Shortly after the Covid-19 outbreak reached Serbia, in March 2020, a state of emergency was declared, and a curfew put in place, restricting the movement of the entire population to 12h per day, while people above the age of 65 were forbidden to leave their homes. Public transport stopped, kindergartens and schools were closed, as well as the national borders.
We immediately switched to the work from home (WFH) modality. Luckily, we practiced many times before what to do if an emergency were to occur, and we were forced to work away from the UN House. Little did we know that this ‘worst-case-scenario’ preparations would one day become handy. On a positive note, our Country Office (CO) was ready to quickly adapt to new circumstances.
The needed infrastructure and IT solutions were in place and the staff had mastered the skills needed for the WFH to go smoothly. In parallel, the pandemic proved difficult in a different way – as our staff members had to balance their work and caring for their toddlers, helping their children with online school assignments, or looking after an elderly parent with a chronic disease living alone.
With the tremendous pressure to support the country’s COVID-19 response, we gave our best to take care of others, all the while having genuine health concerns for ourselves, our families and colleagues.
Our team proved to be up to the challenge and, under these extraordinary conditions, succeeded to organize 15 airlifts bringing 720 tons of urgently needed medical and protective supplies to the country. We also developed new digital solutions to create a network of over 7,000 volunteers who helped the elderly and others in need. We incessantly worked to protect the most vulnerable, including women under the threat of domestic violence and Roma communities.
This is where management support and understanding proved crucial. Showing what ‘Taking care of our people’ means, our Resident Representative (RR) and Deputy RR ensured that every one of our 350 employees and immediate family members were equipped with an adequate quantity of face masks, gloves and hand sanitizers, precisely when it mattered the most - when they were still scarce on the market.
In this way we were able to weather the first ‘storm’, that Covid-19 brought to Serbia. As the number of new cases in the first wave began to decrease and the situation seemed to stabilize, the emergency state was revoked, and we gradually started going back to the office, on a rotational basis, with precautionary measures in place. The UN House was disinfected weekly, hand sanitizers placed everywhere, rigorous cleaning of common areas and shared office items introduced.
Unfortunately, this was just a short recess before a new wave came, following a sudden relaxation of preventive government measures. This time the impact was even stronger, judging by the number of the newly infected and hospitalized. For us, UNDP employees, this meant going back to WFH.
The government introduced additional prevention measures, obligatory mask wearing and a ban on larger public gatherings. Stronger enforcement brought results and the situation was back under control, with most of UNDP partners starting to hold live meetings and events again. However, with the school year starting and people coming back from holidays abroad, health experts warn about a looming ‘wave’ of new cases, and a situation potentially even more dangerous due to the upcoming autumn flu season.
LOOKING FOR A LONG-TERM SOLUTION
After trying out several options for safely and efficiently organizing work, independent from location, the management realized we needed to stop ‘flip-flopping’ and proactively seek a longer-term solution and a new modality of working for UNDP staff in Serbia, during the Covid-19 crisis and, more importantly, beyond. We needed to imagine and plan now for an office of the future.
The gist of this challenge was how to keep our people safe and help them adapt to everchanging external conditions, while ensuring enhanced performance and achievement of CO goals. The idea for a solution came from a discussion we had in one of our monthly virtual staff meetings, where we were updated on the COVID situation and discussed new work arrangements, after receiving excellent feedback and ideas from staff.
Our RR decided to create a Taskforce made up of colleagues who volunteered to explore and suggest a plan about how we could work safely and efficiently in the future, with Covid-19 still with us for the time to come. Katarina Kosmina, Milos Krivokuca, Milan Lakicevic, Jelena Manic Petronikolos, Jelena Ruzicic, Natasa Milosavljevic and Nemanja Vuksanovic signed up for this complex task.
What was our first step? To determine the different ways the crisis impacted our daily operations, we prepared an online staff survey. The survey was comprehensive, with 20 questions capturing personal contexts, internal work, and our relations with external stakeholders. In responding, employees were able to provide answers anonymously, add comments, and provide their observations and suggestions.
We found out that colleagues were very satisfied with how work was organized and managed during the crisis, while they primarily missed closer contact with colleagues across the office. While 62% of staff stated in the survey that they work just as effectively from home as they do from the office, 22% claimed that they actually worked more productively from home! At the same time, we were reminded that almost 50% of our staff are primary caregivers to minors or elderly.
As a Task Force working on the behalf of all our staff, we felt the responsibility to address all their concerns and come up with recommendations on how to address these concerns in a safe and efficient way. We learned important lessons while working remotely during the crisis. For example, we were able to go paperless, swiftly improve our proficiency in new digital tools and be innovative when adapting to the constraints posed by the pandemic.
We were also mindful of the fact that our management was open to hear employee recommendations on how to create the office of the future, one that would be flexible enough to get us through the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as become a model for establishing a new, longer-term way of working for UNDP Serbia Country Office.
We wanted to use a ‘mental shift’ that the pandemic instigated, to set in motion transformation in the way our office operates and to empower colleagues to find the best way to balance their personal and work lives. A common conclusion was that we needed to shift the focus from the deep-seated formula of working from 9am to 5pm, to flexibility, productivity and timely delivery, regardless of the working hours framework and independent from location.
When developing recommendations, we also had in mind the experiences of other UNDP Offices, as well as best practices from other international organizations and businesses.
SKETCHING AN OFFICE OF THE FUTURE
Our key recommendation for the future included a voluntary return to office premises. The colleagues wishing to work from the office could do so for full days or for specific meetings. To facilitate a safe return to the office and ensure that a limited number of people are using it at a time, our IT unit developed a special app showing how many colleagues are using a specific office at a certain time.
Corresponding to many similar staff proposals from the survey, the Task Force also recommended to arrange the UN House rooftop as a safe and pleasant space for both internal and external meetings. In line with the survey findings, we recommended to allow staff to take their office monitors and chairs home in order to create a more comfortable home office and prevent back pain and poor eyesight.
We additionally proposed for the COVID-related preventive measures at the UN House to be even more rigorous, including mandatory temperature checks when entering the building, and colleagues recently returning from abroad refraining from coming back to the office for a precautionary 14 days period or upon obtaining a negative PCR test.
To stimulate a cross-office exchange of knowledge and information, we recommended the introduction of bi-weekly discussions where different teams would present lessons learned and most important updates.
Our second stream of recommendations was focused on increasing engagement with external partners. We proposed guidelines and safety protocols for field visits, meetings with stakeholders, workshops and other events. To proactively show our partners that we are ready and willing to meet them under safe conditions, we created a banner for our email signature with a ‘Happy to meet with you’ message and protective mask and computer screen icons, showing both live and virtual meetings are welcome.
FLEXIBILITY AS KEY FOR ADAPTING TO ANY FUTURE CHALLENGE
We are proud that our staff is now equipped with the knowledge and tools needed to establish a work-operating structure they can rely on, giving them the opportunity to plan ahead and be proactive in overcoming the key challenges encountered during the previous 7 months, while also being trusted by management to get the job done regardless of location.
We are aware the Covid-19 crisis is not over yet, but we believe that the new arrangements are flexible enough to allow us to adapt to any future change in the external conditions and create an office of tomorrow, one that is more than a desk and chair, but a place for contact, innovation, and creation of synergies through cross-team cooperation.