How was your holiday?

So, a good friend and colleague has just gone back to work after a week off. Turned out to be a terrible week, for one reason or another, but at least he wasn’t at work.

He works at the heart of social care. It’s been full-on since the virus started to spread, but as things have calmed, routine has reared its head again. His system is top down, on the usual ‘marketised’ public sector model, and as the initial excitement has subsided, centrally controlled (but scarcely managed) business as usual is rearing its head again.

But there’s still a key difference – ‘remote working’. Going back to work after a break simply means switching on a machine, in what used to be one’s personal space, and being deluged by a build up of emails, with queries, complaints, demands, and the latest directives from on high. Very different psychic dramas, all of a sudden, with no change of cast or scenery.

It used to be that returning to work meant putting on different clothes, doing that familiar commute, finding your way to your workplace, and meeting and greeting people along the way. All gradually getting you back in the groove… Now in our new world, none of this happens.  Does it matter? Isn’t it simply more efficient? All that time and energy can now be applied directly to the emails.

But my colleague had had a bad week… the usual return to work might have eased him out of this, with its familiar routines and rituals, unrelated to what had happened at home.  People would have missed him, asked if he’d had a good time, and he could have said as much or as little as he wanted, but certainly had the chance of a different perspective before closing the office door (he’s still lucky enough to have one) and switching on the machine at the appointed time.

A transition like this matters more to some people than others, but it’s one vivid example of how so much has changed quite subtly with online home-working. Even at home, you still have to be lucky to have an office door – you might even be working in a repurposed kitchen. And even if your kitchen and your workspace aren’t the same, there’s now no chance of bumping into a workmate making coffee, rather than only seeing them on a task-by-task basis.

Workplace cultures are complex – and don’t solely arise ‘in action’ from the task itself, steered by the latest directives from on high. Even in the most concrete of settings, some form of dialogue and reflection occurs between actions – some sharing of experience in ‘down time’, over coffee, or lunch, bumping into the people in the corridor or simply waiting around for something to happen.  Alliances can be forged in these spaces that then inform the work.  Attitudes are shared and shaped. This is how the ‘workplace within’- or the ‘organisation in the mind’ – is formed, and passed on.  The attitudes, emotions and actions of individual staff, in role, are powerfully influenced by the culture within which their work takes place.

So, what happens if almost all opportunities for informal contact are taken away? At worst, it’s industrialisation – each person has a specific role, they fulfil it in isolation, receive feedback according to certain targets, and make adjustments to what they do in response to instructions from above – all without any chance for reflection or dialogue.  Even if the targets are appropriate, and the instructions are relevant, this does not grow ‘professionalism’ – autonomous creative practice, with a capacity for improvisation in a crisis.  And if the tasks are poorly specified, the targets cause collateral damage, and the instructions are wedded to a political agenda, it can be deeply problematic – both for the work in hand, and for the people carrying it out.

Currently, concerns about workplace dynamics seem to be being framed as matters of ‘mental health’.   This is an umbrella term for a rich and varied range of difficulties: but predominantly identifies them as individual problems. There are particular, pressing issues for those working directly with the human consequences of Covid-19.  However, there are others who, instead, are staring insecurity, disruption, and loss of identity in the face. If they are working at home, as many are, this can be made worse by social isolation, and the loss of familiar routines. 

The immediate loss of workplace culture has of course been mitigated by the fact that the relationships themselves, honed by many hours of coffee drinking, collisions in corridors, and mutual commiseration, still exist.  But what happens when a new person joins the team? As time passes, and as staff team members come and go, this resource of past close social, and ‘embodied’ contact will not be able to be drawn upon in the same way.  Already parts of the civil service, for example, are saying they won’t be back ‘in the office’ until at least next year.

Rather than issue ‘well-being statements’ and make well-intentioned pronouncements about the importance of mental health, serious technical attention needs to be paid to how to create alternative workplace cultures. This of course is tricky.   Almost everyone, regardless of personality type, is likely to go into the coffee room. Not everyone will want to attend, say, a reflective staff group, and if you make it compulsory you risk unease, or disaffection.

There is also a certain management style that repeatedly proclaims care, concern, and achievement, ‘to build morale’.  This is often experienced as patronising – the culture of awards, certificates and badges, and telling everyone how well they’re doing. Even the online quizzes, which seemed so promising at first, are becoming a bit of a chore…

What can be done instead? Sometimes, attention to structure can produce powerful psychological change. A coffee room is a concretely structural intervention, as is a corridor.  More abstractly, but still structural, putting on one’s work clothes, or getting on a commuter train, also create specific states of mind. In the days before video calls, it had become a truism that if you were having a telephone job interview, you still put on smart clothes, sat up attentively, and made sure you smiled – all this affected how you felt and so how you projected yourself.  Wearing a shirt, tie and pyjama bottoms on a Zoom call is fun at first, indulging a childish rebelliousness, but longer term, it’s the pressed trousers, and shoes, regardless of the T-shirt above desk level, that may best help us effectively inhabit our roles.

Cultures, too, are shaped and determined by structure, in the broadest sense. Services worked better in the past if their members were on one site, and so routinely met each other, and recognised each other as human beings. If nothing else, mutual respect is maintained by having to share a kettle, pass in the corridor, and look each other in the eye.  Even avoiding someone’s gaze is a reminder that respect and relationship matters. Character assassination, or histrionics, by email are less likely to occur amongst people who are in this degree of proximity.

If remote working remains the rule, managers urgently need to attend to new forms of structure.  But what might these be? Let’s play with some ideas.

As already alluded to, people are recognising the need for work clothes, and work-related rituals.  A family member makes sure she still has a 30 minute walk at the start and end of her working day, because she missed the chance both to think things over, and make an important psychological transition. Should such rituals become part of a recognised ‘job plan’?

Another structural change may be around timetabling.  Psychoanalysts have long recognised that an hour’s work is 50 minutes task, then 10 minutes reflection, recovery and ‘housekeeping’.  If today’s managers only learn one thing from psychoanalysis, perhaps this should be it – and they should ensure all staff observe the rule.  This matters so much more with the intensity of video calls, and the fact that you no longer have the downtime of the five-minute walk to your next appointment. The importance of meetings starting and ending on time should also be recognised, and honoured in practice. 

Such simple time-management might be less about promoting a culture, than protecting it from harm.  Meetings themselves, however, have much greater potential for developing the ‘work-place within’, and need care and attention.  They can no longer rely upon relationships having been formed and sustained in any other settings – and skilful chairing, attentive to the ‘here and now’ is all-important.  It always was important, but there was greater leeway for doing it badly in the past.

Team dynamics can no longer be taken for granted. They have to be actively managed. This includes, and perhaps begins with, new rituals of conveying concern and respect. Everyone needs to be mindful of the numerous ways of ‘leavening’ the daily grind that now have to be in the meetings themselves, because they’re otherwise few and far between.  Chairs of such meetings will need understanding, experience and flair, and the will and resources to develop these. Making sure there’s some ‘programmed’ time, for gossip, for ‘catching up’ with each other, might also be a good idea, validated if the chair expressly encourages, even models it.

‘Zoom etiquette’ in workplace settings is not an affectation, it’s an essential. Every day needs to be a ‘team building day’.  The challenge is to do this in a way that feels natural, and genuine, whilst scrupulously attending to the complex human factors at play.  Skilfully done, meetings might even become a pleasure, an eagerly anticipated break in the working day.

Although all this is necessary, it won’t be sufficient. I know many are working hard to humanise this remote communication: can anyone suggest what else might be done?

How was your holiday? Bloody awful. I’m glad to be back…


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