The shocking scale and speed of change in recent days has been unlike anything most of us have ever known before. I’m conscious as I write today that the world in which you are reading this may be different again.
Alongside anxiety, the Coronavirus crisis has brought with it an aching sense of loss. Across the world, academics have seen universities close and colleagues and students disperse rapidly. Cancelled conferences, contracts, graduations – so much that has been carefully planned and worked towards for years has vanished overnight.
We may share the same confusion at the pace of events, but individual experiences will differ sharply. You may be facing intense pressure if you are working on a vaccine or advising authorities on the constantly changing situation. Maybe your administrative responsibilities have brought tough decisions on the deployment of now limited resources. Perhaps you are busy transitioning a lecture series online, or juggling care for small children or elderly neighbours with an already demanding workload. Or maybe work has dried up and you are struggling to cover the rising costs of everyday essentials.
Harder still, these challenges come after years of mental strain or professional precarity for many. So given that the crisis shows little sign of slowing down or ending, how can we best adapt to this new normal? Arguably three qualities will be key: kindness, creativity and openness to learning new practices.
First up, showing kindness to yourself is crucial. The processing of such seismic change will take a toll on each of us personally. Seeking ways to invest in your physical and mental well-being now will help ensure your resilience and ultimately recovery in the longer term. You can find some helpful pointers shared by our colleagues at Wonkhe.com here.
Practising proactive kindness towards others is also going to be essential for the well-being of wider society. Don’t feel guilty for taking time to check in with vulnerable family, friends or neighbours. If the academy exists to build a better world, the value of investing in the survival of this one surely cannot be overestimated.
Above all, remember that physical isolation does not mean social isolation. Stay in close contact with colleagues and friends. Stripped of the freedom to do so much that we normally take for granted, life in lockdown may feel mundane but the familiarity of the everyday can be soothing. Sharing a photo of the blossom breaking out on a favourite tree or your latest baking achievement/disaster can nurture positive, reassuring connection.
It is also a good idea to actively filter what you consume online. Staying informed is important but try to avoid tracking every new development or alarming conjecture. Sift your thoughts and refocus on those that are hopeful or life-enhancing. Try not to extrapolate too far into an unpredictable future (unless of course you do it for a job!).
Next up, do all you can to foster creativity. Long-established, highly structured plans may now seem to lie in ruins. But while there will undoubtedly be circumstances you cannot change, you still retain the power to shape your response.
This is when you need to demonstrate the flexibility you mentioned in your last job interview. How can you think laterally and creatively to develop a solution to your new challenge? How can you redesign a system or repurpose material? (One example of creative thinking is this new initiative to keep the virtual doors of some of the world’s best museums open, and to make their treasures more widely accessible than before.)
If you find yourself swamped with tasks, can you outsource to anyone looking for work? If your schedule is suddenly empty, can you plug a gap in your CV or adapt your skills to a new niche? How are other people solving the type of problems you are facing? Follow evolving Twitter conversations or spark a new debate yourself – and when you come across a handy new hack or approach, share it widely.
Review your priorities and be open to reordering them, perhaps even radically. We are all living with unfamiliar new restrictions and responsibilities: perhaps you are sharing a computer with your child, or maybe you have become a neighbour’s lifeline. In times of emergency, today’s priorities may look quite different from yesterday’s, so keep checking and reassessing your goals each day. For all of us, and particularly those who wrestle with perfectionism, now will be the time to accept that ‘good enough is good enough’.
Lastly, openness to learning new practices can offer much-needed inspiration. Two quite different groups have developed a range of behaviours which can prove helpful in disorientating times like these, namely longstanding remote workers and members of monastic communities.
Those who have been working from home for years are now sharing the precious lessons they have learned, and their advice includes:
- Being sure to break for exercise and fresh air. (Freelance editors have done this for years, celebrating and sharing what they find with the hashtag #stetwalk.)
- Chunking your day into productive sections (this can work particularly well between caring for dependants), using techniques like the highly focused 25-minute sessions of the Pomodoro.
- Watching your dependence on email. A clogged inbox can be debilitating. Opting for a conversation by phone or online platform often saves time in the long run.
- Remembering that remoteness means you miss out on normal social cues. So be sure to be expressive and courteous – and positive in your feedback. When so many are feeling fragile this will be deeply appreciated.
Monastic communities have been practising social distancing productively for centuries. A central tenet of their practice is adherence to specific rhythms each day. Many report finding significant freedom within this structure. While chaos may reign outside, the creation of a regular routine at home can have a calming, comforting effect. That could mean starting work at the same time every day, scheduling a virtual tea break mid- afternoon, and ensuring all members of the household sit down to eat together regularly. Finding a way to mark the end of the working day can also be releasing – with whatever daily ritual works in your context.
The challenges ahead of us are immense, but choosing to respond wherever we can with empathy, flexibility and a willingness to learn from others will hopefully give us all an improved chance of recovery.
A blueprint for remote working: Lessons from China from McKinsey Digital