“How can we push the boat through the storm?”: FUTURES Network examines bouncing back to work

From lockdown lifting meaning a physical return to the office, to returning to work after maternity leave, a FUTURES Network panel examined how to thrive amidst the crisis.

Izzy Ashton

Deputy Editor, BITE

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Over the past few months, the world of work has arguably changed more rapidly than it has in the past decade. While conversations have raged for years about the merits of bringing your whole self to work, under the current lockdown some have no choice but to do so, with children, pets or flatmates making guest appearances on video calls.

In recent research, NABS revealed that 65% of people are struggling with anxiety because of the COVID-19 crisis while 45% of people are finding it difficult to create boundaries around their working day. In the midst of this crisis, FUTURES, the alumni network for WACL Future Leader Award winners, which connects and support women in becoming purposeful leaders, pivoted an event which was planned as part of its Baby Bounceback initiative, to support women returning to work after maternity leave, into a virtual discussion about how to best bounce back from the current crisis.

Opening the event, Gina Hood, part of the leadership team at the FUTURES Network and Senior Account Director at SNAP, also recognised the devastating impact of the death of George Floyd. 

To examine how organisations, leadership teams and individuals alike will navigate the inevitable return to office life, FUTURES Network brought together a panel of industry experts to offer their advice. As Nicola Kemp, BITE’s Managing Editor and the event’s moderator, explained the event brought together a “hive mind” of people to help navigate the challenges of the current crisis.

We’re here for you is such an empty statement without the action.

Collette Philip

Anxiety in lockdown

Lyndsay Morgan, Operations Director at Climb Online, discussed the challenges that individuals can face when it comes to motivation in the current climate, noting that it's easy to feel like you may have “lost that drive.” She remarked that she is actually missing her commute for the time it gave her to prepare for the day ahead. 

Morgan went on to explore the notion of time and how, as we find ourselves halfway through the year, her constant struggle is around determining what she has achieved. A universal challenge as no one could have predicted the path 2020 would take.

Collette Philip, Founder of Brand by Me also highlighted the challenges around finding the motivation, contextualising it within her own experience of running her own company. Philip says she realised early in the lockdown that she was no longer fully “in control of business success.” With a myriad of uncertainties plaguing business owners and employees alike, Philip says, “so many things are beyond your control no matter how much you do.”

She spoke about recent unfolding events in the US around the death of George Floyd and the spotlight it has placed on systemic racism. She went on to unpack the idea of “optical allyship,” a situation in which many businesses may find themselves through posturing about purpose rather than demonstrating actual support. “We’re here for you is such an empty statement without the action,” Philip added. This is particularly poignant in light of the fact that, according to Philip, investment in Diversity and Inclusion programmes is in decline.

For Antje Kiewell, Founder of Soar Learning, her key challenge focused on the reality that, as an entrepreneur, she has a feeling “of missing out, of not belonging”. A challenge which is amplified by working alone from home at the moment.

Women’s careers on lockdown

As Kemp offered evidence around the differing effect this lockdown is having on men and women, Morgan answered that there can be no question that “the crisis is disproportionately affecting women.” Whether that’s taking up voluntary furlough, trying to balance caregiving with work or being forced to take unpaid leave where furlough isn’t an option, Morgan feels that what we need is “compassion and understanding from leaders of each person’s situation.” 

As lockdown begins to ease and companies look at how they might return to their offices, Morgan believes the new culture that will develop offers a moment of opportunity for businesses. She noted that the core challenge for leadership teams is to ensure that everyone’s perspective is heard, particularly women.

Philip believes that, while it’s true that we don’t want to reverse the gains made in the gender equality space, what’s also vital is that those gains are “lifting people who are most at risk of being left out.” For Philip, what that equates to is “listening to the lived experience of people and creating spaces for those experiences to be shared without judgement.” Only then can concerns and fears be addressed before the shape of any office ‘return’ is examined.

For Kiewell, what’s become more apparent is that this situation is a “leadership challenge.” Leaders won’t always get it right so it is up to everyone to not only think on how to be more resilient in themselves but also how that resilience can be fostered across teams. Ultimately, she says, the question for all must be, “How can we push the boat through the storm?”

Recognition is how we can lift each other up.

Antje Kiewell

Always speak up

All three panellists focused on the importance of individuals using their voice to speak up. But what each also emphasised was that it is vital for businesses to create a space for them to do so and to truly be heard. Morgan believes that this can be done by talking to employees about their goals and ambitions and providing them with the appropriate support and resources.

Her advice is to “always speak up,” and for companies to pay attention to what is happening around them. “A lot of staff will want to leave if companies don’t accept the world has changed,” she added. Philip talked about the change that has been wrought at great speed by the crisis, shifting how companies operate in a way that might previously have been opposed by managing teams.

For Philip, the speed at which businesses and individuals have moved to collaborate has been inspiring to see. It is only by working together that we can “solve big problems,” she adds. This means also looking to external support to help as the crisis highlights the inability of maintaining a command and control approach in business moving forward. Philip wants to see businesses prioritising “care and kindness and wellbeing,” in a way that feels meaningful rather than tokenistic.

Speaking up, says Kiewell, means recognising the work of others around you, and helping to support them in turn. “Recognition is how we can lift each other up,” she adds. 

Bringing our best self to work

Philip believes that companies need to ask open questions, “to calibrate and understand what people are struggling with.” That way you can create an action plan that can shift and morph over time. Alongside this she points to the importance of investing in “external energy” to provide guidance and support.

Morgan pointed to the importance of external data and examples as a key lever to making changes within business. The key she says, “is to keep going. I do feel I’m banging the same drum but then you do get an opportunity or a spark from doing so.”

Celebrating success in challenging times

Kiewell’s advice is to keep a record of your successes as you go. Record the evidence so you don’t forget what you have achieved. This, she says, “gives you a springboard to work from,” and the ability to “protect yourself.” This protection, Philip believes, individuals can find by locating “like minds” within the business. By joining with another, your message begins to carry more weight and to gather momentum. 

“People hearing things from a number of sources is incredibly powerful. It allows you to protect yourself when we’re calling for change,” Philip explains. Her advice? “We need to focus on bringing our best self,” by understanding our own power and personality, and what we bring to the business.  Organisations, she says, in turn, need to be “prioritising and investing in that,” otherwise people will go elsewhere.

As lockdown restrictions begin to ease in the UK Kiewell noted that the moment of ‘return’ may not be as simple or as linear as some believe. For her, she says, “I wouldn’t see the return as a destination but as a journey.”

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