Dispatch From the Home Front: This Change Went Live Before Anyone Was Ready

We’re all suffering the effects of a change that was, out of necessity, rushed and thrust upon us. Change Synergy’s Colleen Isaacs shares what it’s been like and what to do.

Three months ago, most of us had never heard of coronavirus. Working from home was the norm for some; for others, a privilege to be earned; and for others still, entirely non-existent. 

We started to hear about the virus spreading; we followed the stats. But we didn’t really believe it was going to affect us – at least, not that much. It’s just a flu, right?

For a while, we even enjoyed  going to Chadstone Shopping Centre on Saturday afternoon and easily finding a parking spot.

Then suddenly, and very quickly, life changed.

Those who can work from home were ordered to start doing so, immediately. Training programs and discretionary projects were paused. The Formula 1 Melbourne Grand Prix was cancelled hours before the first practice session; we stopped shaking hands; and government websites crashed.

Basically, we skipped the proof of concept and went straight to the real thing – across the globe, almost in sync.  

Figure it out as you go

While many companies in Australia offer flexible work arrangements, that doesn’t necessarily mean employees are used to – or are able to – work from home effectively.

Working from home everyday, alongside other family members or housemates, is vastly different than having your home to yourself once a week or once per fortnight, or maybe only occasionally, when you’re writing performance reviews or waiting for a plumber.

When you work from home occasionally, you can cope with squinting at an 11” laptop screen, perched on a kitchen chair or folded into your sofa, with a cat vying for lap space. These small discomforts are offset by the pleasures of getting ahead on your laundry or enjoying a cup of tea on the deck.

When it’s your everyday, suddenly you need an external monitor – except there aren’t any at Officeworks. Wait, someone just returned one; that means there’s one left, and now it’s yours! Then you get it home and realise you need an adaptor to connect it to your laptop. Back to Officeworks – they’re all out of adaptors, because everyone is setting up their home offices.

Your home internet is slower, because everyone in the house is using it all the time – including your children, because they can’t go to school. (In a cruel twist, it seems children’s health is least at risk, yet they might suffer the worst burdens, from disruptions in learning, support, and socialisation. For some children, school is a food insecurity stopgap.)

Big business to the rescue! In a surprise but welcome move, Telstra and Optus are giving subscribers extra mobile data, and a group of American tech execs have launched a COVID-19 food bank fund to support children and families.      

You’re Making it Work

Ok, you’ve cobbled together a functional home office and you can get online. Your company has spent the last two weeks testing their network and made fast changes to support teleworking en masse. Maybe you’re able to break your day into chunks – chunks for work and chunks for the kids – which means you’re not completely neglecting them, and you’re getting some work done too. (Yes, this means working after the kids are in bed, encroaching on your cherished “me” time.)

How’s your mental health?

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It’s Tough

As many of us have discovered over the last two weeks, it takes more than a laptop and an internet connection to work effectively.

We also need human interactions: the desk chats, coffee breaks, the spontaneous problem-solving sessions.

Even consultants, who can work from just about anywhere, are used to working with, and seeing, people.

Then there’s the uncertainty: how long will this last? Will I lose my job?

This Isn’t an Experiment – it’s Live

It’s called the world’s largest work-from-home experiment, but it’s not an experiment – it’s live, and our livelihoods depend on it.

Experiments are usually planned and controlled. This is anything but: we’re reacting, operating in survival mode, doing anything we can to keep earning a crust.

There have been some benefits: we’ve learned how to get the most out of collaborative tools like Zoom and Microsoft Teams. Many of us call our colleagues everyday, sometimes just to chat. We look forward to team meetings we used to roll our eyes at.

But it’s still difficult.

This tells us what we’ve always known: change is hard. Disruptive change is really hard.

As change practitioners, what should we do?

In addition to the oft-shared advice about getting dressed, sticking to a routine, and exercising:

  • Empathise with people
  • Over-communicate; don’t go dark
  • Make sure your stakeholders know that while you may be working differently, you’re still working hard to deliver great things for them
  • If you’re a leader, encourage your team members to take time out of the day to be with their children
  • Role model this behaviour

If you’re healthy and you still have a job, be grateful.

And of course, keep your nose to the grindstone, and keep delivering.

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