody’s performance, whether physical or psychological,” said Dr Nasser Siabi. “And I think this is an opportunity to create much more inclusive and holistic workplaces, and to change the way of working for the better – not just now, but permanently.”
Dr Siabi, founder and CEO of Microlink – which provides systems and technologies to enable people with physical or mental health conditions to succeed in the workplace – was speaking during a webinar Skills and Systems for Remote Working on 30 April. Bringing together experts in psychology, technology and organisational development to advise on how to navigate the challenges of remote working, the full webinar, presentations and transcript are now available on www.globalgovernmentforum.
Siabi was joined by Dr Nancy Doyle – an occupational psychologist, CEO of neurodiversity consultancy Genius Within, and postdoctoral research fellow at Birkbeck University – and Carl Ward, Microlink’s head of assistive technology training and a workplace accessibility assessor. Building on the advice presented in a recent article, Doyle’s presentation focused on reconciling work responsibilities with family duties and leisure time; maintaining focus in a busy home environment; smoothing tensions between colleagues at a time when in-person communication is out of the question; and supporting colleagues.
How much flexibility should staff expect from their employers, asked Carl Burkett of the UK’s HM Courts and Tribunals Service: should parents trying to home-school their children have to work their full hours? Ideally, she replied, managers should “exert as much flexibility as possible and negotiate with their team”. If – for example – one employee lives alone while another has caring responsibilities, “they could share the workload between them,” she said.
However, tensions are likely to arise if people feel they are being paid the same amount to work harder than others: employers must be open about how they’re allocating work. “You can say: ‘Look, these are the difficulties. It’s not ideal but we’re going to do our best. There are going to be some imbalances for awhile but we have to look at the bigger picture’.” Keep communicating that and arrange one-to-ones to give people the opportunity to voice their concerns, she suggested.
One manager watching the webinar, Raphael Scarey, asked Doyle how he could ensure performance targets are reached whilst managing the psychological impact on staff in a lockdown situation. “When you’re not seeing the results that you want to see and you’re not getting the contact that you need to feel reassured that that person is okay, approach them with a mindset of curiosity,” said Doyle. “Explore what might be happening cognitively in terms of their ability to concentrate and to plan; and emotionally, in terms of any extra stress or anxiety they might be feeling. Then approach it practically – are the tools they need available to them?”
Physical wellbeing in the home office
On the topic of tools, Carl Ward discussed physical wellbeing, comfort and safety in a home office environment – talking the audience through setting up their home office with the right equipment and technology to support good posture and boost productivity. And Siabi warned that “brilliant” public sector workers are being signed off on sick leave simply because they haven’t got the equipment they need at home – even where the kit is relatively inexpensive. Disabled people are being disproportionately affected by the shift to remote working, he warned: “If you want people to do the work, you’ve got to give them the right equipment, the right tools. You should go to your employer and instist on getting the right equipment.”
In answer to a question from Ruth Ashley in Detroit, Michigan – whose existing back and neck issues have been exacerbated by working from home – Ward noted that workplace assessments can be conducted remotely via video-conferencing, enabling employers to identify problems in people’s workstations. “You might have a fantastic ergonomic chair but you might still be sitting in an awkward position, and equally you could get yourself into a reasonably good ergonomic position even in a kitchen chair,” he said. “Being mindful about your body is the best advice.”
One Microlink assessment of a woman with similar problems, added Siabi, had found that she had all the right equipment but it wasn’t set up correctly. And he urged employers to protect their staff, given that working from home is likely to lead to more developing musculoskeletal conditions: the biggest cause of sick leave. “If you get the right equipment, and it doesn’t cost much for an organisation – several hundred dollars at most – you can reduce absenteeism by 80%,” he said.
Of course, the right tools and equipment aren’t just about easing or preventing joint and muscle pain. Some tools, like the real-time transcription and captioning service Verbit – which was available for viewers to use during the webinar – make online events and conversations more accessible for people who are deaf or hard of hearing, who are listening in their second language, or who cannot have the audio turned on in their work environment.
Planning for a return to the workplace
Talk turned – prompted by one viewer, Jordan Miller, who said he was surprised by how much he’d enjoyed working at home and was nervous about returning to the office – to how people could prepare themselves to go back to the workplace once the pandemic is under control.
Doyle suggested that managers begin drawing up a back-to-work plan to ease people in gently. “We need a plan, and it will have to be bespoke for each organisation depending on what’s reasonable and practicable.”
She added: “One of the things I’m hopeful for, is that we’ve all learned how viable remote working can be for many people. So when we plan to go back, let’s plan to be more flexible, let’s plan to be gentler on each other, let’s plan to have this remote option for people that need it. I’ve got a hunch we’re not going to go back to normality.”
Many civil services around the world have for years resisted flexible working at scale. Now lockdown has proved just how viable it can be. And with good management, this new way of working could well make way for more inclusive work practices, happier employees, and in turn, improved performance.