Workplace conversations in challenging times

Things are quite hard. For many, there’s a painful sense that we’ve lost the way things used to be. The old ways of working, of meeting and of living really might, simply, not quite return. For some, uncertainty about job security is adding to the pressure. And, perhaps for most of us, there’s an abiding sense of worry in the air.

As we’ve said before, it’s a massive period of transition – whether those are in the past, going on right now, anticipated for the future or just speculated about. And transitions are taxing. In this environment, what’s the most helpful way of interacting with each other? We spoke to Katy Ridsdill Smith, Organisational Development Officer at Mind, for some recommendations.

Establish clear communication patterns

“When you’re going through periods of change, people you manage need to know what they can depend on.” So, setting some routines for when, and how, you’ll keep in touch is really helpful. Equally, though, things can and do change – so check continually whether these routines are still working for people. “Is 9am still OK, or would 4pm be better? And is video working for you?”

Maintain regular touchpoints

If you don’t have some predictable, regular moments to get in touch with one another, it can be easy for people to withdraw. And when you do speak, “Look out for signs of people struggling. Particularly in a remote environment, it’s important to pay attention.”

What signs are you looking for? Part of it involves your own judgment as a colleague or line manager – but it’s also a really good idea to ask them in advance. For example, a wellness action plan​Guides to wellness action plans Web page Wellness action plans are an easy way to help support your own mental health at work and that of your team members. Mind has guidance and templates to get you started, for both employees and line managers.FreeSign up to receive by e-mail By: Mind View resource invites you to explain to your line manager what changes they might notice when you’re struggling.

Create a culture where it’s OK to talk about personal things

“Periods of change affect people in very different ways. So, encourage a culture of asking how colleagues are doing. Is everything OK?” It’s about fostering an environment where talking about personal stuff is normal, so it’s not a surprise when anybody wants to do so.

This is an area where team managers can really set the tone in terms of atmosphere, interaction and what topics are OK to talk about. “As a line manager, showing that you’re struggling too is OK. You can be vulnerable. It comes back to a culture of openness.” It helps with team solidarity too – which, in turn, means that if difficult news comes along, you can react together as a team.

Encourage other connections

It’s worth knowing what other sources of support and connection are available. “You might not be the person that they want to speak to, and that’s OK.” Make sure that your teams are aware of other options, whether that be an employee assistance programme​Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) – Supporting good work for UK employers? PDF This report, published by The Work Foundation in association with the Employee Assistance Professionals Association, explains how Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) can be used by employers to seek help on both work and non-work related issues. Free By: The Work Foundation View resource, buddying systems, or less formal options.

“Relationships outside of your team can be really important for wellbeing too.” And, counterintuitively, for many organisations this is easier now than in the past: if everyone’s working remotely, getting in touch with someone from a different department or site is exactly the same as speaking to someone who previously sat next to you.

Mind is one of a growing list of organisations to adopt remote Randomised Coffee Trials​Randomised coffee trials Web page Randomised coffee trials are the simple idea of connecting pairs of people in an organisation at random, and giving them time to talk. This article explains the benefits and how to get started.Free By: Conversational Leadership View resource (although at Mind it’s known as the Random Coffee Initiative, as trials sounded on the ominous side!). Colleagues sign up to be matched together in random pairings, and set a time for an in-person or virtual coffee to talk about anything. “They don’t take much time to set up, and are completely free of charge.”

Preparing for difficult conversations

Returning to where we started: things are hard right now, and there will be more conversations that are difficult to have. If you’re a line manager or HR representative and need to broach a sensitive subject – whether it’s about home/office working, restructures, redundancy, health issues, company performance or anything else – Katy’s key message is that, actually, it’s not just about a one-off conversation at all.

Firstly, preparation is really important. “How are you going to hold that conversation? Reach out to HR to get support, or talk to colleagues or peers; literally practice that conversation out loud.” Think about the questions that might come up, and the tone and language you’ll use.

“Give them some warning by email so they can mentally prepare too.” It can be as simple as a quick email letting them know what you’d like to talk to them about. And most importantly, “Think about the person themselves. How have they reacted to tough conversations in the past? Everyone’s different in what will work for them.”

Following on from that, make sure there are channels and spaces to keep communication open afterwards. Keep staff updated, and positively invite questions, feedback and more conversation.

In the end, it’s all about communication

There’s a lot that we can’t control – as individuals, as teams, as line managers, as organisations, as a whole society. These tips aren’t going to change that. But paying attention to how, when and why we communicate can make a real difference in supporting each other to cope with challenging times.

Below, we list some resources that can help.

Resources in this toolkit:

Alternatively, these are Mind's original two guides to WAPs, for employees and line managers. They're based on working with people in person, so will be worth returning to as and when that becomes more normal for you.

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Finally, it's worth remembering that coronavirus has a lot of mental health implications that aren't just about work. This short guide explores some of the worries and difficulties you or your colleagues might be experiencing, and some ways to protect mental wellbeing.