Over the summer I interviewed a number of wonderful people from all over the world.
When I started with the interviews I wasn’t too sure how the process would unfold or what the outcome of those conversations would be. What I did know was that I had a burning desire to dive deep with my participants to understand how they were coping with the effects of Covid-19.
Their self-awareness and openness to share their struggles and wins left me nothing but inspired. This article summarises some of key takeaways from our interviews.
A changing work environment
The most obvious impact that participants experienced was the shift to working from home. Many described the early months of the pandemic as a stressful and exhausting time while teams were trying to work out how to communicate remotely. A flood of Zoom calls started to dominate the typical working day while parents were also struggling with childcare at the same time.
Others were affected even worse, by either having been made redundant themselves or having to inform their subordinates that their organisation was no longer able to keep them on. Many interviewees were left working with a reduced team, while juggling multiple responsibilities and tasks by themselves for the first time in their careers.
Despite all those different outcomes, the vast majority of interviewees had a shared theme in common: a willingness to adapt and reinvent themselves if needed. Some people who had lost their jobs made a realisation that in a way this wasn’t the end of the world as it created a new opportunity to do something new. Others were downright thankful that work had come to an end due to the nature or culture they had been facing in their old roles. Some quit because of the poor managerial response they had witnessed in the aftermath of the lockdown.
A strong organisational culture manifests itself in the formation of trusting teams that create a level of safety for individual members to speak up when they are facing hardship or struggle. To some of the organisational leaders that I interviewed this posed a new form of challenge: providing a new level of flexibility while still generating the output from pre-pandemic levels.
Team members required their remote leaders to give them more space to juggle the household and workload in a new setup. Leaders wanted to give them this flexibility but still had deadlines, clients or projects to attend to. This challenge was a real character test and required compromise and understanding on all levels of the hierarchical structure of an organisation.
It was inspiring to hear from leaders that had to navigate between the demands from their managers while also trying to make sure their people were feeling psychologically safe. This posed a true test of servant leadership and the willingness of some of the participants to stand up for the needs of their people in times of adversity was a key takeaway from this research.
It has been remarkable how many people have bounced back from this shock to the system. Some participants described how they had a complete meltdown when we were at the height of the first wave of the pandemic in April. The piled up stress of managing work and family, the uncertainty of how long this was going to go on for and a concern for loved ones were all key factors that contributed to a feeling of overwhelm, anxiety and hopelessness.
Yet they prevailed. They reached out and voiced their struggles with others. They sought support from friends and family, but also colleagues. Recognising that something wasn’t ok and acting on - rather than succumbing to - it was a key skill in personal leadership that some participants displayed.
This was a very interesting topic with a variety of different answers, interpretations and perspectives on how productive we are while working remotely. Many participants stated an increase in their own productivity, primarily rooted in an ability to do more focused work in a shorter time frame. Clearly, productivity is highly subjective and there are different ways it can be measured but alone the fact that many participants do find themselves more productive while working from home is of interest.
This was also in direct correlation with work/life balance: getting the work at hand completed sooner, allowed workers to attend to other tasks instead. More time was made available to spend with family members or support in the community as a consequence of not having to commute to the office.
There were also participants who felt less productive while working from home. They mainly related this to their ability to work better when surrounded by colleagues in the office environment. Some felt they were too easily distracted at home or simply would not work as effectively if there was no one around to make sure they were actually doing the work.
Some leaders saw productivity in their teams dip in the immediate aftermath of the lockdown. This did however stabilise once team members were more settled into their new environment and had identified a working routine that would best work for them. Others had already experienced some sort of remote setup within their teams pre-pandemic and could therefore report no significant changes to productivity levels in their teams.
The vast majority of interviewees appreciated the gained time they could spend at home with their families or in their communities. Although the initial lockdown made it harder to connect with people outside of one's household, the time saved from not having to commute was often invested to strengthen relationships with direct family or friends.
Families were having lunch together for the first time in months. Pacts were made among family members to stick together during the extended time of uncertainty and support each other more than usual. Although being stuck together under one roof and with little personal space or privacy this had a more positive than negative impact on personal relationships.
A healthy routine
A clear indication of how well participants were coping with the imposed changes was how well they managed to maintain a healthy routine. Taking time for oneself in the mornings proved to be a popular strategy employed by many. Managing to set aside 10-30 minutes in the morning before the daily chores were about to start allowed participants to practice mindfulness, exercise or mentally prepare for the day ahead.
Interviewees who reported that they continued with their daily routines throughout the pandemic appeared to see things more positively when it came to analysing the present and future. There was a deep sense of gratitude recognisable for having a support network available to get through these demanding times. Some took up new activities; others made more time to practice introspection. Savouring personal down time to reflect and check-in with oneself seemed to be happening more than at pre-pandemic level.
Some interviewees revealed that due to the need to work longer hours while taking care of their children resulted in changes to their routines. They were not able to spend as much time on themselves as they would have liked to while also breaking habits around mindfulness and exercising. As a consequence, the break with their daily routine would often result in increased sensations of stress, overwhelm or exhaustion.
Making time for the new
A significant proportion of interviewees reported that the pandemic did allow them to try out new things. Whether this was taking up a new sport, creating art, mentoring or simply committing to reading daily – participants felt that there was opportunity to do things that had been put off for too long.
Some participants stated that they were researching new business ventures or had already started a new job or career. This was particularly interesting as all of those participants who stated that they were thinking about switching careers wanted to do so in order to find something that was more aligned with their interests, values or purpose. Supporting others was at the forefront of thinking when participants were working out their next career move. Some wanted to work with children and support them as a speaker and facilitator. Others wanted to exploit their creativity more and carve a career around their writing and design skills.
And then there was a recognisable desire among some participants to help and support their community more in the future. Whether it was through volunteering or working part-time in the non-profit sector, many interviewees had in common a desire to help and support less fortunate.
It has been a privilege to speak to so many people and to be allowed to deep dive into their inner world for a short time. People want to share openly what is going on in their lives – they just need to be asked properly. I found it inspiring to listen to many of the stories that participants shared with me. Stories of resilience, of bounding back and reinventing oneself. Stories of worry, frustration and sadness. Stories of hope.
It goes to show how diverse we are and how we all respond differently to challenging situations. But what does appear to unite us is the willingness to persevere and turn an uncomfortable situation into an opportunity of learning and growth. Even when things aren’t ok at the moment, an ability to accept a situation for what it is can go a long way. That said, participants provided some key takeaways from our conversations on how to overcome challenging times.
By listening to our bodies and minds we can start analysing in more depth what the core of our concerns is. Practicing mindfulness through meditation, journaling or simply by savouring quiet time can help us become more aware of our thoughts, emotions and beliefs and how they are impacting our daily wellbeing.
Seeking support when needed has been a key point to highlight, especially now that so many of us are struggling with hardship. Having some key people to talk to without any form of judgement can help significantly when we are trying to make sense of our feelings, struggles and worries. It can also help in dealing with stress and overwhelm – emotions many of us have been more exposed to than usual over the recent months.
When freeing ourselves from fear and worry, it allows us to create space for opportunities and fresh perspectives. Many participants felt excited about the future as they were able to slow down, look intrinsically and recognise the things that matter most to them and their wellbeing. Making time to do more of those things that support our wellbeing feels like something we should all be doing more of.
These are challenging times and it is okay not to be okay right now. But things will turnaround and the sun is going to come out again in the not so distant future. Experiences will continue to happen and we have a choice on how we want to respond to them. My wonderful participants authentically showed that we are all struggling with something right now. For many of us, life has been turned upside down and it is a testament of character on how brilliantly so many of them have responded and decided to show up. This gives hope and inspiration in my view.
We can always try and turn adversity to our advantage. Sometimes this takes time to recognise. Other times, it can be a more mindful approach to how we are showing up in the world. Other times again, it can be a conversation to clear the air. Whatever it may be for you, make sure you prioritise those activities as we go into winter. Take care of yourself and reach out if you feel you could use a chat.
Thank you to my wonderful participants. This study would have not been possible without you. Your authenticity and openness to share the uncomfortable has been an inspiration to me and I hope others can learn from the experiences you are going through. We are all in this together.