coronavirus

Keep Calm and Carry On

The COVID-19 outbreak has forced changes on our society that have never been seen in our lifetimes. People in North America have lived their lives seeing localized skirmishes, floods, earthquakes, tornadoes and even riots, but these have always been isolated incidents. They have all had a demarcation zone, outside of which life continues normally. You have to actually go back to the Second World War and the Great Depression to observe life being uprooted and restricted universally.

And we don’t like it.

This is change on an incomprehensible scale. Change presents uncertainty and uncertainty breeds fear. The instinctive response to fear is to go to ground – to return to the nest, and to turn to that old, unthinking fight or flight reflex that immediately activates when a threat is present. This helps explain the rush of toilet paper buying that accompanied the first few days of the pandemic news settling in. People had to do something. We can’t run away from this thing. So we instinctively feel the need to stock up on what instinct tells us. This is exacerbated, of course, by seeing others do it, because panic is contagious. It spreads even quicker than a virus, wrapping people up in a reflex of self-preservation.

As we observe everything we know shut down and turn away from us, the fear compounds. Not only is this a strange and unwelcome way of living, it also has direct impacts on all of us, our jobs, our family members and our ability to pay the bills. These are real fears certainly, and this is no time for political leaders to either sugar coat them, distract them or ignore them.

Change management is one of my areas of specialty, and if there’s one common theme about change, it’s that no one likes change being forced upon them.

But there’s something else to consider. Something that will really help. Facts. Facts help manage fear. Each person operates with two sides to their internal selves – we have an emotional side and a logical side. The two are always jostling for supremacy, and emotion always wins. That’s why when you think about some of the large decisions that you have made in your life, like maybe buying a car or a house, or even choosing a school or a job, your choice will likely be based on what feels right. You will use your research and understanding of the facts to back up your decision, but ultimately, it’s what you feel that counts the most.

So, emotion wins all the time. And the most powerful emotion of all is fear.

Fear motivates us to stay safe and protect our children. Fear makes you stay away from food that doesn’t look right, and to keep away from large animals that can do you harm. This type of fear is leveraged to some degree in advertising, making you instinctively worry you are not a good parent if you do not buy this brand of detergent, and you are not a cool person if you do not buy this brand of car.

Obviously, fear is not comfortable. That’s where facts help. Facts help neutralize fear and replace it with a sense of purpose and well-founded optimism. Consider some of the facts of this current lockdown and social distancing measures now in place.

  1. They are temporary. There will be an end to them. Life will return to normal or close to it.
  2. They are being done to get ahead of the rush of patients. This is a treatable disease in most cases. People are not dying in the streets like the bubonic plague. The lockdown is designed to slow the spread to ensure everyone gets the help they need. It’s like a movie theatre on opening night or assigned seating at a concert. Instead of managing a surging crowd of people, you get them to form a line – a queue.
  3. Science understands this virus. Treatments and antivirals are already being created.
  4. Korea, Singapore and China have shown it can be done. The social organization needed to mitigate the damage has now been proven.
  5. People are recovering.

Keep Calm and Carry On

The Second World War was a time of similar scale disruptions, with the added threat of actual bombs and rockets falling from the sky. It bears mentioning that there are a lot of people currently suffering the same thing right now in many parts of the world.

But the scope of the Second World War was almost universal. Anyone living in the countries where the war was being fought, experienced rationing, limited physical movement, and interruption of careers and jobs, to say nothing of all the loved ones lost. Winston Churchill was a master at using the media of radio to deliver words of comfort and advice. In other words, speak to peoples’ emotions first and logic second.

One of the best of these was “Keep Calm and Carry On.”

The practical beauty of this phrase as a crisis management tool for the masses is huge. First, it’s very short and memorable. But it is also in the moment. Whereas most phrases of reassurance focus on a fixed point in the distance, the phrase “Keep Calm and Carry On” helps deliver a reinforcement of a new normal. As a people, we can learn to acknowledge and then suppress those feelings of fear and then adapt to a new normal. A way of living the same life even if under new conditions, for now. Keep Calm. Carry On.

This is doubly important for what was happening then as well as what is happening now. There is no concrete finish line in sight. If the current outbreak and its related difficulties were guaranteed to be over and done with sixty days from now, people would be in a far better place. We can dig in and get through when there’s a finish line in sight.  But when there isn’t, the fear reappears. A fear of the unknown. And once again this triggers the instinctive need to conserve energy and resources to better survive an unknown threat. So then, as now, the mantra of keeping calm and carrying on replaces that of saying “just hang on for sixty days,” as a way of normalizing this new existence.

The 3:00 a.m. Panic Attack

Profound changes in schedule, such as no longer commuting to the office, or getting used to being at home with your partner and/or kids much more than usual is likely to disrupt your physiology as well. When the people who are driving you stir crazy are the ones you love rather than simply your office co-workers, destressing becomes vital.

It is helpful to find a place where you can walk and take deep measured breaths. Even if you don’t do yoga or meditate, the importance of deep breathing should not be overlooked in times like this for a simple physiological way to cut down on your stress response. As Esther Sternberg, research director at the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine says, “A much more effective and quicker way of interrupting the stress response is to turn on the vagus nerve, (an extremely powerful nerve that controls a range of responses in the body), which in turn powers up the parasympathetic nervous system.” Basically, she says, “Deep-breathing turns on the vagus nerve enough that it acts as a brake on the stress response.”

This does not solve your situational problems of course, but it helps manage your response to them, which in turn allows the thinking areas of your brain to take over, rather than being sidelined by that fight-or-flight reflex.

Remember also that worrying at night is worse than worrying during the day. At night, especially around 3:00 a.m., your body is trying to focus on repair. It lowers body temperature by a degree or so and focuses its energy on rebuilding from the wear-and-tear of the night before. In fact, the colloquial name of this period, long known as the “dead of night” is quite apt in that you will be at your lowest metabolic ebb of the entire 24-hour cycle as breathing, pulse, and digestion all step down a little to allow your body an opportunity to redirect its resources toward repair.

If you wake up at 3:00 a.m. the worries of your world will seem much larger than they do in the daylight, because you, as a person are weaker, smaller, and more vulnerable than you are during the day.

Sometimes it helps to know that. If you wake up at 3:00 a.m. in a blind panic, about work or money, remind yourself, “there’s nothing I can do about it at this hour. Everyone else is asleep now too.” Then, if you need to, write your thoughts down using pen and paper near your bed. Try not to use your phone for this, since the light of your phone screen will further ruin your sleep chemistry. But write it down so that you can give your brain permission to let go of that thought, knowing it’s safely stored on paper.

Doing these things, like deep breathing and writing down your 3:00 a.m. thoughts will not alleviate the problems, but they substantially improve the way you approach them, by stick handling your body’s own fight-or-flight reflexes away and replacing them with clear thought.

The Phases of Change

People go through emotional phases when things happen to them. You might be familiar with Elizabeth Kübler Ross and her five stage model for grief, also known as the Kübler Ross change curve. When faced with a loss or a profound negative event, humans pass through five discreet emotional stages quite predictably.

  • Shock and Denial – where we refuse to admit such a change has happened to our state of normalcy.
  • Anger – a fight-or-flight reflex rooted in fear that is pure emotion without a rational counterbalance.
  • Bargaining – a desire to restore normalcy by using the human emotion of hope.
  • Depression – in recognizing the changed state for what it is, but still under the power of emotions to feel justifiably negative about it.

Finally,

  • Acceptance, in which the emotions of shock have largely exhausted themselves, and people start to face the reality of the change, both emotionally and logically.

This type of emotional sequence happens every time a negative change is imposed upon us. It’s unlikely that lottery winners go through this, but for changes that disrupt the norm in a way we don’t want, we will all go through this.

It’s important to recognize there will be an end to this. This pandemic will pass through the current crisis phase and will settle down to become one of the many enemies that our biological selves must deal with, along with influenza, measle and e-coli. It’s part of living on this planet. We will get to the point where science and our infrastructure will catch up, hopefully with minimized loss of life. People will continue to do work and commerce. Those whose jobs have stopped for a while, will start up again.

You as a person will likely pass through these emotional stages and if you are now in any of the first four, I think it helps to know that you will emerge from the emotional turmoil as well.

That’s why I feel the phrase, “Keep Calm and Carry On” is just so useful right now. These are not comfortable times. Things have changed that we did not want to change. But we will persevere. Take in some air from outside and breathe it in.

Keep calm and carry on.

This is the transcript of the CoolTimeLife podcast entitled Keep Calm and Carry On. If you would like to listen to it, you can check it out at our podcast site here. If you would like to review other podcasts in this series, visit my podcast page at stevenprentice.com/podcast.html

Five Benefits of the Work From Home Model

The coronavirus pandemic is now shining a light on the work from home concept. Organizations large and small are sending their people home, either as a preventative measure, or while they disinfect their buildings. Working from home, once seen as a concession or as a luxury, is now coming to the fore as a leap forward. Why? For the very same reason it has been largely ignored over the past decade: trust.

For much of the past decade, the work from home model has relied on a laptop computer and and email connection. This meant that knowledge workers could do much of their work from their own kitchen table or home office, checking in on occasion, but working largely in isolation. This has not been its most greatly appealing feature. And one of the reasons for this is trust. Managers will ask, how can I trust that my employees are actually working and not watching TV? But this attitude is perfectly human, but perfectly wrong.

It’s a human thing to do because people still bank a great deal on face-time. It is assumed that if people are at work, they are actually working. Although most of us know that is not entirely true. Entire TV series, like The Office, reflect the realities of office life. A great deal of time is spent not working, sometimes out of boredom, sometimes du to the need to socialize, and sometimes due to the hard fact that the human brain and body cannot work at full production for hours on end. We zone in and out based on energy levels, sleep, hunger and the natural rhythms of the human body.

Eve the most diligent and dedicated professional, pounding out material hour after hour on the keyboard will end up with substandard work sooner or later if they don’t take a break.

Smoke breaks, coffee runs, even meetings and training days are great opportunities for people to take a vacation from work while at work, and the addictive call of social media is always just a flick away, whether hidden temporarily on a browser tab, or on an employee’s phone. No one can truly prove they have put in 8 full hours of work in an 8 hour day. It just isn’t possible.

But still, the idea of someone working from home in their jammies, just doesn’t seem like real work. So  here are five reasons why managers should relax and let at least some of their people work from home as part of ongoing management and future proofing your company.

  1. Not trusting your employees is not healthy. Leaders and managers take all types of courses and consume all kinds of books dealing with leadership and team management. To then turn around and dismiss the work from home model as being untrustworthy because people might not actually be working reveals a mistrust that will permeate an entire team. If our manager doesn’t trust people to work from home responsibly, what else might this manager have problems with? Leadership and trust go hand in hand. People need to trust their leaders and leaders need to trust their people. When this doesn’t happen, and things revert to command-and-control, the good people leave. The old expression has never been more true. People don’t quit their jobs. They quit their managers. In this age of increased career mobility, where having three or more employers on your résumé per decade is no longer a bad thing – but actually a good one – it is no longer a issue or daring an employee to quit. It’s about daring them to stay.
  1. Trusting your employees is very heathy. Whether it’s a work from home thing or something else, like delegating work, or giving people free reign to run their projects their way, a clear demonstration of trust is a powerful way to build loyalty and productivity. Most people take pride in their work. They look to their managers for opportunities to grow and develop. They want to show what they can do. Most people, when given the chance to fly free, will return to the corporate perch because that’s where the freedom comes from. Demonstrating trust in an employee is like the adrenaline for a project. Establishing a culture of trust again reverberates through the entire organization. It’s not just for the work from home people.
  2. So what if a work-from-home employee does watch some TV? Or goes and takes the dog for a midday walk? Or stops by the store to go pick something up? That’s part of life, and it’s the same type of break that employees do at their workplace already. Knowledge workers are paid for the application of their knowledge to tasks and projects. They research, they write, they plan, and they do. And unless the project at hand is a crisis event that must be resolved in an hour, a responsibly measured break within the workday actually supports high productivity by focusing it into the hours when a person’s mind and body are best attuned to it. When it comes to knowledge worker, metrics of work is not the hours spent sitting at a desk, the way sweatshop workers are assessed to this day. The metrics must revolve around quality, accuracy, promptness and relevance and these are better handled on a responsibly managed flexible schedule.
  3. Access. So, what about the meetings? The spontaneous interactions in the hallway? The office chats and feedback? These things are fundamental to team management and office life. But now they are just as available, even remotely, through applications like Slack, Zoom, Skype Microsoft Teams and Cisco Webex. Video conferencing is no longer just for formally scheduled boardroom meetings. They are available whenever and however – the perfect visual version of the intercom.
  4. Finally, the people who are able to work from home effectively are definitely the ones you want to keep on your team. They are motivated. They know how to get things done. They know how to manage their time and their technology. And in many cases, thanks to the fact there is no commute, they are able to deliver more than a day’s worth of work per day even with a lunchtime walk with the dog included. When this is rewarded with trust, you stand to retain the best of your disciplined and motivated employees simply by letting them work where and how it fits their life better.

Of course, not all employees are suite for work from home. Many like to interact with their colleagues and may find work from home to be too isolated and quiet. OK, so those people are best staying at the office. During crisis times such as the current pandemic, they will need some training on how to do it effectively.

Many managers fear that one bad apple who will sleep through the day and abuse the trust and privilege that work from home offers. Yes, those people exist, but the reality is they exist in the office as well. But they know how to hide it. It becomes a strategic management choice as to whether to forfeit the entire remote work operation and its benefits on account of such individuals.

Finally, there is the comfort level among managers and team leaders. Many people grew up professionally during a time when remote work did not exist as a viable option. So it does not seem right, or feasible that people can get work done from home. It is difficult to shake off those preconceptions. Yet when one looks at what knowledge workers actually do, their time is often spent between keyboard work, meetings and email, all of which can now be done – including the communications part from anywhere. Private, focused time is easier to get when you are in the privacy of your own home, yet direct, fluid conversation is also available in video and chat form whenever its needed.

It’s not about replicating the office experience – it’s about redefining what work is. What productivity is. Frankly professional work is about quality and output, not time served. Even if you bill hourly, your capacity for maximizing productivity and profitability comes from a balanced approach to work and life. Even those professionals who are able to bill out at hundreds of dollars an hour know that if the quality isn’t there, sooner or later the customer is going to question that bill.

Here are a couple more things to think about. According to a recent survey conducted by CareerBuilder nearly 80 percent of American workers say they’re living paycheck to paycheck. Many people in the workforce have little backing them up. Not all of these workers are knowledge workers, of course. Many belong to the service industry or manufacturing, or places where interaction with customers in a central place is essential. But for those we call knowledge workers, who can do their work equally well from anywhere, the opportunity to work from home even some of the time provides an economic benefit in the best of times, and may be a life saver on days where absence would be the only alternative. Snow days or teachers strikes for parents, or days when you are sick, even with normal colds or flu.

But in addition, it must be noted that people of all ages are becoming aware that work, as essential as it might be to life, is a different beast than it was 20 or more years ago. Professionals are growing used to life online – many have grown up with it, others have grown used to it. But the ability for work to be done anywhere at any time is far more attainable than at any other time in history, and it’s an attractive part of the entire employment decision.

As such, the decision to not only encourage working from home, but to develop it as a skill can be seen as a highly proactive and timely investment in the future of any organization. An idea whose time has truly come.

This is the transcript of the CoolTimeLife podcast entitled Five Benefits of the Work From Home Model. If you would like to listen to it, you can check it out at our podcast site here. or search for it on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, etc. If you would like to review other podcasts in this series, visit my podcast page at stevenprentice.com/podcast.html