“Work would be great, if it wasn’t for clients” is a cliched quip, often put forward to justify stress within the workplace.
The notion of occupational stress has been omnipresent across the last hundred years or more. Daniel Susskind, in his book ‘A World Without Work,’ describes how ‘our more distant ancestors simply hunted and gathered what little they needed to survive, and that was about it. But over the last few hundred years, that economic inactivity came to an explosive end. The amount each person produced increased about thirteen-fold, and world output rocketed nearly 300-fold.’
The cost for this ever-escalating output is often workplace stress, that inadvertently induces an adverse effect on the physical, emotional, or mental health of employees. The manifestation of such stress is often work disgruntlement, burn-out, emotional disengagement, poor physical health and sometimes even depression, to name just a few evident signs.
Fortunately, we have come a long way from the dehumanising workplace stress as depicted by the genius Charles Chaplin in his 1936 film ‘Modern Times.’ The latter was a thinly veiled parody of Frederick Winslow Taylor’s time-and-motion studies that proved so popular in the first half of the twentieth century, but which garnered so much stress and anxiety, undoubtedly as a direct result of the fact that workers were being constantly scrutinised and observed.
In contrast, the second half of this same century workplace stress became more aligned with what is known as ‘automation anxiety’; the often-irrational fear that inevitably technology, and lately the spectre of Artificial Intelligence (AI), will take over various jobs at the detriment of the people who today earn a living from these same jobs.
And then came the Covid-19 pandemic.
The emergence of this pandemic and the obligatory and effective measures – lockdown, social distancing, and remote working in particular – necessary to prevent widespread transmission, have undoubtedly produced an impact upon the wellness of employees.
A May 2021 analysis by the global firm Deloitte revealed that in the UK, ‘thirty-eight percent of workers say lockdown has had a negative impact on their wellbeing.’ The inevitable lack of social contact, mainly the day-to-day interactions with work colleagues, including the loss of all group activities, both during and after office-hours, have contributed towards such an adverse impact.
On Monday the 16th of March 2020, iMovo, like many other local companies, suddenly closed the office doors and all employees rapidly transitioned towards an isolated, homeworking environment in line with the recommended lockdown.
From a technology viewpoint, this transition was relatively effortless; mainly due to the fact that all employees had, by default, been provided with a range of devices primarily intended to facilitate mobility. Moreover, all the corporate and core software platforms had been strategically migrated to the Cloud and securely rendered accessible from any location that offered internet access.
Opportunely, iMovo’s different client-facing teams were already accustomed to operating in a largely autonomous and empowered manner and focus on definite project outcomes rather than concentrate upon in-house development output, principally designed to address daily employee productivity.
As such, all ongoing projects could continue in a largely unaffected manner within a remote and online project management framework.
However, whilst modern technology provided the necessary means to successfully support software development teams to effectively function in a quasi-autonomous and remote manner, it cannot yet provide the social and community qualities that is equally critical within a modern corporate environment.
Appropriately, the online journal TechCrunch+ had predicted how, ‘Technology marches relentlessly forward, and it would be foolish to argue otherwise, but some things remain fundamental, and people-to-people communication will continue to be one of them. Just because the tech is available, doesn’t mean it’s always going to be the best option in every situation.’
The iMovo Response to Social Distancing
Notwithstanding the various social network and collaboration tools in use within iMovo, none could replace the traditional ‘water cooler’ chats that so characterise office life. The company, consequently, had to substitute casual and informal conversation with some alternative channel of interaction to ease the inevitable stress induced through seclusion.
iMovo rapidly established a schedule of online meetings ranging from daily, alternate day to weekly ones, depending on the intended and respective agenda of each convene.
As an example, a business-oriented (‘first thing in the morning’) online meeting hailed each start of any given working-day. Every morning of every business day, every member of each project team was given the opportunity to briefly raise any issues being encountered when implementing customer solutions, as well as discuss respective client-interaction matters.
This ensured that any emerging work-related stress could be shared across a cooperative forum whilst simultaneously allowing the whole group to appreciate what colleagues and peers were experiencing. Moreover, potentially significant, and emerging matters could subsequently be dealt with within a lesser and more focused workgroup.
The ever-present corporate grapevine was somewhat replicated (substituted) with a weekly all-inclusive online ‘company meet’, during which office news and important information could be disseminated and shared across all departments. An acknowledged limitation of online meetings is undoubtedly the lack of visual information. This shortcoming was somewhat overcome through sharing a PowerPoint presentation detailing every news item under discussion.
In between these two events, an online ‘virtual coffee break’ was held at a fixed time, across alternate days. These virtual coffee breaks lacked any agenda, formality or even facilitation. They were intended largely to emulate the very same environment and atmosphere present whenever employees stop for a tranquil office coffee break.
There are still some sceptical people who tend to deride the beneficial elements of what is often termed as a ‘virtual existence’; odiously comparing the advantages of traditional ‘in-person’ interaction with ‘superficial’ virtual meetings. Do such measures alleviate the stress that comes from working in an isolated environment, with reduced social interaction? Do virtual meetings, of whatever form, help reduce stress and benefit emotional and mental health?
Somehow, one is reminded of the well-known quote by Mao Zedong, who, when asked to comment on the impact upon modern history of the French Revolution, famously replied “It’s too early to judge.”
Hadrian J Sammut is the Chief Officer, responsible for advisory and projects with the local firm of iMovo. The company specialises in ‘Know Your Client’ assignments based on state-of-the art CRM and business intelligence tools.