Advice & Best Practice

Balancing productivity with wellbeing

HR Wire sat down with Nicky Little, director at leadership consultancy firm Cirrus, to discuss how businesses can manage team wellbeing during the pandemic, without sacrificing productivity

While coronavirus cases surge across the country and rest of the world, another pandemic is also ravaging the country: one of mental health. Businesses are not only having to deal with the financial toll of Covid-19, but also the toll on employee wellbeing during this time.

Nicky Little is director and head of consulting at Cirrus, a consulting firm which specialises in leadership and team engagement. HR Wire sat down with Nicky to discuss how businesses can manage team wellbeing during the pandemic, without sacrificing productivity.

How has Cirrus adapted its leadership and engagement training during the pandemic?

I’d say fairly significantly. The idea of wellbeing has obviously been around for a long time, but I think the lens is firmly more focused with the increased lockdown and remote working. We have been building our suite of solutions in order to really target and help clients. It’s really about helping people dial up the human touch. 

How do you make sure that you are connecting with people on a human level, not just a business level?

People are clearly spending a lot of time in front of screens, with video calls and the like. It can be pretty relentless. What we’re trying to build into our leadership and engagement training is a way of thinking about how people are feeling, as much as how they’re performing and what they’re expected to do. 

Business leaders come to us and ask what they need to do to help people survive and thrive through this. I think equipping leaders and managers to spot the signs, whether it’s anxieties or mental health issues, and make them equipped to deal with those. Not everybody will have experienced that previously. Even simple principles, like asking staff how they are, sounds really basic. However, people forget this.

Also, getting people to think about the way the business is operating is crucial. What was important previously, may not be as important now. We already work with our clients around agile mindset and agile principles from a behavioural perspective. 

However, now we help with keeping the work pace, increasing the level of priority, but absolutely making sure people at the centre of that. We’re spending a lot of time with clients, helping them keep their people energised, engaged and performing.  

Have you seen an uptake in clients coming to you for help during the pandemic?

We have seen an increase and are building new training into our programs, when it may not have been there to start with. If we were working with them around building their leadership capability more broadly, we would make sure we absolutely hone in on how you keep both team wellbeing and the organisation’s culture healthy.

We’ve developed a partnership recently with Robertson Cooper, which is headed up by Professor Cary Cooper, who’s a leading expert on this to complement what we do. We have a lot of expertise from a psychology perspective as well. That’s really important when you’re talking about psychological mindset, and the resilience and mental toughness that people need to have. 

We’re global experts in virtual delivery so our service is very accessible. What we’re tending to do is putting on a series of short, sharp, bite sized masterclass sessions, supported by self help toolkits and activities which leaders can run with their teams in order to engage with them. With our clients, we’re working on creating new habits for the future, because old habits people have will not be standing them in good stead for working through this level of volatility. 

Have there been any particular difficulties that businesses have come to you with, particularly in dealing with teams that are struggling with remote working during the pandemic?

One of the things that I know a lot of organisations are responding to is the increased degree of flexibility that they need to give people around working hours. Businesses need to help people avoid the blurring of the lines between home and work, because a lot of people are commuting from the bedroom to their desk. 

That’s a real ongoing challenge for people. Employers are asking themselves how they can keep the productivity and performance of the business going when you’re having to apply that degree of flex. They are also learning how to deal with people isolating and people getting really poorly throughout the pandemic.

One of the biggest issues facing senior and executive teams is engaging with everybody across the business so they know the part they play, but also making sure they’re being treated in a way that is fair and supportive. When you’re working remotely, increasing the level of psychological safety for people is really, really critical. 

A lot of what we’re encouraging clients to do is to use the insight they’re getting from their engagement surveys of how people are feeling, what they are hearing from their organisations and discover what they need to respond to. 

What advice would you give businesses dealing with employees who are working from home, for example working parents or people living by themselves?

From a personal perspective, I’m a mother of two teenagers. One who did their GCSE year, which has been an interesting one, obviously. I think it is a real challenge when you’ve got kids at school that are not equipped to be directing themselves, being focused and keeping attention. 

It’s about encouraging people to make the right choices, but also giving them flexibility. Avoid putting in back-to-back meetings. Have meetings that are 45 minutes instead of an hour, making sure there’s a gap in between so that people can check in with their kids or other responsibilities.

Encouraging team members to really think about what’s going to work for you and/or their family is so important. Since we are all working remotely, businesses should ask whether the working hours need to stick to 8:30am to 5pm or, instead, accommodate around people’s personal schedules. If people want to work earlier or want to return in the evening, so they can homeschool their kids or go exercise, that should be reviewed. 

I think it is just honing in on one-to-one individual needs, but also trying to get some consistency. There is a danger that there’s so many different individual situations that need responding to that it feels unfair and inequitable. 

We tell our clients to clarify what their overall stance is to employee wellbeing and ask where they want to make individual allowances. However, it’s important that if people are struggling, businesses make the necessary adjustments because this pandemic will be for a period of time. 

It will end. Who knows when? But, these people are really important to you at the end of the day and their health is critical.

Nicky Little is a board director at Cirrus. She works strategically in partnership with clients as a board-level facilitator and executive coach and has created 

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