Professor Karan Sonpar speaks with The Irish Times on getting through lockdown number three at work
Covid-19 has given crisis management a work out on an unprecedented scale, and it’s not over yet. For many businesses, the goalposts are still moving while, at a personal level, employees are battling the well-documented problems of working through a pandemic.
There is light at the end of the tunnel, but getting through the next few months to reach it is all about focus, says Karan Sonpar, professor of organisational behaviour at the UCD College of Business.
“When we talk about focus in the context of coping with this lockdown and what other restrictions may follow, then less is more,” he says. “By this I mean only doing what’s relevant and really important.
“This is not the time to introduce things that are radical or new because change creates stress. Anything different that happens now needs to be gradual. What’s really important is being able to show progress so aim for small wins. It’s easier to do this with things that already exist.”
Feeling overwhelmed has been a common reaction to Covid for companies and individuals alike. Coping capacity has already been severely tested and this is where choosing your battles can make a difference in staying the course until things get better says Sonpar, whose advice is to plot a course of achievable, concrete, personal or organisational goals and make getting them done as uncomplicated as possible.
Drop extraneous activities not specifically related to the end goal and remove the “clutter” of unnecessary check-ins, meetings or zoom calls and forget about the nice-to-haves for now.
The focus should be getting things done and feeling good about it not least because a string of small achievements can add up, build engagement and become energising.
“People’s energy and enthusiasm is still there but it’s been suppressed by the pandemic,” says Sonpar. “It’s important to retain and encourage an optimistic frame of mind. Sure, things are difficult at the moment, but we have more control over our minds than we might think. Stop telling people things are hard. We all know they are and having this kind of conversation with six or seven people a day will not encourage a positive outlook.
“Keeping upbeat is particularly important at managerial level because the mindset of a company starts with its leaders. If they are not communicating an upbeat attitude, it changes the tone and content of exchanges completely. As a leader you have a lot of influence over the emotional state of your workforce.”
Sonpar’s advice to managers is to focus on the low hanging fruit because it’s something tangible to aim for that can help overcome the helplessness many people are feeling.
If it’s a straightforward task it’s unlikely to require much discussion or to create any discord or controversy that might unsettle an already edgy workforce.
Fraught people find it harder to focus and concentrate so maintaining a low-stress and calm working environment is key.
“Stop making it all about the pandemic. Instead, talk to your team about things improving and above all be visible and accessible to them,” Sonpar says. “People need to see more of their leaders now not less, but do it with a light touch. Keep the contacts brief and avoid pointless meetings that drag on and become frustrating and oppressive if people have to go from one long video call to another.
“For leaders, this is a very good time to think about getting your team(s) to work collaboratively, albeit remotely, on tasks to increase their social interaction.
“Also check that people are not being left behind by working from home or feeling left out. Do what you can to make life easier for people. Be gentle with them and with yourself. Perfection is the enemy of progress,” Sonpar says.
Executive coach Pamela Fay is singing from the same hymn sheet when it comes to giving oneself a break.
“Humans come with a negative bias to be compassionate towards others but not towards ourselves,” she says. “ The next few months are about stamina and doing what you can do, well. It’s going to be a game of inches. Some days will go better than others and it’s important to recognise this and go with it.
“Let yourself off the hook and tackle what needs to be done when your head is in a better place. Be your own ‘guru’ by which I mean knowing what works for you in terms of arranging your day and use that as your template.
“My sense of this third lockdown is that it is really challenging,” Fay adds. “We have been separated from friends and family and our hobbies and sports for so long that the natural fabric of our lives is utterly changed. Keeping one’s head and maintaining focus in the months ahead is important not least because there is still so much uncertainty in the wider system.
“At times like this our personal ‘fault’ lines are exposed. So, a leader who typically deals with stress or difficult situations by going into hiding, won’t be seen for the dust in this kind of crisis.
“But it’s really important for leaders to be there for their people at the moment. If you’re in the happy position of being a leader in an organisation that is thriving in the current crisis then talk to people about the future and what’s being done to build and sustain the business.”
This article was written by Olive Keogh and first appeared in The Irish Times Jan 22, 2021.