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On Thursday 5th November, England entered its second national lockdown — and we've learned a lot since March.

The first lockdown in March forced millions of people to quickly adapt to a new way of living and working, and while we adjusted quickly, it took its toll on our mental health. Over a quarter of UK tech professionals (26 percent) reported experiencing higher levels of stress during lockdown than they did before, while 1 in 3 (36 percent) reported that their mental health deteriorated (source: Harvey Nash).

“As employers, organisations have a duty of care to help their employees and in many countries, they have a legal obligation to do so,” says Kirsty Iliffe, researcher at the Institution of Organisational Safety and Health (IOSH). “The ongoing stress of the pandemic could lead to both physical and psychological damage and even depression and anxiety.

“It’s important that organisations are aware of the potential mental ill-health implications and ensure they are aware of their roles and responsibilities in supporting their teams.”

Leading commercial workspace provider, Bruntwood Works, took away a number of crucial lessons from the first lockdown to support their staff during the second.

1) Share some good news

During the first lockdown, everyone was hyper-connected to the news cycle, which was almost always gloomy. Prolonged exposure to negative statistics had a real impact on people’s outlooks, so combat it by sharing good news as regularly as possible.

While it might not be easy to come by in the press, you can still share stories of staff achievements and acts of kindness. It really helps lift people and helps prevent their mental health from deteriorating.

Jo Gallagher, People Business Partner at Bruntwood Works says the company has made practical efforts to share more good news. “Every day, right across the business we’re seeing, hearing and reading some really great colleagues' stories on our staff conversation platform, Universe. We’ve welcomed a few new Bruntwood Works babies, we’ve embraced new learning opportunities and we’ve seen how our customers are supporting the fight against COVID-19.”

2) Bring the office perks home with you

Lots of progress has been made in understanding how our environments affect our productivity. It resulted in a ton of office perks that modern workers got used to — and they were all suddenly taken from us when lockdown came into play.

However, companies that find ways to continue those perks outside of the office will reap the benefits by boosting staff morale.

Here are some of the most common office perks — and how you can replicate them remotely:

Free food — Used to getting free snacks or meals at the office? Send your staff vouchers to order themselves a tasty lunch a couple of times a month.

Gym memberships — If the gyms are closed, run a virtual fitness club instead. Share your results using a smartphone app and incentivise the winner with prizes like an afternoon off or an Amazon voucher.

Office games — Missing the foosball table in the office? Luckily, there’s a ton of virtual games you can challenge teammates to instead. You can play Pictionary, Scrabble and even chess online. Start a leaderboard to see who’s doing best on your team!

Great internet — Most modern offices have fast internet speeds to cope with staff being logged on eight hours a day, but it’s tricky to replicate that at home. Invest in some signal boosters for staff who are having trouble with their home internet connection.

3) Have regular, honest one-to-ones

When everyone worked together in offices, agendas were quite practical. Many companies had managers setting objective-based agendas to improve staff performance.

Lockdown changed that. Effective one-to-ones under the new measures look fundamentally different; they should be open, honest conversations about how we feel, what we’re worried about, and — most importantly — what’s helping us through it.

“Keep in regular contact with remote workers,” says Kirsty. “This will help to avoid feelings of isolation and loneliness. It’s a good way to ensure that workers are well and that they understand any information and instructions presented to them.”

For managers, this time is about listening more than anything else. Let your staff set the agenda. If you can establish a safe setting where employees feel heard, it can be a real lifeline for them when they need it the most.

4) Don’t give up on social events

Pre-lockdown social events were simple. The team goes out for a few drinks or a fun activity, and everyone gets to know each other a little better.

Under the new measures, it’s easy for companies to throw in the towel when it comes to hosting staff socials — but it’s not the right thing to do. Instead, leaders need to use the new options available to them.

Schedule regular social events with your team. Anything that lets you keep in touch without the conversation centering around work will help support your team’s mental health. Here are some virtual socialising ideas your business can try:

- Virtual coffee sessions
- Zoom evening drinks
- Friday afternoon quizzes
- A TV and film recommendations group
- 30-day music challenges
- Virtual book clubs

5) Keep your (virtual) door open

When you’re in the office together, employees might get some exposure to the senior team incidentally, whether that’s while making coffee or on the way out to lunch.

That just doesn’t happen when you’re working remotely. That’s why you need to set up new measures that bridge the gap between colleagues and directors.

“Communicate the organisational plan,” advises Kirsty: “be open and honest with all employees. Explain what the organisation is doing to help protect its employees, their families and friends, and the organisation itself.”

One of the best ways to do this is to have virtual ‘open door’ times for senior staff. During these sessions— perhaps a couple of hours on a Friday afternoon — company directors should keep their calendars free and be prepared to chat to any staff members who want to talk. It could be about the business’s performance, staff concerns, or even new ideas for how the team can move forward.

Opening these channels of communication helps your team feel more closely connected with what the business is doing. It gives them a chance to have their say during a time when very little seems to be in their control.

One step at a time

Kirsty from IOSH highlights that there’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution to maintaining your team’s mental health because everyone is different.

“People have personal triggers; some are better to carry on working while others simply need some downtime. There is also the social stigma that many feel around talking about their struggles.

“Some decisions can only be made by the individual, such as whether to go off sick or to continue working.”

This being the case, businesses need to be in tune with their staff on an individual level. The only way to do that? Take a genuine interest in each and every member of your team.

“If you really care about how your staff is coping, finding the right support measures for them will quickly follow,” says Jo Gallagher from Bruntwood Works. “Make sure you’re investing into those relationships, regardless of the new obstacles in the way. That needs to be the number one priority of any company right now.”

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