The world is a very strange place at the moment. Our lives are almost unrecognisable compared with those we led just a month ago, and it remains unclear when things will return to some degree of normality. But in the last few weeks, I have realised that when the world turns upside down, it offers the chance to gain some fresh perspective: on our working lives, but also life in general.
The importance of (virtual) recognition
This trail of thought began when a colleague asked me what I had learned since the coronavirus outbreak started, and whether I plan to do anything differently when we ultimately emerge from this period. My thoughts immediately turned to my recent attempt to host our All Company meeting on Zoom.
Ordinarily, running a meeting like this on Zoom wouldn’t be too much of a problem. This time, however, I also I had my 2 and 3-year-olds with me. It’s definitely harder to make sense when you’ve got a child asking why the iPad isn’t playing Paw Patrol. I finished the meeting with a strong sense that it had been a bit of a disaster. On a normal day I would walk back into the office to see smiling friendly faces who would tell me it was actually okay. But working from home meant I had no one to provide any positive feedback. My two young children certainly offered no reassurance.
To my surprise, however, I received a number of lovely emails from people saying how nice it was to see my kids on the call, and that it was reassuring to see me struggling with the same things they were. I concluded right then that managing during lockdown quite simply requires you to recognise colleagues even more than you normally would. Virtual thankyous just can’t be provided often enough.
Lessons from my husband
My other big learning since lockdown has been that my husband and I have reacted to the lockdown quite differently. I am a natural introvert and, while I certainly couldn’t do it forever, I really don’t mind the idea of spending all day alone at my desk. I tend to find I am more productive with more space to think. My husband is the opposite. He feeds off the energy of a busy office and is increasingly stir-crazy as we approach week 5 of lockdown.
How do I think this will play out once we’re through this? I’ve long thought about how to create diversity and cognitive difference within teams, but probably not enough about the differences needed in workplaces to get the most out of everyone. At Octopus, we have always tried to be flexible wherever we can, but it still made me question whether we could be more accepting that different ways of working feel more natural for different people.
The big picture
Yet when I took another step back, I remembered that although this experience is new to most of us in the UK and Europe, some parts of the world have had to cope with infectious diseases much more recently. So, I decided to call the one person I know well that has been through this before; my friend Suleiman, who I met while working in Sierra Leone earlier in my career.
Suleiman grew up during the civil war in Sierra Leone, during which time he lost his father and was almost taken away to become a child soldier. Thankfully, he managed to escape, and has since been able build a new life for his family, teaching himself to become a mechanic and a professional driver. I worked in the capital, Freetown, as a development worker and Suleiman would drive me to and from work every day.
About 6 years ago, just when the country was working towards some semblance of economic recovery, Ebola hit. Ebola is less infectious than Covid-19, in part because it is much more deadly, killing 50% of those who get it. The outbreak meant he lost his job as a driver for development organisations. But instead of bunkering down at home, he began driving for front line World Health Organisation workers, sleeping in his car outside the villages coping with this terrifying virus. Suleiman said he felt he had to help save his country and his people. He is easily my most impressive friend.
I asked Suleiman how it felt afterwards, when it was finally all over. He told me of the huge celebrations when the final Ebola case was cleared, the dancing in the street, and the overwhelming sense of joy. But only a couple of weeks later, everything had returned to normal. People were worrying about the price of rice or getting a new job, the same everyday concerns they always had.
To combat this, he and his friends would try and remember what it was used to be like. After all, happiness is relative, not absolute, and if you can remember what it’s like when things are tough, you will enjoy life more when it’s over. His advice to all of us was to write things down, take photos, to really remember all those things that you are finding difficult. That way, when our old lives return, we will truly appreciate it.
For me, the chance to find some new perspectives is one positive I am trying to take out of all of this. Whether it’s small things like the importance of supporting friends and colleagues, or Suleiman’s timely reminder to remember what the tough times feel like, hopefully we can each use this time to reflect and understand what matters most.