by Nadia Bertaggia

Normalising change starting with communication and human relationships

We are again faced with an uncertain and critical situation, with the return of feelings such as fear, alarm and panic, which had already – unfortunately – characterised the first half of 2020. We will not go into the details of the pandemic, but it is certain that a further effort to act responsibly will be required of citizens and businesses to contain the rise in infections.

The Prime Minister has declared that ‘Italy is not the same as it was in March’. From my privileged view point, as the HR Manager of a company with over ten thousand employees, who is in contact with customers from different sectors, I am seizing this change and I believe that this moment of rupture, which is unexpected and linked to great uncertainty, must be transformed into a positive opportunity.

Faced with the general lockdown in March and April, Italian companies had to deal with important changes in business management: consulting and services reviewed how they organised themselves by activating smart working, made possible by the potential of technology. The production sites and other entities on the front lines in the fight against the virus continued with on-site work, and were faced each day with the feelings associated with the new structure and with the evolution of safety regulations.

We need to assess what has been done in recent months to understand how to prepare for the months to follow. If it is true that we are not the same country as in March, we must demonstrate this by formulating strategies not only for reacting to a problem, but to prevent and innovate on a large scale and for the long term. I particularly want to emphasise the importance of paying attention to the human component, to the needs and expectations of people.

Smart working cannot be improvised.

Since the beginning of the healthcare emergency, the expression ‘smart working’ has become part of the language of politics, the media and public opinion. However, I think it is a misused term. Smart working is, in fact, a ‘managerial philosophy’ that is based on a corporate culture where, before there can be a smart worker, there must be a smart manager, who educates and helps people to grow professionally, as well as an organisation based on autonomy and the empowerment of collaborators. It is a process, a way of organising work that stems from a corporate culture based on trust and respect for the individual, and which can be inscribed into a specific welfare plan, in coordination with managers, human resource managers and collaborators. With smart working understood this way, we work towards objectives, with flexible hours and in ways that can also include the use of a coworking space or away from home, without the constraints of time and place. In return, the worker is committed to being responsible, present and proactive. In addition to the appropriate corporate culture, suitable business sectors and work activities are required that marry these principles. We realise, then, that what we called smart working in an emergency was nothing more than teleworking, or remote working. Starting with this confusion regarding terminology, the risk is that we improvise without considering the possible effects on both the individual worker and the company. Closing physical offices may seem like the simplest immediate solution, but it can be harmful in the long term if not accompanied by an adequate welfare strategy and moments of face-to-face interaction.

As highlighted by the research presented in ‘Work life after lockdown’ – conducted for Sodexo by the Harris Interactive Institute through 4,824 online interviews with a sample of employees from eight countries, selected according to gender, age, professional category and region of origin – several problematic issues regarding remote working emerged. The main issues were a lack of social interaction for 44% of interviewees, difficulties collaborating (34%), difficulties concentrating (32%), less identification with the company (32%), a sense of isolation (30%), an inadequate workstation (20%) and a less well-balanced diet (17%).

Faced with these critical issues, my advice is not to underestimate the power of in-person interaction (we are still human beings!) And to promote it by taking all necessary precautions, for the benefit of the team’s ability to work, their emotional well-being and individuals’ sense of involvement.

  Communication is essential

The fear of contagion and the anxiety that derives from the economic, professional and health implications of the current situation must be managed, both individually and collectively, as it is likely that we will have to live with this virus for a long time to come, and because the mental well-being of individuals should be a priority for any business. Fear subsides with proper communication and through the use of adequate language: without communication, even the application of the most rigid protocols loses value. Words, if used appropriately, nourish, reassure and calm. The Harris Interactive research shows how communicating about the actions taken was key to building a sense of security. In fact, 59% of interviewees were concerned about their health and safety in the workplace, but felt reassured by actions such as greater checking of procedures and better communication of guidelines.

  Networking to re-think organisation 

After the health of our people, the health of our organisation is equally fundamental and, if necessary, it will have to evolve and transform and continue to grow. Networking, communicating, relying on others and asking for help where individual energies are not enough, is essential.

In fact, I believe that the ‘new normal’ must be based on an intense and profound collaboration between different environments in order to foster resilience, innovation and long-term security.

This idea is also the basis for our project for a new normal – ‘Rise with Sodexo’, a methodology designed to enable us to rise back up together out of this moment and look forward with a systemic approach, in which we activate the right solutions to combine safety and well-being with efficiency and productivity.

The pandemic is re-configuring the way we work, think and describe work itself, but in addition to the challenges it presents us with, there are also some opportunities to be seized. Fear, safety, socialisation and isolation will be fundamental concepts of our professional and private lives. Each company will have to put into play its open-mindedness and desire to communicate with its collaborators and stakeholders, to shape the future scenario in which it will move.

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Nadia Bertaggia has a degree in Work Psychology and Specialisation from the Imperial College London and is HR Director at Sodexo Italy and Mediterranean Region.

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