HRM asked this business to keep a diary during the first few weeks of COVID-19, beginning from when remote work became mandatory.
One Saturday afternoon in late March, employees at Mahlab, a media agency in Sydney, received a text message that they’d all been waiting for. It was from their CEO advising them to all work from home, effective immediately. For how long? No one knew.
Prior to that message, a handful of employees had chosen to work remotely due to increased cases of COVID-19, but for the rest of the company, remote work was a step into the unknown.
Businesses all over Australia are going through similar struggles, but it can feel like your organisation is the only one. This is the story of one typical business, but it’s really the story of lots of businesses.
How do you continue to run a business when it feels like the world has been turned upside down? How do you stay inspired and motivated when you’re alone? How does a team on temporary visas cope when the borders are closed?
HRM asked Mahlab employees to keep a diary to answer those very questions.
A leader’s perspective
Cara McLeod is the CEO and head of client partnerships at Mahlab. In the first weeks of the crisis, she realised she was going to have to write her own rule book.
When COVID-19 really kicked off, I realised there was no road map. The leadership team and I had to start making plans to support both our people and maintain our business – and we couldn’t look back on history to compare our approach with others.
Initially, managing the different types of anxieties staff had about this situation was difficult. When deciding whether or not to work remotely, a big challenge was balancing the needs of those who were more comfortable working from home and those who would have liked to keep the office running as usual.
I knew other companies were already working remotely, but in the back of my mind, I felt the longer we kept the office going, the better it would be for everyone’s mental health. When one of our staff members came into contact with someone who was potentially COVID-19 positive (thankfully, the test would come back negative), that’s when I made the call for all staff to work remotely.
Sustaining remote work is another challenge. The first week of something new is often disruptive. People had to learn how to be productive and collaborative in a new environment, but it feels like we have all found our groove. What’s particularly hard is not knowing how long we’ll be doing this for.
In some cases, isolation hits people in ways they didn’t expect. Grief might creep up on them one day, but they’re okay the next. That’s why checking in with staff is so important. You can’t assume they are doing well today just because they were yesterday.
We know bad days will happen. What I have to keep an eye out for is if those days become weeks. That’s why we’ve brought in an Employee Assistance Program. Looking after staffs’ mental health is always important, but even more so at the moment.
A personal challenge for me is balancing my job with my responsibilities as a mum – I have a four-year-old daughter and a baby that’s about to turn one. I was lucky in the first few weeks of remote work because my husband was still on parental leave.
But last week was a different story. After trying to juggle both parenthood and our jobs, we decided this wasn’t going to be sustainable, so we hired a nanny. I’m lucky to be in a position to do that. I know it’s not possible for everyone, but it will make a huge difference for my family.
Maintaining creativity from afar
Gareth Allsopp is an art director and head of creative at Mahlab. He wasn’t too fond of the idea of WFH. For him, the office felt crucial to his creativity. Now he has to try and recreate its atmosphere online.
Three weeks into remote working and I’m finally enjoying the process.
To be honest, I knew WFH was going to be a challenge. We’re a very close team and face-to-face time helps ignite that creative spark. We’re used to brainstorming as a team. I was concerned that moving to working from home would change that dynamic, but there have actually been a lot of positives.
Screen sharing is a godsend. I can see what the team is doing in real-time and we can still bounce ideas off each other.
The challenges are new, but not completely different to ones we’ve faced before. We just have to get even more creative with our solutions. A good example of this is a photoshoot we had planned. Due to social distancing rules, that shoot fell through and we couldn’t find a good image online of this guy anywhere. One team member scoured the internet and finally found really great photos from a few years back. She went into full detective mode and found where the photos came from, got all the rights and permissions and now we have a way forward.
One of the big things I’ve noticed is that people are actually speaking about their emotions more now, which doesn’t always happen in an office. I am very open. If I’ve had a bad day, I’m not afraid to say, “Today has been rubbish, I’m not feeling productive at all”. In a leadership role, showing emotion is often seen as a weakness but I disagree. I think it can be a massive strength.
Recognition is also really important in a virtual workplace. I try very hard to let people know when they’ve done a great job. I hope that makes them feel inspired and it sparks their creativity. Not everyone feels great all the time, so to get that recognition, particularly from your manager, can be a big deal. It can change their whole day.
HR’s role in a remote workforce
Robina Elyeh is the office manager at Mahlab and go-to person for all things HR related. The health and wellbeing of staff has always been a top priority for her, but COVID-19 has caused her to redouble her efforts.
At the start of the pandemic, the official guidance changed every day. We had some staff who were feeling quite anxious about the virus from the beginning and others who perhaps thought it would blow over. So when we were relaying information to staff, we had to be really mindful about the frequency and tone of our communication.
We didn’t want to overwhelm staff with too much information; they were already getting an overload of content from media outlets and social media. As a leadership team, we decided to base all of our communications around the information coming out of the World Health Organisation and the government, as we felt these were reliable sources. We also made a decision not to restrict communications to a specific timeframe, but to pass on relevant information to staff as soon as we could, such as government announcements or changes to our own business operations.
There were teething issues in the first week of remote work. Accountability is something I know a lot of us struggled with. People were anxious to justify what they were doing each day. I feel some meetings were called so that people could demonstrate they were working, even though the act of having that meeting was preventing work from happening.
One thing we’ve done to try and overcome this anxiety is implement daily stand up meetings. Staff write up their daily tasks and barriers for the day and it’s posted on Slack, so you know what everyone is working on. Whether that helps, only time will tell.
Social distancing and isolation can cause people to go through a grieving process. It’s been really difficult for me not to visit my parents every week, like I ordinarily would.
Sometimes people put on a brave face and say, “I’m doing great” even when they’re not. A small thing I do each day is make sure I get in touch with at least one staff member, just for a chat. If they don’t want to talk to me, I make sure they’re aware of our EAP program. Me saying “it’s okay to feel not okay” is one thing, but hearing it from a trained professional is another.
Supporting the expat community
Tommy Murphy, group sales operations manager at Mahlab, has done his best to remain positive and boost staff morale, but with a team largely made up of UK expats, it can be hard to offer the shoulder his colleagues need right now.
When this all kicked off, I was dreading having to work at home because I really enjoy the social aspect of the office and detest awkward, up-nostril video calls.
However, I realised the gravity of the situation, so I decided to embrace it and try to set up for success at home. Our team is very close-knit; a quick video meeting at the start of each day and a very informal one at the end provides the backbone of our working routine.
The first few weeks were definitely an adjustment period – “meeting overload” was the theme of each day. Once we started putting agendas together and giving people specific roles in our meetings, we’ve been getting much more time back.
One thing we couldn’t prepare for was the border closures. Eighty per cent of our sales team are expats from Ireland and Scotland on sponsorship visas, including myself. If anything happens to our families, the decision for us to leave means uncertainty about when (or if) we could return to our lives in Australia. This brings feelings of anxiety for some and it’s very difficult seeing a friend in distress through a screen. Feeling powerless to do anything is the hardest thing about this whole situation.
As a company, we’ve all been encouraging each other to maintain our physical and mental health by posting on our #wellness Slack channel. I’ve been sharing daily meditation tasks as I’ve found that’s been helpful for me. We’re also doing our part to keep the fun alive. At the end of the week when we’re all dog-tired, we collectively down tools, grab a drink and do QuaranTrivia. Having a laugh to mark the week’s end is a great stress reliever.
Embracing the roller coaster
Edie-Louise Diemar works in the editorial team at Mahlab. As a new staff member, she’s had some unique challenges.
I started with Mahlab about three weeks before we went into lockdown. You feel like an outsider when you start a new job. Even though our company is a close family, it can take a few months to truly ‘fit in’ – trying to do so from home is exhausting.
My colleagues are supportive, but every anxiety I feel about working from home is magnified tenfold because I don’t really know the people I’m working with. How will I prove that I’m working hard enough? Who do I reach out to when I need help? Do they find my jokes funny? These are just some of the questions I have every day, paired with the general anxiety of living through a pandemic.
Friday (Quaran)trivia has never felt more important, and I’m grateful to connect with everyone in our daily all company meeting. And thank God for Slack, how else could I share endless pictures of my cat? If there was ever a time to live through a pandemic, it’s in 2020 when we have the technology we need to connect.
Despite the distance and despite the separation, this team has chosen to jump on this rollercoaster holding hands. We are in this together, even an outsider like me.
Mahlab is the company that produces HRM magazine and HRMOnline on behalf of the Australian Human Resources Institute.
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