In a specially designed programme entitled ‘Helping teams navigating uncertainty’, developed by the UNSSC, about 350 UN managers shared their experiences about working from home.

Most staff experience a broad range of emotions (of themselves and of their team members) from overwhelmed, nervous, calm, guilt (for feeling well) to gratitude or exhaustion, often all on the same day. Even in remote work, good teamwork strengthens the resilience of staff as it affirms their sense of belonging. If, on the other hand, the team dynamics were difficult prior to the COVID lock-down, the sense of isolation easily worsens.

Colleagues in the field highlighted the critical difference between being in “lockdown” with family at home, and being in “lockdown” in non-family duty stations where they might not even have a “home”; where their living space is either a container, a hotel room or a closed compound, and where there might be shortages of water or power, coupled with security challenges. All of these, in addition to separation from their loved ones, whom they can’t visit because of travel restrictions.

Here are the top challenges that have emerged from the programme to date, and suggested practices for how to deal with them:

Dealing with uncertainty

Many managers described the great uncertainty with which they have to support their teams, when the key priorities which they had worked hard on for months, suddenly evaporate into thin air. They have to quickly redefine goals, and sometimes rethink the overall purpose of their teams’ work. New priorities and timelines are hard to establish because the situation continues to evolve day by day. Additionally they require engagement, and the buy-in of both internal and external partners.  Managers often don’t feel they have answers to their staff’s questions, at a time when their teams are increasingly looking to them for guidance, and support.

Managing upwards

Managing upwards, getting needed information and knowing where the organization is headed were perceived by many as difficult, and there was a wish for a more inclusive approach to decision-making – versus simply being informed that the organization is in crisis mode and therefore ‘top-down’ is the modus operandi.

There is a sense that everything takes longer and it is more difficult to make things work in the context of hierarchical structures with rigid rules and processes that were not designed for these circumstances (e.g. recruitment, finance and budget).

Aligning goals and purpose to the emergency response

Managers reported on how they have had to adapt - shifting from long to short-term goals and from a more directive approach, to one of inquiring how they can best support their teams.  Some talked about their teams rising to the challenge and thriving as they have realigned their purpose to support the emergency response and thus have pulled together much closer as a unit.

Juggling roles and setting boundaries

At the same time, many are very concerned about keeping their staff engaged and positive.  They describe the challenge (for themselves and their team members) of grappling with many roles at the same time.

“My team can't even see the boundary between work and family when working from home”

Everyone is juggling a situation where suddenly their diverse professional and personal roles collapse into one space in front of a screen. Suddenly their focus on work competes with attention to their family during the same hours and often in the same spaces.

".....I am still struggling with coping with my constant feeling that I need to be available for my family, my team, my manager, my colleagues and myself. With my organization not being prepared for these circumstances and not having had any framework for virtual working, I am also struggling with my feelings of not providing my team with enough guidance and support..." 

Balancing compassion with the need to deliver

They ask themselves how to balance compassion for team member’s role challenges with the need to continue delivering on their work. Many reported that their coaching and counselling role has taken over an increasing part of their managerial role. Getting the right balance of focus on work outputs, connection and care is challenging.

“I realized that structure was not enough, there needed to be a sense of ongoing connection in light of all the hotbed of emotions and escalating cases in the various countries in which we (or family members) are based. I started calling team members individually as well as our team check-in, trying to speak to everyone once a day, sometimes more, and to send messages that address both work and mood.“

Managing information overload

While working from home and managing remotely has been practiced by some managers for some time, others are over-stretched with a plethora of new systems and tools for facilitating online collaboration and the constant onslaught of information and meetings.

" For me, what has become very important is limiting the amount of information that I consume on a daily basis. Information overload has been very stressful, especially in the initial stages of working from home. Making sure to put the phone down and taking breaks has helped a lot in being able to manage stress. "

Developing structure while working from home

Participants are exploring how to structure their work from home with time for themselves and their family, and here is what helped one of them:
" To set some kind of discipline and adhere to it; allocate specific time and space to divided tasks; to have a certain productivity rate to finish during the day; communicate with the team effectively about the priorities of the day; coach and guide more than supervise; allocate regular time for exploring new working methods; take quality breaks for meditation, reading, writing, having coffee, eating, listening to music, talking with friends and relatives and some activities other than work and disconnect for a short while.”

Some top tips emerged from this engagement :

1.  List down daily goals;

2. Establish a routine of when to get up and start working; having an hour before work to enjoy nature (I am looking at a lake and mountain, resting my mind in this). I do sport every day with an app and have lunch and dinner sitting my family;

3. Organize a corner of my house as my workspace. We re-organized the house, the physical environment ‘set up’ made a big difference;

4. Have virtual meetings or having coffee breaks with people I live with;

5. Take turns to take care of our small child. I start working at 5am and the “office room” is mine till 1pm, and after that my husband works till late night. We try to have meals all together (when possible). This allows us quality work time and quality family/child time.”

6. Playing uplifting music during work

The tips in this text emerged from courses with a very diverse group of about 350 UN managers who are adapting to this unusual, and challenging situation. Their forum and chat discussions were summarized by Anne Akrasi, UNSSC Associate and the blog was written by Sabine Bhanot UNSSC portfolio manager and UNLOCK specialist for change management.

Stay tuned for our next blogs on resilience and managing remote teams in times of COVID.

There are a few spots open for next week. Please be sure to join us!!



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