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Five lessons I learned from my team during the pandemic

Date : May 20 , 2020 | Opinion

Saajha co-founder Abhishek Choudhary writes that his team members have been a source of learning and wisdom as they find ways to cope with and stay hopeful during a crisis that has affected private as well as public spaces.

A lot has changed at the workplace in the last few months. In fact, the idea of a ‘place’ of work itself has been redefined. Whereas we would put in a few days of work from home earlier, WFH has become the new normal today. Project plans and workflows have hit a pause button and we do not know what is next.   

What we do know is that the new world we are (barely) getting used to has three emotional pulls: the ambiguous future, the precarious present and the abruptly terminated past. Navigating these times calls for an extraordinary organisational rudder.

To respond to the Covid-19 crisis and the lockdown, Saajha’s team geared up to serve families (parents and children)  from under-resourced families in Delhi and Maharashtra. Our Delhi families are largely daily wagers, contractual workers or are engaged in the informal sector. They live in overcrowded clusters and buildings,  where a space as big as an office cubicle is home to five or more members. Multiple families still share the same toilet. In Maharashtra, the families we work with are tribals living in remote villages. Most of them are farm labourers who work in brick kilns, fishing boats and other forms of unsecured industries in the ‘off season’. Delivering public services and communicating with them has been a challenge over the years. Both of our communities were and are at risk from the pandemic.

As the team pivoted the execution model, here are the five lessons I have learned from them in the past few weeks:

1. Serving others is a great way to serve oneself

A few months before the pandemic, my colleague N’s father suffered a head injury and he had to rush to his hometown in Kolkata. Over the next few months, N meticulously managed a multi-stakeholder project in Jharkhand, while also travelling on the weekends to Kolkata to attend to his parents. Like many people, N has been stuck at a far-off project location in Jharkhand due to the abrupt announcement of the national lockdown in March. Cut off from his family, he has been struggling with various emotions: fear, longing and loneliness.

Unable to find any comfort, N decided to volunteer as a call-support agent to serve Saajha’s communities  in Delhi. His job is to listen to the concerns of the families we work with, identify and escalate critical issues and, above all, build hope for the family. Talking and listening to the families helps N deepen his connections with them and leads him to practise compassion every day, in the process creating hope for himself. When N dials in to the weekly team meetings now, he steps in with a strong sense of self-belief gained through serving others.

2. Every team needs a source of positive energy 

Eating and laughing together is embedded in Saajha’s DNA. And, in times of stress, we laugh even louder. When everything around looks gloomy, we need that laughter even more. One of our team members recently took upon herself the role of identifying positive news and sharing it with the community.

In teams, we need such people—let us call them ‘routers of positive energy’—to build a positive and empowering narrative. “Hey team, one of our families finally received their ration!” “Hey team, our parent-partners were on a Zoom call with us today!”  Messages like these are met with celebratory GIFS and genuinely happy responses from every team member. To see our communities receive their entitled supplies or use new-age communication tools brings us a lot of joy—and expressing that openly builds the optimism needed for these times. 

With this positive vibe streaming on our WhatsApp group all the time, each day looks like a success. The energy is infectious. The best job role anyone could have at this time in our lives is that of ensuring continued supply of positive energy: It is time to be a router.

3. Gratitude is a lesson for all times 

Some of our team members are kin of frontline workers in the fight against the pandemic and constantly struggle with reconciling their public responsibility and their personal feelings.  Yet, as they try to cope with anxiety about the safety of their loved ones, they still do not forget to be grateful for  things that they are blessed with: food, good-health, family and community. They teach me to remember to be grateful at all times.

4.  Do not neglect your own feelings

While it is important to acknowledge our privileges and be grateful, it is equally important to never invalidate our own feelings. One of my team members called me a couple of days after our weekly reflection meeting: “Abhishek I wasn’t paying attention when you were speaking during the reflection session as I was caught up with my own feelings.” I was so touched and inspired by the earnest attempt to reach out and the unapologetic acceptance of the need to prioritise one’s own feelings. Organisations need to constantly reiterate the importance of paying attention to the self. ‘Take care’ must become a policy.

5.  Creativity can thrive even in crisis

One of the first instances of creativity at Saajha was when P put out an awareness banner on the blinds in her balcony to encourage her neighbours to follow Covid-19 protocols. S picked up the phone and started calling community members to understand their challenges. Another team member recorded a voice message and broadcast it to our parent-partners asking them to reach out to us for help.

These experiments created purpose and meaning for the team. Within a  short time, our team created a Covid-19 response unit that has reached out to more than 5,000 families so far and helped Saajha stay relevant during this crisis. This team has increased both my ability to take bigger risks and as well as my appetite for mistakes—as we move forward, we will need more of it.

Abhishek Choudhary is co-founder of Saajha, an NGO that Saajha’s aims to a create a thriving ecosystem for children studying in government schools by collaborating primarily with parents, teachers, principals and the community. A literature graduate from Hans Raj College, Delhi University, Abhishek completed his postgraduation in Liberal Arts from Ashoka University. He was awarded the Echoing Green fellowship in 2014 and featured in Forbes India’s 30 under 30 list of young achievers. He heads team capacity building, operations and human resources at Saajha.

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