“Solid support from HR was very much appreciated.”

Meret Stoppia-Staub (Head HR) and Thomas Weder (Head Personnel and Organisational Development) were on the front line when everything at SEM was turned on its head following the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.

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MS: Thomas, do you remember the lockdown and what impact it had?

TW: Of course. Initially, the pandemic seemed a far-off eventuality. Then, suddenly, we were overrun by events. We only realised how serious the situation was when the government sent out an urgent appeal to the public.

TW: How did the senior management team at SEM respond?

MS: We reacted immediately by allowing as many staff members as possible to work from home from mid-March. As may be expected, the first few weeks were rather chaotic. Rules had to be communicated and clear procedures put in place overnight. Precautionary measures were needed and these were developed with no blueprint or outside assistance.

MS: What impressed you the most?

TW: That SEM continued to operate smoothly despite the crisis, and that separating our staff into two groups – those who worked from home and those who worked ‘on the frontline’ to ensure that we were able to continue operating – worked well and fortunately did not lead to a rift in the workforce. Everyone pulled together, regardless of location.

TW: What was your most memorable event?

MS: The closure of the borders and having to deal with a flood of enquiries. The atmosphere in the Immigration and Integration Directorate was tense. It was incredible how everyone helped each other out and responded to the most urgent matters as quickly as they could – and that over several weeks.

MS: What will you most remember?

TW: How the feeling of trust between the staff and their superiors grew and how it has become a firmly established part of our daily work. Senior staff had to manage their teams from home with no prior experience of doing so: not everyone found leading at a distance easy, especially at the beginning. To support the staff we provided special online management courses and coaching, which was very much appreciated.

TW: What were the first measures you took?

MS: In the first six to eight weeks, we were busy in particular with developing a safety concept, which we had to implement alongside our ongoing operations. We also had to respond to numerous enquiries from staff members and advise managerial staff. Information was uploaded onto our intranet as quickly as possible so that the various SEM sites all had access to the latest news.

MS: What was a key event of the year, in your opinion?

TW: A group workshop with 50 SEM staff in late summer at the Zentrum Paul Klee. I was impressed and moved by how the participants spoke openly about their fears during the pandemic and the challenges of remote working, including feeling lonely or working from home alongside young children or teenagers. Despite all the difficulties there was a lot of optimism.

TW: What will happen when the rules are relaxed?

MS: That will be very challenging because it will give rise to a host of new questions: Who can and who must return to the office? What will be the priorities? Who should come when? How will we move around? Should we differentiate between staff who have and have not been vaccinated? We are already preparing for various scenarios, but we have to wait until the Federal Council makes a decision and see if the Federal Office of Personnel issues rules or guidelines.

MS: What, in your opinion, are some of the positive and negative aspects of working from home?

TW: One of the positive aspects is that staff members have taken on more responsibility and have invariably kept to the rules. Many have also demonstrated creative talent, trying out new things and experimenting with various forms of virtual cooperation. One of the difficult aspects of working from home is resolving conflicts; disputes at work cannot be resolved over Skype or by email.

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“One of the positive aspects is that staff members have taken on more responsibility.” – Thomas Weder

TW: What do the staff miss most at the moment?

MS: Probably the sense of togetherness and impromptu situations such as meeting in the canteen or going for a drink after work; in other words, shared experiences and the social contacts we have during a typical day at the office. Our circle of colleagues and acquaintances has shrunk; we have to counter this by calling a colleague spontaneously, even when there is no occasion for doing so.

MS: Have you noticed anything in particular during the pandemic?

TW: Staff are increasingly questioning the sense and purpose of their work: Am I in the right job? Where do I stand in my career and what am I passionate about? Where will I be working in a few years’ time? Helping staff to evaluate their professional situation is already part of range of services we provide and which we are now expanding.

TW: What are you looking forward to when the pandemic is over?

MS: A warm reunion with the staff, including bidding farewell to State Secretary Mario Gattiker. And more lightness of heart in day-to-day life.

MS: What conclusions do you draw personally from the past year?

TW: I like the fact that staff members have a positive attitude towards the many changes of the past year and that they have the confidence to deal with them. This experience is helping to bring about a change in culture and take SEM forward as a whole.

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“I am looking forward to a warm reunion with the staff.” – Meret Stoppia-Staub