How openness, transparency + a dash of humour helped us find a new normal
This article was originally published in “Human Times,” a free online news summary service, read by thousands of HR professionals worldwide..
Seldom before has the phrase finding a new normal seemed so cliché yet so fitting. This is exactly what we were faced with when the Coronavirus pandemic led to a lockdown in Norway. Like countless others, we found ourselves faced with unprecedented difficulties as a business. Many that we were not prepared for. In the following, I’ll be sharing some of the steps we took to find our new and temporary normal.
I am Chief HR Officer for Shortcut AS in Oslo, Norway. We are a hands-on, mobile digital company with 90 employees across Oslo, Bergen + Copenhagen. Amongst other things I have a responsibility for recruitment, employee experience + engagement, change and culture.
A global catastrophe is changing the world and with that has come a huge challenge for humanity adjusting to a completely new mentality. On Thursday 27th Februrary, I sent out our first company communication regarding growing concerns for the spread of COVID-19. Soon after, we had a colleague quarantined due to secondary contact with the virus. Less than 2 weeks later and the virus had spread to alarming levels in Norway. By 11th March 2020, the authorities were giving a very clear message that the country was approaching a temporary lockdown.
In our modestly sized management team of 6 Directors at Shortcut AS, there was uncertainty, denial and confusion at what was happening. Putting the entire company on home office was a necessity to meet with social-distancing rules from the Norwegian authorities. But, changing the way that we build, learn and connect as a company was unplanned for. How would we cope as a business? More to the point, how would our teams cope? And what impact would this have on the world economy?
I went home that day, in a hazy sense of disbelief. Schools and kindergartens were closing the next day and people were being told to prepare for several weeks in self-isolation. As I panic scrolled through social media articles and watched the news, it was clear to see that some people were beginning to freak out.
“How would we cope as a business? More to the point, how would our teams cope? And what impact would this have on the economy?”
Preparing for Battle
We knew this would be a time for honest and raw transformations and it was almost as if we found adrenalin in all the mayhem, giving us the extra stamina needed. Our meeting schedule moved from few, long, and strategic, to many, brief, and to the point.
To maintain the meaningful connections we have with our 90+ co-workers, and the connections they share with one another, we organized virtual coffee meetings from 8:30-9am. These sessions were dedicated to keep our workforce connected, encouraging them to talk, hang out and support one another.
Employees were able to borrow screens, chairs and testing equipment that they need to do their jobs effectively and work comfortably from home.
Home-Cocoon. A typical scene for many, during the Coronavirus pandemic. Astrid Sundberg, Chief HR Officer of Shortcut AS, with her son Kasper
Team Communications & Our Secret Sauce
We are a sociable company and one of our greatest strengths at Shortcut is our connection to one another. If we were to maintain the same meaningful interactions, these would need to be re-animated. Using our internal communication tools as effectively as we can has been a big advantage in staying connected.
Just like many IT companies, Slack is our preferred choice of instant messaging platforms. Even before the pandemic it was a communication lifeline for employees who are often based at multiple work sites. So we already knew this as a reliable tool for staying connected. In the first week, we were posting updates in slack, almost daily as the situation kept on changing.
Google Hangouts is our choice of remote meeting software. It has impressively handled our weekly Friday meeting with up to 90 employees. This is one of the most valuable meetings for our company culture, because it’s when the entire tribe gathers together.
So what changed with remote meetings? Few changes really, apart from not physically being in the same room together. Employees can post live messages during the meeting and we have a Q + A link inviting people to direct anonymous questions to Marius Mathiesen, our CEO. To begin with we had quite a few but noticed these tail off as people adjusted to the situation. A remote meeting doesn’t replace the excitment and realness of being in a room together, but it does help replicate a sense of togtherness which comes a close second.
As a leadership team, transparency and openness became our secret sauce in this situation, and it’s clear to us now how that helped us gain trust from our employees
Slack, our communication lifeline: letting people know that a quarantined colleague had tested negative gave cause for a moment of joy
Kudos to Our Employees
We took a decision to put the entire company on home office before it became mandatory, asking them to continue working on their projects from home. Employees have embraced this, showing adaptablity in the process. It’s this can-do commitment from our people that has got us through the first 4 weeks unscathed. Perhaps it also works to our advantage, that WFH comes so naturally to the IT industry, an early adopter of flexible work routines.
Around one third of the company are parents, and for some of these employees it has been especially difficult, managing home office/home school/home kindergarten. We also recognise that employees who live alone have had it especially tough. We’ve made sure not to discriminate between needs or individual situations and have had a collective effort towards communicating with all employees during the Norwegian lock-down.
Some employees looked even more comfortable than usual in their home-office setup
Health, Wellbeing and Loneliness
In a 2017 Journal of clinical Oncology study, it was alleged that loneliness can be as equivalent in impact to being obese or to smoking 15 cigarettes per day. So we already know how damaging isolation can be to our health. A natural change at Shortcut was a wellness focus. We shared a flyer with all employees to promote the importance of mental health and wellness and to encourage a sense of community. Extra wellness checks have meant that we have had more dialogue with each other than normal, establishing new routines of speaking to one another. The catalyst of talking more is that we’re bonding more too. The commitment amongst our employees to be kind to one another in the midst of this pandemic has glowed like a carnival of compassion.
Three weeks into the lockdown, we sent out breakfast to all employees. It was freshly baked bread, butter and strawberry jam, with a morale boosting message.
“Thank you for your perseverance in these challenging times. We wanted to give you a praise sandwich but thought a jam one would be even sweeter! Keep up the good work. Love Shortcut”
Retaining a Sense of Humour in the Face of Adversity
While fighting valiantly for a sense of normalcy, we discovered humour can be a big help. We don’t like to take ourselves too seriously at the best of times, so figuring out how to continue with our playful sense of humour was going to be interesting.
In week 2 we ran a #mycoronaviruslife competition. Employees posted a photo to show their home-office situation. It resulted in some very amusing entries, depicting the struggles with great humility. And the prize? A lockdown-life friendly take-out meal, on us.
Emergence of New Ideas From our People
Uncertainty has not stopped us from using our resilience and creative brains to find new routines. Some employees have started remote lunches together our team leaders and project managers have conducted daily meetings and standups with project teams. And we’ve even had a go at remote yoga classes.
“Uncertainty has not stopped us from using our reslience and creative brains to find new routines.”
We see that our employees are still talking and replacing the social connectedness of pre-Coronavirus times with other ways to integrate. One employee even remarked that he felt more connected than usual. Others who commute lengthy distances have talked about the calmness of starting the working day minus travel-stress or kindergarten drop-offs. And a few have simply said that a Software Engineer loves nothing more than being able to work in undisturbed peace and quiet. In those cases, it is always good to take the hint.
What Will the Future Hold?
One aid to Shortcut being able to stay afloat during these challenging times is an app project in conjunction with the Public Health Institute of Norway. This project started during the first few days of the lockdown. To work on an app designed to to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 is a gratifying, dream-project for us. It doesn’t just carry us during difficult times as a company, but could lead to saving lives too.
Shortcut make apps and we are fortunate that our services will stil be in demand. As a small company we remain grittily determined to keep going, even in the middle of a global pandemic nightmare. Four weeks in and we have not ‘permittert’ (laid-off) any of our employees, at the time of writing. We see that compliance with self-isolation measures in Norway might be bringing us closer to a relaxation of the lock-down. But there are no guarantees for what the future might hold. So finding a new and temporary normal must continue, while realising that we will never return to the same normality as before.