Has COVID-19 taught us how to be better at work?

By Claudia Desai, Director of Human Resources at Lifestory Group.

2020 will go down as the year most of our generation would probably like to forget. 

Overnight the world as we knew it pretty much came to a halt and our daily routines were no more. Lockdown meant staying in our homes and becoming a recluse. Surprisingly though, when you stop and look back, considering we couldn't actually do much, it was also a year of constant change. A year of learning. It was a time that made each and every one of us appreciate what we have and to stop taking things for granted. 

I read many articles on how wildlife started to come out in populated areas, taking to the streets and in people’s gardens. The environment became, for a while at least, cleaner and fresher without as many vehicles on the road or in the air. The long awaited appreciation for our NHS came out in our claps on a Thursday evening, standing alongside communities and neighbours, some of whom I would meet for the first time standing on their doorsteps, hearing the nation join us as one. They say out of everything bad, something good will come. That has never been truer than having lived through this pandemic.

I have been in HR for a long time now and through the years have seen and heard pretty much all you would experience in dealing with people on a daily basis. The good, the bad and the ugly. Yet the word ‘Furlough’ was completely new to most of us in the HR world: a word we would have to learn quite quickly, along with the impact it would have on those who had to manage it, be put on it and come back from it. Like so many other businesses, we had to send our people home and overnight we had to roll out an untested HR system throughout the whole business. This allowed us to communicate with everyone quickly and seamlessly and let them know of their individual furlough/reduced hours circumstances. Was I nervous? Absolutely. But it worked. Within 48 hours we had responses from everyone in the business - another first. In true pandemic spirit, we noted that sometimes we’re prone to overdoing testing and trial runs prior to implementations - a lesson to learn from?

Collaborative technology allowed our business to function as normal and has continued to do so to this day. We should thank those who had the foresight to make this possible and although in the beginning of the pandemic, eight hours a day on video calls was exhausting, I truly believe it kept us together as a team and as a business.  I may even go so far as to say it brought us closer as we had a window into the physical homes and the lives of our colleagues. We would see their pets walk across the screen or lay upside down on the sofa behind them; we would hear their children shouting for tea or demanding to say hi to the person on screen. I have decided that people's choice in wallpaper may even be an insight into their soul. 

When furlough gave way to a hybrid of office/remote working, we encouraged employees to discover a new work-life balance: parents had become more involved with their children, becoming more present in the school runs and homework. We collectively started to focus more on hobbies, pets and new means of exercise. We became more personal, more Lifestory. The launch of our flexible-working pact cemented this priority, reiterating an employee-organisation trust, bonding our team further and this was confirmed in receiving our best employee engagement score to date. Our wellbeing agenda was evolving at the same time to support this and continued in earnest once everyone returned to work supporting peoples financial, physical and mental wellbeing.

We became more than a team, we became bonded as an extension of family. There were many examples of this that I got to hear about but the ones that stick in my mind were being inundated with volunteers for our Mental Health First Aiders group and when colleagues got together to support those living on their own or on furlough by going for their daily exercise on walks as their support bubble, or over zoom for drinks and a chat.

Although we were unable to run our assessment centres in the way we had in previous years, we pressed on virtually, investing in the future through our graduate programme. There’s no substitute for meeting people face to face, but perhaps unsurprisingly, the virtual format allowed us to maintain time keeping and focus. As a result we recruited 9 new amazing grads to our business and for the first year ever, 75% of these are female. Maybe there is something to be said for the virtual environment working well for women and this is certainly something we need to explore further as leaders of change in the property industry. Like with everything we go through in life, positive changes can be adopted and adapted for the future; our future. 

There is no doubt that the pandemic has also brought sadness and loss along the way and we all have our stories to tell on this too, but we need to see the good in all that we have done to cope with what life has thrown at us and the fact we have dealt with so much change, whilst continuing to remain positive for the future. 

Let's try to ensure we don't forget all the good stuff that has come along the way and keep it in place, so we can at least have something good to show for the last year and be proud of the changes that came as a result. We never stop learning and nor should we, especially when the going gets tough.