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Taking the time to talk, and other learnings for businesses during the pandemic

Allie Lawson, Head of SMB Brand & Marketing at O2, shares her thoughts on starting a new role in the midst of lockdown and how to support your team virtually.

O2 Business are headline sponsors of Enterprise Nation’s ‘She Got This’ campaign which aims to support 15,000 women in the UK start, grow and scale their business. Following the second national lockdown, Enterprise Nation conducted a study amongst 500+ SMB leaders to understand the impact that COVID has had on small businesses and working in lockdown

Their findings revealed that;

  • 51% of male bosses say their mental health has been impacted by running a business from home compared to 32% of female leaders of small and medium businesses (SMB) leaders
  • But despite this, 35% of women bosses say running a business from home is more difficult than from the office compared to just 18% of male business leaders, who think it’s easier
  • 51% of male leaders are optimistic about future of work and business opportunities compared to 45% of women

I joined Enterprise Nation’s roundtable session to discuss the findings and share my own experiences of starting a new role at O2 and managing a new team, virtually.

  • You can access the full report here.

Firstly, I think it’s important to acknowledge that actually it hasn’t been easy for a lot of us, and we haven’t got it right all the time. It took a long time for people – myself included – to find a routine that works when remote working.

At first it was a bit of a fight or flight situation – everyone apologising for their children, pets barking, or partners talking. But it quickly became important to take the time to talk about the challenges everyone was facing and be clear that there is a change in expectations. When the pandemic hit, it was so important to offer flexibility, which wasn’t too difficult when you work for a company like O2 that is well practiced in flexible working, with the technology to match.

Flexible working for me means choice

But technology cannot solve all problems. Flexibility for me means choice and maintaining a work-life balance. People in my team worked mornings or afternoons so they could rotate with their partners to ensure someone was watching the kids, but that does rely on having a safe environment for your teams to tell you what they need. There will certainly have been people who suffered in silence, trying to juggle the emotional burden of both home and work but uncomfortable with pushing the boundaries of what they need.

Wellbeing has become more important than ever, especially when you can easily spend the week glued to your screen and seat. I witnessed some make a resounding effort to go for a lunchtime walk, and in the warmer months I tried to log off early enough to go for a walk with my furloughed partner and dog, not just for my mental health but for his too. It’s important to facilitate conversation about the challenges of working from home and things that you might be sacrificing as a result of this new way of working, and the unknown ‘end date’ of the pandemic definitely prolonged a few bad habits of mine.

A few months in, I found that lots of people were working really late, a consequence of not having that mental shift of leaving an office. I too had got into an unhealthy routine, but I’ve made a conscious effort during the last few months to switch off over the weekend and I feel so much better for it. I’ve asked my team to use the ‘delayed response’ function on Outlook if they really feel a need to work outside of usual hours (bearing in mind some choose to, as a way to give themselves flexibility during the day), so not to drive a culture of receiving emails out of hours. It can take just a few months to create a culture of people not switching off and a lot longer to reverse such damage when navigating the new normal.

Take the time to surprise and delight your teams

Doing wellbeing challenges or temperature check surveys can be a great way to understand how people are really feeling, something that gets lost in a virtual world where you see so little of everybody and miss out on office grumblings and frustrations. You can easily go a week without talking to someone, and not be aware of things that need attention. And now that the future of work has become a little more business as usual, I think it’s important to take the time to surprise and delight your teams – whether it’s small self-care packages (I sent brownies from a local business to those who work for me) or keeping up office behaviours like monthly recognition awards, or just making use of the team WhatsApp. Those lost water cooler moments are so crucial in boosting team morale, and can make the world of difference to those who live alone or may be feeling a bit lonely during the pandemic.

I found it particularly challenging navigating the new normal and taking leadership of a new team during the first lockdown. Like so many others, I had to build relationships and connections virtually. It’s been tough as you lose the time that you would normally get in person to chat about things outside of work. Ensuring you spend five mins having a natter on team calls has helped me get to know my leadership team, but it’s much harder finding the time to talk to everyone.

It’s so easy to shy away on a virtual call and the impact is noticeable – you end up feeling like you have to force small talk with near strangers. And that can take a huge toll on your mental wellbeing, and your ability to feel comfortable being yourself. The festive season has been a great opportunity to bond and I am sure many businesses have similar reflections.

Flexible working drives creativity, innovation, and freedom

Ultimately, flexible working needs to be a choice. Some have made it work, perhaps lucky to have desks, while others are hunched over on their kitchen table or sofa and desperate to get back to the office. Some like the thinking time, others hate the quietness. People like me like a bit of both. Businesses that allow people to choose how they work are surely likely to drive effectiveness and remove barriers to flexibility.

The technology enabling a digital workplace is there to help people work from anywhere, and the one thing that this pandemic has shown us is that people can work well from home under enormous pressure. They say people are creatures of habit, but I do think that flexibility drives creativity, innovation and freedom, and all of these things are vital to fostering a great place to work and great business outcomes. But this needs to be tempered with people-driven initiatives to reflect how important relationships are in business.

To celebrate our ongoing partnership, we’re giving every O2 Business customer a 12 month Enterprise Nation membership (worth £120). That’s a whole year of support, connections and discounts for your business, for free.


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