This is such a strange, difficult and yet fascinating time to be alive. We have all lived through a global pandemic, with its many unforeseen challenges, stressors, losses and even some unexpected silver linings thrown into the mix.
Just over a year ago, The Work Psychologists published a piece called ‘Organisations under Stress: What We Are Noticing’, and now, in the middle of this half-normal, half surreal time of collective transition, we want to pause and reflect again on what we’ve been noticing.
Written by Elloa Barbour, Head of Coaching and Consulting for The Work Psychologists
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Image by Ross Findon via Unsplash
We recently discovered the William Bridges model of transition (thank you Georgie Smith). Now, there are lots of models out there, so it's worth mentioning the aphorism, “All models are wrong, but some models are useful,” typically attributed to the statistician George Box.
Bridges’ model states the following about times of change and transition:
1. Change is situational. You get a new job, or new manager, go through a restructure or suddenly find yourself working from home, for example.
2. Transition, however, is the psychological and emotional process of adjustment that people go through to come to terms with the new situation.
3. Change therefore is external, while transition is internal.
We're not going to pull this distinction apart because broadly speaking, it’s quite useful. For example, we have all been through a hell of a lot of change throughout the pandemic, and the psychological process of adjusting to each round of changes has been different for each of us depending on multiple and varying factors. When there's been a lack of clarity about what changes are happening or what they mean, people have felt a range of emotions from confusion to anger. Perhaps, as Bridges says, it's not the changes that do us in, but the transitions from one state to another.
The model posits that a period of transition consists of three different stages.
Stage 1: The Ending
Endings happen all the time in life, but of course, sometimes something more significant comes to an end, or our lives are upturned overnight and without any decision from us. The Ending stage might therefore happen at different volumes for different kinds of endings we live through.
People in this stage learn about a change that is to happen (or, as in the case of the pandemic, suddenly happening), and may experience a range of emotions, such as shock, denial, anger, anxiety, confusion and disorientation. This is a time of loss, mourning and grief, as you begin to leave the known world behind, which is also reflected in other models of change, such as the Kübler-Ross grief curve.
Think back to the beginning of the pandemic. Suddenly, life as we knew it was over, and for many of us, it was a strange and disorientating time. The whole world was interrupted, and it was almost too surreal to make sense of: planes grounded, venues closed, watching as an unknown virus spread like wildfire around the planet. As the reality of lockdown set in, many of us struggled. Life as we knew it was over.
Stage 2: The Neutral Zone
This is a slightly misleading name, because in terms of your feelings, you might not be in a neutral place at all.
Stage two in the Bridges model is an in-between time, a kind of liminal space, like a waiting room in between what was and what will be. Pregnancy is often referenced as a liminal time, as well as a period of time in the run up to a big shift – such as being in the middle of a collective 'roadmap' to the world opening up more, or getting ready to return to work after a period of time working from home.
It’s common to continue to feel confused, uncertain, and unable to fully locate where you are during stage two. You're in limbo.
Reflecting on lockdown, and perhaps where we are right now, this is where many of us have been for some time. There was life as it used to be, then the pandemic erupted like a volcano into our lives, and then we adapted to living differently.
We wear masks in shops and on public transport now, and we’ve all gotten the hang of Zoom and Teams and working from home. But even though restrictions have massively eased in the UK recently, there’s a sense of collective uncertainty in the air about whether we can trust that things will continue opening up.
There’s no straightforward way of going back to the way life was before. We cannot un-live this time, just as someone who’s grieved a significant loss can never ‘bounce back’ to the person they were before the loss happened. Even if everything opens up again, we’ll always carry with us the experience of living and working through a pandemic, and certain changes from the last year might stick around.
Stage 3: The New Beginning
Have you seen the new Wrigley’s chewing gum advert that shows the world emerging from lockdown? It's a brilliant depiction of how people can feel in Bridges’ proposed third stage of transition, the new beginning. There is initial shock, followed by excitement, joy, euphoria and freedom as people embrace the new possibilities and opportunities that the fresh start brings. Watching the ad is a reminder once again of how hard and strange the last year has been.
Of course, however, not everyone feels like this during a new beginning. There can be fear, reluctance and of course a ton of uncertainty. And, for people who've been navigating change or loss without closure, it can feel very hard to fully move on.
Limitations of Bridges’ model
Having said we wouldn’t critique the model, we do need to highlight one or two limitations that are extremely relevant to what we are noticing in organisations at the moment.
Firstly, it presents a linear process, which is not how human beings work. We don’t neatly shift out of one phase and into another. Transitions are not straightforward, and we can shift in and out of each phase a random fashion. This is important right now because we are hearing accounts of people being in such unique and different places in terms of the pandemic and how they're feeling.
Secondly, there can be all sorts of different emotions associated with each stage. Where one person feels a sense of loss at an ending (for example, at not being in the office around their colleagues), someone else might feel relief at finally being able to focus, get some deep work done or not having to commute for hours each day.
We can of course also have very mixed feelings about change, feeling perhaps both happy and stressed about a particular change. For example, maybe you spent a lot more time with your kids in the last year, and while that was in some cases really beautiful, perhaps it was also a major source of stress!
And thirdly, one of the overriding feelings during times of change is ambivalence, which, in the material we’ve read on the Bridges model, is highlighted in the second stage but which we've found is just part and parcel of each stage of transition.
That said, there’s value in using this framework to help make sense of what we are going through.
So, here’s some food for thought to leaders, managers and anyone interested in navigating this time of transition with curiosity and a willingness to learn and grow.
What We Are Noticing
1. People are stressed and exhausted
Image by Verne Ho via Unsplash
There’s a popular meme that goes, “Being an adult is easy. You just feel tired all the time and tell people how tired you are and they tell you how tired they are.”
It might not seem solution-focused or productive to keep going on about how tired everyone is, (especially since it’s something that’s been talked about a lot over the last twelve months) but right now, it’s worth really taking stock of the impact the last year and a bit has had on our already frazzled nervous systems.
Life was far from perfect before Covid. Many of us were operating dangerously close to burnout, and after the initial adrenaline surge that got us through the first lockdown, we found ourselves, as one of our clients putting it, “crawling our way to the finish line” at Christmas time and then dragging ourselves through the long dark days of the winter lockdown, which continued for 16 arduous weeks.
Some of us have had a break from the usual pace of life, but millions of us haven't. If anything, life has been even more stressful and exhausting than before. Here at TWP, we often say that people cannot do their best work in survival mode. Yet that's where so many of us are, all the time.
2. Organisations are facing huge questions about their future
Pre-pandemic, lots of organisations would have baulked at the idea of their whole work force becoming remote overnight, but were then pretty much stripped of the choice. Unless you were a key worker who had to work in person with your customers or service users, pretty much everyone had to switch to remote working, with all of the difficulties that comes with that.
Now, organisations are facing enormous questions about how they’ll work going forward.
What changes or lessons will we take from the last year? Will we, in an effort to try and forget about how hard the last year has been, try to revert back to how things were before the pandemic? Do we want every aspect of our ‘old lives’ back? What is the best way to get the best out of your people? What is the cost of working from home? What's the cost of working in an office? How do you create a sense of true togetherness in a remote team? How can organisations respect and flex to accommodate the many different needs and spaces their employees are in? What is the future of work?
These are really big questions which will require a lot of reflection, strategic thinking, and ideally communication with the people whose lives will be affected by whatever decisions are made. Because so many people are exhausted, including leaders, this task is made all the harder.
This is potentially a time of collective organisational evolution. We think there is an amazing opportunity here for senior leaders and decision makers to pause and deeply reflect on the lessons they can take from 2020, many of which have been learned through an enforced period of trial and error. There’s also a risk, however, that organisations will want to ‘bounce back’ to pre-Covid ways of working, and that they’ll throw out the baby with the proverbial lockdown bathwater.
3. As well as being exhausted, we’re also really busy
Image by Glenn Carstens-Peters via Unsplash
In the first lockdown, there was a video doing the rounds called ‘The Great Pause,’ which presented a rather romantic take on what was happening around the world. With soaring music set alongside dramatic drone footage of the empty city streets from around the world, this short film declared that the pandemic had created a time of universal slowness, a collective pause in our otherwise manic lives.
For millions of people, however, this just wasn’t the case. We worked with hundreds of people last year who said they were busier than ever during the pandemic, with additional processes, meetings and responsibilities (such as caring or home schooling alongside working full time) suddenly thrust upon them.
This busyness, sooner or later, takes a toll. We are not designed to operate at maximum capacity the whole time. Our physiology and brains are suited to short bursts of intense focus or stress, after which we need downtime and rest in order to avoid burning out.
People are really busy now, too. We’re having to navigate this huge transition, which in itself is cognitively and emotionally demanding to process, on top of our many responsibilities and roles. We’re not just juggling ‘stuff’; all the balls we are frantically keeping in the air, if dropped, have an impact on another person, whether that’s a child, family member, colleague or stakeholder.
There’s no quick solution for busyness. Elloa, our head of consulting and coaching, is a huge fan personally of The Nap Ministry, an Instagram account who advocates resting, slowing down and yes, naps, as a form of personal and political liberation. We have a long way to go before we collectively work and live in a slower and more restful way. But at the same time, the collective exhaustion that seems to just be the norm for so many of us is deeply unsustainable.
In the immediate situation we find ourselves in, one practical thing leaders can do is talk about and address aspects of the organisational culture that glorify or reward anti-resilient work practices.
4. Anxiety is high, certainty is low
There is a lot of change and ongoing uncertainty in the air. Many of us are holding our breath, waiting for the next disappointment or the next wave of Covid that might bring increased restrictions back into our lives. We’re booking things not knowing for sure if they’ll be going ahead, or holding off because we don’t want the disappointment if they don’t.
With uncertainty comes anxiety and even a feeling of powerlessness. We are not fully able to live our lives right now, nor do we feel completely behind the wheel. Anxiety is uncomfortable. We might therefore be prone to more outbursts or find ourselves reaching for certain coping strategies, or finding that we feel more disconnected or caught up in conflicts or disagreements with others. We might also make ourselves busy as a way of staving off the difficulty of 'being with' the anxiety – which, as we explored above, creates problems of its own.
5. Many are still grieving
The grief that hit us collectively at different times and in different ways in the last fourteen months will not simply evaporate simply because we can now go to the shops.
The pandemic set in motion a period of collective grieving that is unparalleled to anything we’ve ever lived through. People lost loved ones in the last year, to Covid or for other reasons, and were often unable to be beside them while they died or even to attend their funerals – something that would have been unthinkable sixteen months ago.
Many have lost their own fundamental health and are living with the effects of long Covid. People have lost their jobs, or lost a sense of their purpose and identity through being furloughed long-term. We’ve lost a year of our lives, which for many has meant losing out on once in a lifetime moments like graduating, celebrating an important milestone or being with friends, family and colleagues throughout significant moments.
One key point we want to emphasise is that just because life is more open and free again, people are still coming to terms with loss. We are still grieving, and that grief might not be evident or obvious, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there.
6. Feelings are mixed
Image by Torsten Dederichs via Unsplash
Once again, we might be in the same storm, but we are most definitely not all in the same boat. I’d actually argue even against the storm metaphor right now, because while some of us are basking in the sun, others are still battling the crashing waves.
For example, if you’ve just spent over a year of your life shielding, protecting yourself from human contact to safeguard your physical health, you might feel incredibly anxious about suddenly having the freedom to go to a restaurant or being expected to return to the office again. Meanwhile, others might be revelling in the opportunity to be out in the world with more options available to them. There is no one size fits all experience happening at the moment.
So, what can leaders and organisations do?
One of the hardest things about the pandemic has been just how much has been out of our hands. But sometimes the simplest interventions have the most impact. Therefore, here are two simple, straightforward yet powerful ideas that you can explore and make your own.
- Lots (and lots) of communication
We talk to clients all the time about the importance of creating space for people to connect and share their thoughts, perspectives and questions.
It’s such a simple thing to do, but it takes real commitment to do this well and not simply pay lip service to the idea. Set time aside for conversations that aim to connect rather than tackle a task, client issue or a problem.
Find out how your people are doing. Create deliberate space for connection.
- Treat your people like the grown ups they are
Because the pandemic has affected us all so differently, we're putting a stake in the ground and saying categorically that companies should not impose a standardised approach to how and where people do their work at this point.
The pandemic accelerated the increasing trend of working remotely by making it mandatory for millions of people's lives. Now, as the country reopens again, organisations are in a really interesting spot.
Some people are desperate to get back to the office and cannot wait to stop working at home. Others are dreading it, or simply cannot make it work because the pandemic has changed or impacted their lives in significant ways. And some people want and need time in the office, but perhaps not five full days.
For decision makers, the following question sits behind the decision-making process around where and when people work: to what extent do you trust your employees?
Do you not trust them very much, and therefore want to see bums on visible office seats as a way of proving that people are doing their jobs? Or do you measure output over presenteeism and focus on the impact your people are creating – which therefore implies that you're happy to let people work at the most optimal time and place for them to get their job done?
We've spoken to a lot of people who miss the office environment, particularly being with their colleagues, but equally there are a lot of people who are nervous or stressed at the thought of having to commute again, or who – for many reasons – much prefer working from home.
Many employers are offering their people the choice as to where they work and how often, but some are putting rules in place and aren’t even checking in to see how people feel.
Our suggestion would be to take notes from companies like Zoopla (see below) and Hubspot, each of which has embraced treating their people like the adults they are and trusting them to know how, when and where to work in order to achieve the best results.
We wouldn't recommend copying Google, who initially communicated that working from home would be the new normal (prompting certain employees to move hundreds of miles away), only to backtrack on that decision.
So, there we are. Some thoughts on what's happening for people right now. It can be tempting to just keep pushing through, but pausing to really reflect on what is happening and what's needed is key to making smart strategic choices that are sustainable in the long run for your employees' wellbeing and performance, and for the overall direction and performance of your organisation.
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