You’ve had a good break over summer, the kids are back at school, there is a new start, new term, new pencil case feeling yet you’re still just exhausted?
If you are exhausted, it’s no wonder. Our working lives have been catapulted into chaos. Many of us have experienced furlough, restructures or redundancy (or all three).
We’ve had to adapt quickly to working remotely. Most charities have been forced to cut back and adapt their products and services while the need for services has increased. We’ve had to change quickly without preparation and without knowing how long for or what might happen next.
If you’re feeling exhausted, worn out and that you’ve not got much left in your reserves then you’re not alone.
We’re going to be living with covid for the foreseeable future and that will bring new challenges, some that we’re not even aware of yet. As fundraisers we’re already resilient, and as we emerge from the lockdowns of the last year it’s going to be more important than ever to continue to build our resilience, re-energise ourselves and our teams and stay motivated. We’re going to be faced with new fundraising challenges, we will have to think creatively and act quickly. This article outlines some of the challenges we’re facing and some tips to help build resilience, teamwork and motivation for the future.
Why are we all so exhausted?
Uncertainty is a natural and unavoidable part of life. None of us ever have absolute certainty over what tomorrow will bring. And as the coronavirus outbreak has shown, life can change quickly and unpredictably.
The challenge for all of us is that human beings are wired to seek certainty. When we’re faced with uncertainty our brain believes our safety is threatened. This triggers us into a fight, flight or freeze response. When we’re in a fight, flight or freeze state our ability to make decisions, collaborate, think creatively and solve problems is impaired. We want to feel safe and have a sense of control over our lives and well-being. In an uncertain world, our need for certainty fuels worry and anxiety and makes the management of uncertainty a constant in our lives.
And it’s exhausting managing worry and anxiety, especially over a long period of time. We run out of steam. And when we’re depleted it has a knock-on effect on our resilience and our motivation.
Flexible working can be exhausting too
There are some definite upsides to working from home, saving money on travel, lunch and drinks after work. We can work in elasticated waists and comfy slippers. We can, in theory work more flexibly when it suits us. We don’t arrive at work stressed from being packed onto transport with strangers breathing in each other’s germs and smelling their sweet aromas (particularly on the way home) or sitting in traffic feeling the stress rising.
There are also some very real downsides to working flexibly
We don’t get the distance between home life and work life.
When we first went into lockdown back in March last year, many managers were worried about their teams not working hard enough. The opposite has been proven to be true. Particularly in the not-for-profit sector I see people working extremely hard because they care so deeply about the cause they work for. Charity sector employee work ethic is high. When working from home the number of meetings we attend has increased, and employees are working longer hours. The lines between work and home are distinctly blurry and this is having an impact on our health. Many of us are feeling isolated, and at the same time finding it difficult to disconnect work time from home time. Many employees and managers are still fighting presenteeism when working from home, feeling they should be at their desk and available from 9-5 which can cause a huge amount of stress.
One of my clients commented that ‘Christmas was ruined,’ because the dining table was where she did her work and even with a big turkey taking centre stage, she still associated the dining room table with working life.
Research has also shown that video conferencing is more fatiguing than meeting people in real life because our brains have to work harder to process seeing people on a screen rather than in real life.
It’s also harder to pick up on visual cues on how people are really doing on a screen. In a real physical room, when you ask your colleague Dave how he’s doing, he might say he’s OK because he doesn’t want to make a fuss and knows you’re busy. When you’re in the same room you can tell from Dave’s body language that he’s not quite himself. So you ask Dave again how he is, and given a bit of space and encouragement Dave tells you what’s really going on. You can listen and reassure Dave. Even if you can’t solve the problem Dave feels better, he’s been noticed, listened to, appreciated and feels part of a team. There isn’t the same time, space or opportunity on a Zoom or Teams call for this sort of interaction. Yes – we can still care for our colleagues and ask how they are but its’ much harder and we have to be much more deliberate. And after a year this can take its toll on our energy, resilience and motivation.
What about inspiration and creativity?
From an inspiration and creativity perspective we have also suffered from working remotely. When we’re feeling stressed out, anxious and exhausted we often struggle to focus or feel motivated to do anything. Many people report getting ‘brain fog’ and the lack of concentration impacts our productivity which increases feelings of stress and we get caught in a negative cause and effect cycle.
For the majority of people, we’re in the flow with our creative thinking when we’re relaxed. For example, I’ve asked 1,000s of people to tell me where they do their best creative thinking. They answer that it’s when they’re not thinking about work, for example, when they’re walking the dog, running, driving or in the shower. Whilst a deadline might help some people focus, the majority of people think more creatively when stress and anxiety are low and when they’re doing something non work related.
Now let’s think about the blurred boundaries between home and work and our increased stress and anxiety levels over the last few pandemic months.
As we battle uncertainty and our bodies get ready to fight, flight or freeze. Our blood thickens and moves away from our prefrontal cortex (where we do our thinking which explains brain fog) to our vital organs. This was helpful when survival looked like running away from or fighting a wild animal, but less helpful in today’s working environment. It’s also exhausting.
It’s no wonder that our creativity is impacted by living in a higher than ‘normal’ state of stress and anxiety.
It’s not only the increased stress levels that can impact on our creative thinking.
The very essence of fundraising is creative thinking. Fundraisers solve problems by making new connections and putting old ideas together in new ways. It’s not only the increased stress levels that can impact on our creative thinking.
Consider the difference between working from home and working from an office. At home we get up we’re in the same space and we’ve got the same things around us. We might doom scroll social media or watch TV or look at the news but the amount of new stimulus for our thinking is massively reduced than if we were leaving the building on a regular basis.
Remember back to the days of commuting. You leave your home and walk down the street, consciously and subconsciously you are taking in information. You notice a new shop window display, read the headlines on the newspaper stand, notice somebody in a colourful hat that reminds you of the time you played ‘Guess Who?’. Your brain is gathering material to turn into connections for creativity.
It’s not just what you see either, you’re experiencing sensory overload, different smells, sounds and textures.
Then there are those informal chats in the office while making a cup of tea, the conversations that you overhear, the informal opportunities to bounce ideas around with colleagues. These so called ‘water cooler’ moments are where creativity thrives. This can still happen online, but its more deliberate, less informal, less spontaneous and an element of the creative spark is lost.
Even by the time you arrive at work the amount of stimulus that you’ve opened your brain to is way more than perhaps the stimulus that some of us have had in the last year of working at home. If ideas are connections put together in different ways, working from home can significantly inhibit our creative thinking potential
I’m not saying that there’s been no creativity
There has been an abundance of creativity as the pandemic crisis has spurred us into action. Charity supporters have had no choice but to embrace digital and there’s been massive progress in digital engagement and fundraising. Check out the Charity Digital Skills Report 2021 by Zoe Amar and The Skills Platform for more detail.
The pandemic has given charities the opportunity to engage with more people over a greater geographical area; CEOs have hosted virtual round tables, service delivery teams have delivered online sessions for donors to tell them directly about the impact they have made and Christmas carol concerts have attracted many more people virtually than ever would fit in a church. Charities have changed their service delivery, and in some cases their whole business model and supporters have had more opportunity to be involved in development of services.
Often we can respond well in a crisis, fuelled by a surge of adrenalin. However, the exhaustion that many of us are feeling is from maintaining that crisis state for a prolonged period of time. Researchers called it surge capacity. Basically we run out of steam. As we move forward managing our energy is going to be just as important for our creativity as managing our time.
The ‘new normal’
I’m sorry to break it to you. There is no such thing as the new normal. In fact, remove this phrase from your vocabulary. It’s important that as we emerge from a global pandemic that we don’t revert back to old modes of thinking or look at the past as ‘normal’.
We’re not going back to the office to pick up where we left off on 23 March 2020. We are all different people now. Our supporters are different. Our beneficiary needs have likely changed too. And we have an opportunity to change our thinking, our fundraising and our service delivery to make more impact on those that need us most.
We’re evolving to something different, and it has much potential but it’s going to be a rocky journey. It’s likely to feel worse before it feels better. We will be feeling the ripples of the pandemic for generations to come. Let’s accept that and then think creatively about what we can do in our roles to ride out the ripples or flatten them or create our own new positive ripples.
Working from home benefits and challenges
As we emerge from lockdown there’s a great opportunity to rewrite how we work. This concept of a 9-5 day is left over from the industrial revolution, where for the masses work meant being part of a production line; where everyone had to be there at the same time to build the thing. You’ve probably noticed over the last year that you don’t naturally work from 9-5. You have a natural flow throughout the day of when you do your best thinking, when you are tired or when ideas seem to flow better. Maybe you’re a night owl and you do your best work at 11pm or perhaps you do your best work before anyone else in your household wakes up. We are all different. I’m seeing a gradual shift in the presenteeism mindset, and a pragmatism from organisations that as long as employees deliver on time, when they do the work is less of an issue. The greater challenge is supporting employees to turn off their email and stop working and enjoy downtime.
How do we tackle inclusion?
Inclusion is feeling included. Have you ever been to a friend’s wedding on your own where you didn’t know anyone? You’re all there to celebrate with the bride and groom on their happy day. And whilst you were most definitely part of the celebrations, did you feel included?
Inclusion is different for everyone. What makes one person feel included is different from what makes someone else feel included. Inclusion plays a big part in a healthy, happy and productive team dynamic. Inclusion was already a challenge when everyone turned up to the same office each day. This is a really big challenge now people are not all in the same place at the same time.
I remember working in a regional team and used to get irritated when the all-staff email came round to say help yourself to cake in the kitchen because it was someone’s birthday. Not in my kitchen in my regional office there wasn’t. When people are working remotely you can take this principle and multiply it by a million. Every communication that isn’t inclusive creates a tension.
Before you agree to everyone working flexibly consider what inclusion might look like. Someone who is in the office all the time will have a completely different experience from someone who turns up occasionally. The occasional person misses the chat in the kitchen over a coffee, bouncing ideas around, informal chats on the way to lunch or a meeting. They miss the accidental sparks of inspiration and motivation which makes them feel included.
What works for individuals and what works for the charity?
There isn’t one right way of working for your fundraising team. It will depend on your current culture and working practices, what your organisation needs and what your individual employees need.
Everyone is different. To name just a few differences, you’ll have a mix of introverts, extroverts, reflectors, active learners and people at different stages in their career. Each individual has different needs, for example, broadly speaking the introverts will have managed lockdown better than the extroverts who will be craving being back in a room with people. The introverts are more likely to feel reluctant about coming back to an office 5 days a week. You’ll have people at different career stages. Those that are early in their career, often in a shared house and working from a bedroom fighting for bandwidth will likely have a preference to come back to the office. The social aspect of an office life and the after-work drinks that go with that is way more important than when you’re older. Colleagues with families tend to live further away from the office and whose home life is more set up for working from home will be less likely to want to rush back. Early career employees will miss out on so much learning, if the more experienced colleagues are at home, both in terms of knowledge but also those soft skills; there’s no opportunity to learn from how more experienced colleagues behave and carry themselves.
Creating the new team dynamic that works for you
There’s no silver bullet, no blueprint and no single right way to emerge from lockdown and ensure your team has resilience and motivation for the future. (Sorry about that) I hope this article has provoked some thoughts and here’s some things to consider as you make your own roadmap.
- When we are dealing with uncertainty we fight, fight or freeze and this is exhausting. We all manage this differently and we’ll all have waves of exhaustion. It’s likely that this exhaustion will affect us for a long time. Acknowledge the collective exhaustion that we’re experiencing. We’re going through something big. Don’t underestimate the toll it takes on our energy, motivation and resilience over time.
- Create opportunities to ponder and listen to each other. Tell stories, talk to beneficiaries, talk to donors and ask more questions.
- There is not going to be any sort of landmark when everything goes back to ‘new normal’. We will be living with the ripples of the pandemic for the rest of our lives.
- Don’t fret about what you can’t change. Focus on what is in your sphere of influence.
- Create the water cooler moments, the downtime and space to think. If you don’t deliberately create them they won’t just happen.
- Be aware of, but not guided by the limitations of the past. Reflect, notice what the pandemic has challenged you to do. What have you learned? What are the different ways of working that you can incorporate going forward? For example have you moved faster or stopped decision by committee. Write it down and don’t fall back into old patterns of thinking and working.
- Everyone is different and has different needs making inclusion is a very difficult task. Do everything you can to understand the different needs in your team to help inform your decisions.
- The future of fundraising in your charity is the sweet spot of what the organisation needs, what your supporters and beneficiaries need and what employees need. That’s what you must seek to find.
- You won’t get it right first time, however you choose to structure your team and how you work, view it as a test then learn and adapt.
- Managing your and your teams energy is as important as managing your time.
- You are fundraisers wonderfully creative, optimistic and resilient. You’ve totally got this.
If you’d like some help to build your teams resilience, creativity and confidence then get in touch. I facilitate strategy workshops, team training in innovation and creativity skills and resilience. Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or book a time for a chat here.
A version of this blog was first published in The Fundraiser.