Covid-19: Working Closely from a Distance

Mike Blackmore

Henry Ford supposedly said, “coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is success”. River conservation is probably as far removed as you can get from a mass-production industrial assembly line, but it is a good quote (whoever said it).

The Covid-19 pandemic has inflicted a degree of disconnection and separation on all of us. The challenges of life and work in this strange time are incredibly varied, and perhaps unique to each individual. Some have braved isolation, away from friends and family, while others have faced a chaotic collision of work, school, and childcare all under one roof. Whatever the personal circumstances, increased stress, anxiety, and uncertainty seem ubiquitous. Might it then seem inevitable that our work would suffer significantly from such a deficit of togetherness?
At a time where a team being physically together is impossible, coming together to focus on shared goals is perhaps the next best thing. Considering the times, a team just managing to hold itself together would be worthy of praise, yet amongst the turmoil of 2020/21, the staff at Wessex RT have managed to pull even closer together. By making use of the technology available to us, and by proactively making time for each other, the Wessex RT team has achieved a level of co-operation probably exceeding that of before the pandemic.

When I first joined the Trust, the office was rarely at capacity (such is the nature of fieldwork). We had a small whiteboard on the wall of the office that was supposed to display where team members were going to be that day/week. It was a half-measure and it never really worked, and I mostly used it for doodling cartoons! Nowadays, following the morning staff video call, we usually know exactly what, where and how each of us will be working that day. Extra effort has gone into populating shared calendars and ticking off tasks on shared (digital) project plans. The lines between a meeting and a task have blurred. Whereas the traditionally a team might plan in a meeting room, then break out to work separately, that communication now continues seamlessly into the task at hand. Instant messaging provides an additional, more conversational line of communication to emails, and cloud-based saving enables us to collaborate on documents in real-time.

Technology has undoubtedly helped, but the real key has been the extra effort the whole team has put in to working closely from a distance. We’ve collaboratively brainstormed, planned, recruited, collaborated on documents, even submitted bid proposals remotely. Most importantly, the team have looked out for each other’s wellbeing, injecting a sense of normality where possible, scheduling in time to talk about non-work stuff, to laugh and joke, gripe and groan.

I am no stranger to working from home, having been home-based for several years in my previous job. Comparing this situation to that, I would not describe our lockdown working as home-based. Perhaps cloud-based is a better term? We have created a kind of virtual office where the rest of the team are invisibly present at the imaginary next desk over!

Covid-19 will have permanently changed the way we work, and we are probably a much more agile and flexible organisation than we were before. However, we all look forward to getting back into our very physical (and beautiful) office and seeing each other face-to-face again. We look forward to reflecting on our remote coming-together, and how it made us a closer and stronger team than ever before.