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Bringing Teams closer together during COVID-19: Mental Health Awareness Week

Mental Health Awareness Week is an opportunity for people across the UK to take a step back and ask themselves how they are doing. Indeed, you could argue there has never been a more important time for a bit of self-reflection, as the country approaches its tenth [that’s right, tenth] week in lockdown.

Like most organisations, all members of the National Enabling Programmes (NEP) team are currently routed to their own home office, likely for the foreseeable future. To find out how his team are coping with life under lockdown, director of the NEP Wayne Parkes decided to host a meeting and find out how Microsoft Teams has helped keep people connected. An obvious and all too relatable topic of this conversation was the lack of social contact people are currently experiencing, and how that impacts the way we do our jobs.

  • Wayne Parkes (WP) - Director of the National Enabling Programmes, former Head of ICT at Warwickshire and West Mercia Police
  • Owen White (OW) - Chief of Staff for the National Enabling Programmes, former Sergeant at the Metropolitan Police Service
  • Simon Pountain (SP) - Business Change Lead for the National Enabling Programmes, former Commander at the Metropolitan Police Service
  • David Bailey (DB) - Communications Lead for the National Enabling Programmes, former Senior Communications Manager, Staffordshire Police.

WP – "It’s slightly strange at times, because what we are experiencing at the moment is so different. Getting used to not meeting people face to face is quite odd, and some of the big Teams meetings we’ve been hosting with 40+ people on, chairing those from your own home and presenting is quite a challenge. Nonetheless, it’s still effective. I think everyone is getting used to the video calling, the chat, and how to use the new technology."

OW – "Part of the difficulty is we don’t have those sidebar conversations online. When you’re sat in an open plan office, you’d hear other things going on and you’d be able to contribute. It’s that interpersonal disconnect which is really difficult. If we hadn’t had Teams at this time, how would you be able to run your business?"

Recorded Teams call stored and viewable on Stream

SP – "It’s a gamechanger because it means we’re able to do all the things we’ve done before. With my team, we immediately put in a daily call to check in on everybody. We do that call on video to make sure everybody is physically and visibly okay, and the call is nothing more than sitting there and having a laugh, and if necessary, doing a little bit of work. To be able to do that across our organisation shows that you can do it across Policing, and from a Policing perspective that’s what I’d be looking to do for those people working from home. Even small forces have got over 1000 people working from home at the moment. That’s a massive amount of their organisation that they need an effective way of keeping on top of, keeping in contact with, making them feel like part of a team, wanted and engaged, and able to do their work. And that’s what Teams does."

DB – "I’m a week into this new role, and this is the first time I’ve ever started a new job without meeting someone face to face. Teams has been invaluable in terms of getting to know who people are. Today, the Comms team and I were working on a document at exactly the same time, and it’s like we’re working in the same room, just as you would when you’re trying to pull something together for a deadline. I felt like I was part of the office without being in the office, which is really important when you’re coming into a new group of people and trying to work out what’s going on."

As the government begins to phase people and organisations out of lockdown, there will be a number of questions asked about the need for physical workspaces going forward. One of these questions will be around productivity, and the comparative output of organisations pre and post the Prime Ministers lockdown announcement.

OW – "As part of O365 we’ve got access to MyAnalytics, and one of the sections there is about wellbeing. According to this, for the last month, I have only 8% of my time in which I’m able to focus [time leftover outside of meetings, emails, chats and calls]. Now that can’t be productive, can it? I look at that almost ashamed. In the last four weeks, I’ve emailed, chatted to or met with 137 people, compared to 685 in the last year. I’m grateful for Wayne and his task not hours-based approach, but I’m not managing my time very well according to this, because I have less time to focus and get my work done because I’m too busy ploughing through, longer and longer each day. And that is exactly what we need to be looking at. We shouldn’t feel like we have to be at every single meeting if we don’t need to be."

View of MyAnalytics

SP - "Going back to the point Owen made about diaries, what’s happening with everybody, even outside of this organisation, is everybody is working from home, and everybody is getting busier and busier. You’re no longer walking between the office and the station, having a quick phone call, grabbing a coffee somewhere. You’re in the same place the whole time, and your time is easy to fill up because people can access your calendars. It’s important to take the time to walk the electrician around the garden like I’ve done today, or maybe just take your dog for a walk..."

WP – "I would assess that productivity has probably gone up [in the NEP] for all those reasons you have said Simon, but as Owen mentioned, it’s harder. You may just be walking around the rooms in your house all day, but it’s really tiring because the work is full on, all the time. There are no gaps and potentially no respite, so making time for yourself is crucial."

On the face of it, there will be many organisations around the world who are pleased to see improved productivity across areas of their organisation as they almost unanimously experience some form of economic downturn. But how sustainable is this new found productivity?

OW - "I’ve said it to this group and the whole team, this is a different way of working and we’re going to have to adapt. We’re not going to go back to a London office and we’ll probably be like this for some time. There is a struggle in that we’re now looking 15 inches away at this screen all day, and that’s exhausting. There are physical ramifications because your hunched up over the desk, and it’s really mentally tiring being in this position and concentrating in a way you wouldn’t do normally. But as I mentioned earlier, it’s always been the case that this [programme] is task based, not hours based. If you want to go and take some time out of your day to walk your dog, then do that, because it gives you some thinking time [away from the desk]."

DB – "I’m starting my day by taking my daughter’s dog for a walk round the corner, and starting the day properly once I’ve done some exercise… that said, I’m still eating my breakfast in front of the screen which I’ve got to stop doing."

OW - "For the first couple of days after lockdown, I tried to take a slot out of the middle of the day, an hour, and walk over to the park with the dog. Then calls got more and more, meetings all day every day. I then started working later and later, and by the time I cooked the dinner, I wasn’t leaving the house until 18:30. By that point I’m exhausted physically, and mentally drained."

Click image to view ONS report on economic and social impacts of COVID-19

WP – "I always say, it’s okay to take a phone call at 15:00 and say you’re walking the dog. People feel uncomfortable because it’s 15:00 and feel like they should be working, but if you’re working through your lunch hour or you’ve had a hard session, it is totally acceptable to say what you’re doing and not to feel embarrassed about it.

Bringing it back to the mental health aspect of this, we need to be thinking about those people who have been at home on their own for the last few weeks. That’s a really hard run of not having any interaction at all, aside from the odd trip to the supermarket. It’s important for us to all understand what each other’s personal circumstances are at this time and to look out for each other. I know there’s lots of chatting and catch ups across the Teams, and you’ve done a lot with your Business Change team around this Simon."

SP – "Yes there’s a lot of that going on in our Team and the Technical team, and it’s great because you can see that people are getting on well, and that they are looking after each other and are concerned for their colleagues’ welfare. We’ve got somebody who is off on long term sick at the moment, and the contact we’ve been able to have with him via Teams has been great during this period."

Working remotely during lockdown may come as a relief to some people. Less time on the tube or in traffic is clearly appealing, and that extra half hour in bed on a Monday morning can be blissful. But the toll of working from home can quickly add up. Increased hours hunched over the desk, anxiety about job security, stress around childcare – not to mention the global pandemic spreading outside.

Staying connected at a time like this is crucial for supporting a healthy mind, both for ourselves and our colleagues. We are very fortunate in the National Enabling Programmes to have a platform like Microsoft Teams which allows our organisation to keep in touch and collaborate easily on a daily basis. Whilst it might not be as sociable as grabbing a coffee and having a natter in the office, it at the very least gives us the opportunity to continue with business as usual, and more importantly, look out for one another during these peculiar times.

If you have any questions about how the National Enabling Programmes can support your Force’s response to COVID-19 with an accelerated roll out of Microsoft Teams, please do not hesitate to get in touch. You can contact us by emailing fasttrack@transformation.police.uk.

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