As astute politicians and commentators often tell us, Twitter is not the country. What happens on social media doesn’t always – or perhaps ever – accurately fully reflect the real mood and feelings across the four parts of this kingdom. Those who post on various social platforms are often writing fiction or, as some may say, fake news. Much of that critique rings true but there is something that I do currently see across Twitter, Facebook and Instagram that mirrors the times we are living through: people are searching for comfort; familiarities; advice; support and feel-good moments.
Many are desperate to find a way of making sense of the confusing world around us – a worlds that fills us with fear, dread and alarm. We are seeking reassurance that it will all be ok. We want to believe that we are in the middle of a blip – a nasty blip but a blip nonetheless – and that normal service will be resumed again soon. We may want to believe that, but I fear we need to arise from our slumber and smell the caffeinated beverage.
Life is changing fundamentally – around us and to us – and working life will never be the same again. My social media feeds are full of nostalgia and warm feelings of past glories – whether in sport, culture, or across all aspects of life – but we must now start to look forward and adjust. Looking back will not help. Longing for halcyon days of old will not work. Wishing we could turn back the clock is a forlorn hope. In the oft-quoted words of the great W B Yeats, all is changed, changed utterly.
There is already a rush to tell the story of this pandemic and an irritating stampede to get to the public inquiry stage and the lessons learnt. That will of course come, but not for some time. Not until we are through this staggering storm, when in truth, we have only just put up our umbrella. We are many, many months, possibly years, from reaching a point where we have sufficient clarity and perspective on how we got here, what we got right and what we got wrong. The foolish amongst us – including sadly many in the media – are already seeking to make a name for themselves as those who skewered this minister or that; who found someone to blame; who put the best ‘gotcha’ question live on air; who facilitated the brutalist argument or conflict. This is tedious. This is not helping. This is letting us down.
In my view, we need instead to try to live in the moment; learn what we can about how to best protect ourselves, those we love and those we share this planet with, now and in the future. That is both practically important and vital for our collective mental health and wellbeing.
I have spent much of this lockdown wrestling with myself – working hard to keep my head above water with bouts of depression, anxiety and general lowness. It has not been – or continue to be – easy. Being at home is something that has helped me but so has working fairly through to the end of the five stages of grief, as set out in the Kübler-Ross model: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I am reconciled now to the fact that life as we have known it is over. We are not going back to normal. We will have to find, embrace and then enjoy a new normal.
I am not writing just about the next few months in which we will continue to socially distance but in what I see as fundamental shifts. I believe we will see attitudes towards work; our places of work; our work-life-balance; our approaches to resilience and wellbeing; our relationships, communities, neighbourhoods and each other change beyond recognition. I believe that the patterns of behaviour we have been pushed into following, which include shopping locally; taking daily walks with loved ones; leaving our cars at home; reducing our destruction of the planet through air and other travel will not just spring back to the way they worked before. Nor do I believe that exams will automatically be the chosen form of assessment for schools, or that organisations will – one the vaccine is in place – tread the same path as before. This is a moment – a dreadfully, enforced, illest of wind moment – that provides us an opportunity for national and personal renewal. To challenge what we do and how we do it. Especially at work.
Nothing will ever make up for the horrendous loss of life, suffering and despair that COVID has inflicted upon us. Nothing will ever make this pain worthwhile. But, as the saying goes, you should never waste a crisis. We need to take some good from this darkness. Surely we have learnt over the last terrible weeks that life is too short, too precious. Surely we have learnt that at a time when we cannot even attend funerals to say goodbye to those we love or hold their hand as they take their last breath, we are not going to again put work before home; to prioritise work over life.
In 2000, I was part of one of the first nationwide, large-scale home and flexible working pilots in a major UK business when I worked at Andersen Consulting. I was an immediate convert to working somewhere other than the office; work is something I do, not somewhere I go. I have continued to work at home – and very flexibly – throughout my career – using this flexibility as a major part of my approach to staying well and keeping the pressures of work from the door and helping to avoid falling back into the bad habits that left me in hospital and in the midst of a breakdown in 2014/15. For me, this can include flexing my hours of work so that I start and finish early, spending an hour during the day working in a book shop, local coffee shop or just a quieter part of the office/building. It can be small stuff but stuff that helps me to feel settled and feel less pressured by my work, the people around me or just a slightly noisy atmosphere.
I believe that many millions of people, who have been able to work at home, will not want to return to five days a week of commuting, sitting in the same place, away from loved ones and loved things, running around the hamster’s wheel of office and corporate life. I believe that many of us who had fallen into bad working habits before this crisis that we should be vigilant for when it lifts. We shouldn’t say we want a better balance at work and home and then repeat the same long hours; always on; email- obsessed; back-to-back meeting packed dairies over and over again looking for a different result.
We are discovering that meetings can be done effectively remotely; that not everything that appeared urgent before requires an immediate response now; that many of our colleagues have lives outside work that now are part of them coming to work: home schooling; shopping for relative/neighbours; health issues; pets to entertain; bread to bake. This crisis has forced us to make different choices about how we spend our time – and where we spend it. That is to be welcomed, despite the circumstances.
When this is over, if we return to a presentism, long hours, meeting and email culture, then we have blown this opportunity. We need to make something positive out of this abyss. To return to that famous Yeats stanza, we should come to terms with the fact that ‘a terrible beauty is born’.
We are not going back. We now live in a different world and the sooner we move through to acceptance the better we will all feel. It continues to be a very tough time for millions but it will be even worse if, in the long run, we return to repeating mistakes of the past. If you can, make work something you do, not somewhere you go; at least not every day.