(No) Apologies for the Delay. Service Will Resume Shortly

I’ve been managing teams of people, directly and indirectly, for about 25 years, most of those in the stress-fuelled bid & proposal environment. I’ve seen a gamut of personal, mental and physical health issues that affect work performance and motivation: anxiety and full-on depression, various physical conditions that are worsened by stress, cancer, heart attacks, major and minor surgery, miscarriages and the menopause, financial worries, children and / or ageing parents, personal relationship strains and divorce, and, ultimately, death – including the sad but expected, the sudden and unexpected, and the downright tragic.

We all know bids and proposals are deadline driven, and those deadlines are often immutable – so how does the show go on if a crucial member of the team is struck down (physically or mentally, directly or indirectly – it doesn’t really matter how). How do you avoid sacrificing yourself (or anyone else, for that matter), in your bid to win?

The options open to a bid leader or team manager are all standard fare in terms of managing scheduled and unscheduled staff absences, and I’m sure many of you will have employed or experienced some if not all of them:

  1. Expect the individual to be terribly British and put on that stiff upper lip and just get on with the work: but be very aware of how that may play out
  2. The project team shares the additional workload: but this needs a very collaborative and understanding environment and strong leadership; it’s very easy for individuals to side-step with excuses (real or imagined). In which case, you have to question how important or winnable is the bid really? Or how committed and motivated is the team to this opportunity? Is it worth the personal sacrifice?
  3. Someone else steps up to fill the gap, either voluntarily or volunteered: often the go-to solution if you’re in a proposal team environment, obviously not so easy if you’re a team of one or self-employed (in which case, what’s your contingency?) However, in this age of everyone only having time to deal with “Important and Urgent” activities (also known as ‘slim resources’ in many organisations), this often has a knock-on effect on other projects.
  4. You outsource to an agency or a freelancer: but how quickly can you mobilise at short notice? How much have you networked with potential providers? Do you have a contingency contract and NDA in place with someone you know and can trust?
  5. Ask for a deadline extension: sometimes that’s an option.
  6. Withdraw from the opportunity: sometimes that’s an option too.

But my real point is that ‘life’ happens to everyone – and no apologies should be given or expected if ‘life’ throws a curve ball that interrupts your carefully scheduled and organised project plan (which, of course, in that elusive ideal world, would include a risk register listing ‘key person risks’ and your contingency plans, i.e. those outlined above).

As a line manager, I’ve always felt it’s been my absolute priority to give my team members the time and space to deal with whatever their personal issue is. We’re all human and it’s really hard to keep some personal issues out of the work arena (and increasingly recognised that it’s not always helpful to long term recovery or resolution either). According to those psych-evaluation tools I don’t have a particularly strong ‘empathy’ gene, but some of those issues I listed at the beginning of this article are my own personal experiences. I’ve been there and I know how it feels, and I know how I would want to be (and fortunately have been) supported while in the middle of a personal crisis.

I’ve been lucky in working for organisations who value their employees and who give me the discretion to demonstrate that in how I manage my teams – but if you don’t then you can and must gen-up on Employer Duty of Care legislation. You can use that to mould your organisation to a more progressive and understanding way of managing both personal and workplace stress. It will repay you with greater loyalty and individuals who are more willing and able to go the extra mile on that next vital and winnable opportunity.

This article was written by Emma Poole.

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