The virtual staffroom: Morale and engagement during lockdown

Written by: Denise Barrows | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

During lockdown, we must not neglect staff morale and wellbeing. Denise Barrows looks at how school leaders can deepen trust and connections with and between staff. She considers our one-to-one interactions and how to build a virtual staffroom environment

Schools across the country have seen extraordinary levels of commitment from staff as they have rapidly reconfigured the way that they operate and put in place systems to support their students during the coronavirus outbreak.

However, ensuring staff can sustain realistic levels of engagement and productivity for the longer-term, when many are now working remotely, presents some key leadership challenges.

Deepening trust and connections

Much remote working advice has been shared over recent weeks, emphasising helpful strategies for maintaining personal interaction – through virtual meetings and collaborations, check-in calls, buddy groups, and virtual coffee breaks, for example.

At a time when many of us are feeling heightened levels of vulnerability, it is helpful to approach our conversations and plan our interactions with staff with the explicit intention of strengthening our human-to-human connection.

This can be achieved through recognising and addressing three core needs that we all share – to be seen, to be heard, and to be spoken to with honesty and compassion.

Many of us fundamentally underestimate the significance of this in building relationships at work. Yet very often, the quality of our relationships, even when working remotely, can be transformed by ensuring our interactions allow for these three factors.

Step 1: See...

...by valuing and acknowledging the other person and their world.

This first step is about valuing and acknowledging the other person and their reality. It is as much a mindset shift as it is a behaviour change, with empathy and an ability to put yourself in other people’s shoes at its core.

You will know when this step has been achieved because the conversation will feel easy, it will move forward and people will be honest. In contrast, if the conversation feels awkward, people are holding back or are defensive, then you will know that people do not feel seen or safe.

When interacting remotely with staff consider how you can ensure people still feel “seen”. For example:

  • Before calling to support a colleague, notice your own distractions, opinions and assumptions. Try to consciously put these aside and give your full attention to the other person and their experience.
  • Build a short “check-in” to your team meetings – perhaps asking everyone to share how they are feeling as they come into the session, as well as a hope for the meeting. On a video call, this can be done using the chat box, or whiteboard, as well as vocally – but give time to read and acknowledge written contributions.

Step 2: Hear...

...by listening deeply and valuing what they have to say.

Ensuring the other person feels heard is not simply about listening. You may listen very attentively, but if the other person does not believe you, this will have little or no effect.

Key to this is the ability to really focus on and be present for the other person, genuinely valuing their input and letting go of your own agenda.

  • The most powerful tool to ensure others feel heard is “playback” – simply summarising and “playing back” what they have said, wherever possible using their own words.
  • Notice the feelings and values that are behind the words and reflect these back as well. Listening at this deeper level will be especially important when people are experiencing high levels of uncertainty and emotion.
  • In your virtual team meetings, use the chat box to get views from everyone in a short space of time.

Step 3: Speak...

...from the heart, and with the purpose of connecting and moving forward together.

This third step is about communicating your message with compassion, saying clearly what you need to say, but in a way, that continues to build and deepen the relationship.

Once you have delivered your own message, be observant about when to move back to the “See” step again to understand the other person’s response and experience of what they have heard from you. Tips for this step include:

  • Define clear expectations and provide regular feedback, being open and authentic about the unknowns and where you do not have the answers.
  • Do not be afraid to share your own vulnerabilities. As Professor Brené Brown says: “People who wade into discomfort and vulnerability and tell the truth about their stories are the real badasses!”
  • Recognise and appreciate people’s achievements and contributions.
  • Continue to build in time for development conversations, helping team members to reflect on and learn from their experiences at this challenging time.

A model for each conversation

The See-Hear-Speak sequence can be followed in each conversation or slowed down in order to delve deeper into one particular interaction.

In most conversations, you will need to repeat the cycle and revisit the “See” and “Hear” steps. It is a simple but powerful framework for strengthening relationships with and across your team at a time when people may feel very keenly the loss of their familiar routines and connections.

Building a virtual staffroom

For most of us, the relationships we have with our colleagues and the sense of belonging we feel to our workplace community are important for our wellbeing, and act as protective factors in the face of day-to-day stresses.

In school, everyday staffroom interactions, from light-hearted banter and shared celebrations, to being able to swap notes, unload and problem-solve with colleagues, are an important part of this.

Given the pressures and anxieties of the all-consuming national crisis around us, the challenges of working remotely, and the need for many to juggle caring responsibilities as well, there is a risk that many of us will over-exert ourselves mentally and emotionally.

So, how can school leaders proactively build more informal interactions to help boost staff wellbeing during weeks of continued lockdown?

Building a virtual staffroom around a set of social activities and support mechanisms could be the answer.

A helpful way of thinking about these could be to consider core aspects of wellbeing and how to facilitate the establishment of regular wellbeing and self-care practices.

Your virtual staffroom offer might therefore give particular attention to supporting staff in these dimensions, but the physical and spiritual will be important as well in helping people to manage and renew their energy levels.

Some examples of activities for virtual teams across these four dimensions are set out below.

Physical

  • Invite staff to join exercise groups, sharing their results and progress.
  • Set-up healthy recipe swaps and online team lunch dates.
  • Build physical energisers and movement into your online meeting breaks.

Emotional

  • Offer “decompression drop-in calls”, giving people uninterrupted time to unload.
  • Signpost staff to external support (such as the free telephone helpline from charity Education Support, or indeed, the free coaching for school leaders from BTS Spark).
  • Establish a fun weekly craft or “task-master” challenge using materials available at home.

Mental

  • Remember the five-minute rule to keep energy levels up in virtual meetings – do not go longer than this without involving the team in discussion or problem-solving.
  • Re-energise your meeting with puzzles, riddles, drawing games or even a virtual museum tour in the break.
  • Schedule “lunch and learn” sessions for team members to share new ideas and insights.

Spiritual

  • Offer online yoga, meditation or mindfulness sessions.
  • Suggest a team photography project to share the beauty people find on their daily walks.
  • Encourage gratitude practices (private or shared) to focus on the things that people appreciate.

Conclusion

It is easy to be daunted by the challenges of working remotely and finding new ways to connect with and support your staff, but the current situation presents positive opportunities too.

By intentionally building staff engagement strategies into your remote working plans and adapting your leadership style to match the context, there is no reason why your team cannot emerge from lockdown more connected and stronger than ever.

  • Denise Barrows is head of education at BTS Spark, a not-for-profit education practice within a global coaching and leadership development provider. Visit www.bts.com/en-gb/spark/index

Further information

  • BTS Spark: Free coaching offer for school leaders to support them through the COVID-19 crisis. Find out more at https://bit.ly/2xc7udT
  • Education Support: A UK charity dedicated to improving the mental health and wellbeing of the education workforce. For help or advice on any issue facing those working in education, contact its free 24-hour helpline on 08000 562 561 or visit www.educationsupport.org.uk


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