The “New Normal” is no longer new.

Yet it still feels disorientating and unfamiliar. We adapt, yet again, to a shifting reality, one in which the current state is both indefinite and impermanent. We move ahead with our work, despite the multiple losses: the loss of physical space together; of water-cooler conversations; of our familiar patterns and shared team moments. For some of us, we move ahead despite the far bigger losses we have suffered in our lives as a result of this pandemic.

Last Monday, NHS Horizons team members took time together to discuss how this strange context is impacting our behaviours at work. How have we adapted our individual behaviours to better support our own health? What more can we do collectively to improve the wellbeing of all our team members?

We recognised that we are living through an ‘adaptive moment’.  While technical challenges can be easily fixed by a known improvement, adaptive challenges have no certain procedures or outcomes. Instead, they require us to address our fundamental values and assumptions. They ask us to create space for divergent thinking and to iterate possible approaches for the purposes of learning together.

What follows is a short reflection on the thoughts we shared during our conversation, and three “top tips” for other teams who are working together to better prepare for what comes next...

The world we’ve left...

As a team, NHS Horizons members discuss and monitor our individual and collective wellbeing on a regular basis. For the past four years we’ve participated in a weekly wellbeing survey, jointly undertaken “30-day sprints” to improve our health and trialled ways of offering a flexible approach to working patterns and remote/office-based working.

Yet, like almost everyone, Covid-19 has had a massive impact on our working lives. Colleagues whose work and core role purpose was once office-based (those organising events, those managing travel and accommodation bookings) have found their working lives upended. Even those of us who work flexibly and remotely anyway have dealt with significant change. What’s more, we now face the prospect of that impact continuing, in various forms, indefinitely.

The glass is (virtually) half-full.

While we no longer have parking or hot-desking problems, travel stress and “presenteeism”, we do miss seeing people and the serendipitous conversations that result from regular face-to-face contact. We can work more flexibly (and, for some, more productively) to meet team and client needs, but this is at the expense of any meaningful human contact in our working lives.

An NHS colleague recently heard someone say "I’m not working at home, ...I’m living at work". For so many of us, the physical blurring of space has led to a merging of work and home. Our efforts to “switch off” need to be intentional until they become habitual, requiring planning and whole-team support.

On a micro-level, time away from the screen requires an enabling work culture (maintained and role-modelled “from the top”), as well as team and individual planning to lock-in the habit. One effective way to achieve this is by layering exercise time onto relationship-building calls, such as 1:1s with close colleagues while we are both walking outdoors. We’ve also found that taking collective responsibility for ensuring breaks are marked out and taken, both in our own calendars and in those we work alongside, helps. We help each other by marking up our calendars and not contacting colleagues when they are having time out. 

Some of us have extended this practice to our work with clients. Using the Outlook diary function to schedule meetings in 15 minutes after the recipients’ last meeting can increase the chances they get a break. We can also routinely book meetings to start at 15 minutes past the hour for multiple attendees.

At a team level, over the past few months we’ve tried several different ways of connecting. At the height of Covid-19 crisis response, we met as a team on Fridays via Zoom, simply to say hello, “have a cuppa” and decompress together from the week. We use several asynchronous modes, such as WhatsApps and Microsoft Teams channel, to do work at varying paces. And several colleagues run a “Know More Club” - a Monday drop-in space to share new knowledge on topics loosely related to our core work.

As we face the prospect of adapted working practices continuing indefinitely, we’ve started to discuss the sort of culture we want to create as a team in this “new world”. This moment is a chance to reassess some of the fundamentals:

- Do we have appropriate boundaries both within work and between working/personal life? How can we support each other to create and maintain these?

- How do we learn more about what makes each of us thrive?

- What team habits will enable us to reflect on, and learn from, our individual experiences so that we can continue to improve the experience of working at NHS Horizons?

The newly published NHS People Plan offers bundles of inspiration for how to achieve these goals. In the coming weeks, we’ll be digesting it together and ensuring that we “apply it to ourselves” as well as using it in our work with clients around large-scale change.

Summary: three top tips 

1. Where the purpose of your meeting with someone is to focus on a 1:1 relationship, suggest that you have a joint walking meeting by phone. This overlap of work and exercise releases kinesthetic energy to aid your creative thinking.

2. Put effort into discussing and sharing priorities with team members. This can enable collective responsibility for separating the ‘urgent’ from the ‘important’. That, in turn, helps everyone to prioritise work and set boundaries around multiple competing requests even while we lack shared team-time on a regular basis.

3. Collect data and monitor it together over time. This doesn’t have to be fancy. Three short questions, asked of everyone weekly, can give you enough data to start a conversation on wellbeing and track it together over time.