Hamlet, our university cat, showing me what to do now some time ago … nothing.
The first two weeks were easy. Almost too easy. I was busying myself with helping everyone around me cope with a crisis situation. The third week turned out to be much harder – for me. I am not sure what happened; whether looking after others slowly started moving into the background, or whether slowly but surely, the anxiety that a crisis like Covid-19 creates got to me. I started feeling more anxious and stressed out by the smallest things, feeling like I wouldn’t be able to deal with the work and social obligation load that I started experiencing.
Let’s unpack this – or maybe not?
I always think of myself as pretty resilient, but I know that my combination of stepping back, thinking things through, compartmentalising away the things I cannot deal with, and then step by step working towards a solution has its problems. The main problem is that sometimes the boxes that I compartmentalise away into keep stacking up and I’m not always able to unpack them in a way that is good for myself and others around me. Imagine the last scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark; that giant warehouse in which all those buried secrets sit in boxes labelled ‘top secret’, filed, and then just put away forever. They may never be retrieved, and that can become a problem.
But I do what I always do when I’m dealing with a problem…
I do all the things that I think are best in the situation: I keep a routine, I train slightly more even than I would normally do, I eat well, I socialise – admittedly a lot of it is online now and I am more of a people person, but everyone has been really really trying to make this all work. So what was it? Even as I write this – I feel as if I’m already too late for some grand project that I’m supposed to have completed last week.
A video this week helped me, as it reminded me that this actually a perfectly normal reaction: it is normal to react with stress to a stressful situation, for example when we are all surrounded by a dangerous virus, a threat we cannot and that isolates us from most of the people we know and love. We might even miss those we don’t a little bit. IT. IS. NORMAL. It helped me understand on a cognitive level that my reaction wasn’t something I was supposed to fight, but to accept, and then find ways to deal with it without overcompensating.
Now that is the hard part, because I think I am one of life’s great over-compensators. Just like I compartmentalise things I cannot deal with, I over-analyse things I think I can deal with, play through a variety of scenarios, work on general strategies on manage each of them, and then wait for them to unfold. You see where I made my mistake? The mistake is that the challenge in this situation is to do nothing.
I am Major Kira!
I remember a deep space nine episode where a religious leader tells one of the main protagonists who has, for her own safety, been brought to a monastery where she can sit back, recover, relax and be safe from the forces that will threaten her. She tells him that she feels useless. The wise – and reasonably hot – priest tells her to change her perspective:
Major Kira: I’m useless here. Vedek Bareil: So? Major Kira: So? I… I need to feel useful. Vedek Bareil: It might be interesting to explore ‘useless’ for a while – see how it feels.
Deep Space Nine, The Circle
I’m very much like Major Kira in this exchange.
Doing nothing as an option
Reflecting on last week’s blog where I describe my Prussian Lutheran upbringing, I recognise there is no space for embracing inaction and uselessness within the belief system that I grew up in. I am not religious anymore, but my upbringing has taught me valuable lessons and I think this one is being tested now. Sitting and letting things happen is neither in my nature nor a part of my socialisation.
And this is, I think the challenge, for week four, and all the upcoming weeks thereafter: to remind myself that feeling anxious is the right thing to do in a stressful situation. I need accept that I’m anxious and that will make me slightly less productive. I will not write that novel I never wanted to write anyway. I will not master two new crafts. I will not finally break that anxiety I have about the social expectation that I am supposed to love sitting down and reading books. It is not the time to challenge my anxieties, but to learn to live with them. They are part of the natural reaction of what is going on around us. What I can do is share this experience and I think the lesson is to just embrace being useless for a while.
PS: I recognise that my anxiety is still really mild in comparison to what others may feel. If this affects you more than you think you can manage, please check out the NHS guidance on what to do. A lot of employers (like mine) also offer employee assistance programmes which may be able to help you, too. Remember, it’s OK not to be OK – seek the help you need.
Since last Monday, I have moved my entire team to work remotely. Here’s what it’s been like.
Establishing a routine
This is what I’m told is most important when working from home, and hey, do I love a routine. I had my basic routine worked out by Monday lunchtime, and now I’m just refining.
While my SO always works from home, for me, this is a change. Most importantly, the cat approves – however, he still wakes me up at 5.00, so I can feed him and then go to the gym. Except, I’m not going to the gym, which is the hardest adaptation so far. But, since the advice so far is that open outside spaces are not risky if you don’t turn them into a festival, I am trying to improve my running – and my PT is supplying me with training programmes. Also, I thought this is the right time to test out the free FitBit Coach week, doing guided yoga and flexibility workouts. Should we go the way of Italy or France, and my range of movement be restricted more, however, it will be interesting to see how I cope.
Do I miss my commute?
I always liked my commute, as it gives me the luxury of one hour on a reliable train each way (no changes) to learn and read the news. It’s a nice line of demarcation between the private and the professional. To escape its tendentious reporting on Brexit, at the beginning of the year, I had switched from BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme to Radio 3’s soothing classic tunes, while reading my RSS news feeds.
It turns out, I can listen to music and my podcasts while doing housework now. Now for anyone who knows me, will know that this is great news for me, since I love doing housework. For those unconvinced, I recommend A Monk’s Guide to a Clean House and Mind which helps turn cleaning into more of a meditative practice. It feels soothing and reminds of my time living at a Buddhist temple in Tokyo.
Work feels different
While my team has worked remotely on the occasional closure day, to pull the whole operation online is still a challenge. We started a morning video call with everyone on duty – just as much a social as a professional measure, making sure everyone has a chance to share their feelings and concerns while discussing work topics. I’ve also increased the cadence of meetings with my direct reports, following the idea that regular short contacts are better than structured meetings every two weeks. With MS Teams, it’s possible to share information and ideas to everyone fairly quickly, but you can’t just turn around and have a chat. Having worked in very monosyllabic environments constructing MS Access databases at Siemens, I’m fine with a quiet workplace, but ours is normally one that feeds of a buzz, which helps create the environment that our students and start-up clients enjoy. That’s my main concern – how can we carry this forward without letting the buzz die? I’m thinking regular check-ins, virtual coffee mornings, now that my beloved weekly breakfast club meetings will be off for a few months.
I thought at first that I could finally do all the things I’ve been forced to put off for so long, yet, mostly, we’re trying to simply make things work. Today was the first day on which I just wrote a longer strategy piece without the usual interruptions from the desired buzz. Having spent long time isolation during my time in Japan, I don’t mind being alone – I will always find something to do (see ‘cleaning’ above). And in comparison to my more monastic life back then, my SO and the cat are buzzing company. But I know that not everyone will feel that way, so I’m spending time to ask how they are in every meeting, whether they are within my team or not. This will be a difficult time for those who need to socialise more and who may carry more existential angst than I do – or who live in more precarious living arrangements where they don’t have as much control over their space as I do. So I plan to introduce some of the measures I’m applying in my personal life into work: regular social updates, maybe a joint lunch over video link, or a virtual Friday office drink – and office D&D game over Roll20? One can but dream.
We feel different
The importance of the emotional bonds between fellow workers feel amplified – there is a lot of fear and uncertainty, and talking over video link is quickly becoming a life-line. I have – just this week – seen some amazing moments of people taking care of each other. When one stumbles, the other team members were quick to pick them up and encourage them.
Everything will be different
What I am convinced of, though, is that we will not return to be the same people in the same workplaces when we eventually emerge from our isolated existences. I think that flexible and remote working will become much more of a norm, now that we are showing that it not only works to hold things together, but that it could have worked all along.
Things Covid has proven:
1. The job you were told couldn't be done remotely can be done remotely
2. Many disabled workers could have been working from home, but corporations just didnt want them to.
Looking around in higher education, this forced switch to online delivery cannot be anything but a game changer – and organisations who do it well, may well thrive. But I’ll talk about that in a later instalment of what I hope to be a weekly series.
So, as announced last week, I’m on my first real development day today. It’s a weird feeling not to be at work – while actually being at work in many ways: I got up at the same time as normal (the cat insists on this) but made a slightly more relaxed breakfast. This is a good start – no stress while eating and enough time for a hearty but healthy breakfast.
Then I went to the gym – a new plan, focusing on developing strength. This is the first time in about four years that I’m lifting heavier again. But then enough of that leisurely stuff – I went into town for my two appointments of today. I’m writing this blog entry between the two: first, I met up with a former colleague and someone with questions about how to most effectively reach out to universities with their services. The discussion went quickly from a basic chat to a deep discussion about university politics.
A little bit of context: I’ve always been amazed by how different politics in academia and business seem to be. I’ve helped more than once with the transition of business professionals changing careers and becoming consultants, mentors, lecturers, and coaches. One of the hardest things about this for the individual seems to be that universities simply don’t work like businesses – however strong the push for marketisation and business-like thinking may be. For a while, a private employability company would even send me their business development managers for chats just about how different (read occasionally crazy) universities are.
And this goes beyond no one ever answering your emails – it is deeply engrained into our organisations, and two decades of business speak aren’t going to change this. While students have been learning to be consumers, universities in many ways are still fossilised in the way they see themselves – and the students. Just if you look at the way communications are often handled, or decisions cascaded, the mismatch is often glaringly obvious. This is not necessarily a question of a lack of willingness to be open and transparent – I have seen many good examples over the years of institutions reaching out to their student bodies with the best of intentions; alas often sending those emails which no one reads.
To cut the discussion short – it becomes clear to me once more how important an interactive online presence is. Our students mostly interact with the world through ridiculously small phone screens – and universities need to go where their students are: online, mobile, on the move, and with a propensity to pick and choose how (and if) they interact with you. Funnily enough, that ended up being my advice to the hopeful company who wants to reach out to students and universities alike: go where your customer is, and accept that the rules have changed through social media. And for everyone working with universities – get used to being super quick in reacting to students, and be patient with your university clients – there is a good chance they haven’t even read your email yet either.
One aspect of my work that gives me no end of lessons are the areas of trust and confidentiality. I hold a number of roles that require different levels and qualities of confidentiality, and in order to fulfill this expectation, I need to establish trust. It’s a bit of a long list, but bear with me, as I hope this will come to a coherent point at the end.
Firstly, I run a careers service and, therefore, am responsible for hundreds of student clients and their concerns, which quite often go beyond choosing a career, but ever so often are about ‘what am I supposed to do with my life?’. Fortunately, I have an excellent team of professional careers advisors who carry most of this as I see fewer clients these days. However, the buck stops with me. Confidentiality is not only essential, it is central to our jobs – however, it is a shared one, as the team members help each other in our weekly case conferences.
Secondly, I am a manager of a team of said advisors, operational officers, and their managers. With that, the same level of responsibility applies, just as it does for the student clients – however, I am also responsible for making sure professional and institutional standards are upheld. This is made easy by exhibit a) from above – an excellent team. But it does carry individual needs for confidentiality and occasional moderating interventions.
Further, I am a manager in the wider organisation and get quite frequently asked to help with a variety of HR and employee relations issues, both from the institution, but also by individual staff members. This may include things like disciplinary hearings, appeals, grievances, and probation meetings. This is where things get a lot more complicated, as I have to keep not only the details confidential, but also often that there is an issue at all. They often are quite heartbreaking, as in my experience things are hardly ever ‘clear cut’, but are full nuances, contradictions, and often quite some personal pain for all involved. This is harder to deal with, especially as I cannot speak to anyone about them. In my line managerial role, I have a chance to speak with my line manager – in these cases; I do not have that option.
The last one may seem the most complicated at first: I am both a chair of the professional charity PlaceNet, as well as an elected staff trustee on the board of my university. Here, the legal stakes are highest with regards to confidentiality, as is the public expectation of being worthy of the trust invested in me. However, I almost find this the easiest to deal with. In both cases, I have fellow trustees with whom I can share any concerns. Also, hardly any of the issues move into the big questions about life or personal pain, as they do in my work roles. Not to be flippant, but when trained as a trustee, thinking about adding another layer of confidentiality was important, but the emotional impact is higher in my daily work roles.
But how do I deal with these responsibilities? In short – I compartmentalize: every issue, every complex problem, every concern gets its place in my mind (and for a lack of a better word in my ‘heart’), and there it stays. When I think an issue is ripe for discussion, moving along, or letting lie until action is required, I will do so. Things I cannot share, I do not share, with anyone. The emotional impact I have so far always been able to handle. It probably helps that my upbringing was, as one of my brothers put it more akin to growing up on Vulcan than on Earth. In my family, it was always the better argument that won the never ending socio-political and scientific discourse around the dinner table, not the stronger felt passion or other emotion.
Some of my closer colleagues might recognize that in my work behaviours. My friends, some of them therapists, may find it curious, I hope however not of concern. It does serve me well and enables me to sleep at night, rather than ruminating over issues or conflicts I may have to deal with during the work day. It also fills me with a certain sense of professional pride, as I think it helps me be trustworthy – which is, as a value about as important as it gets for me. So in short, I’ve learnt that my tendency to compartmentalize helps me to gain and preserve trust, and that is key for the work I do.
After starting my PGCert recently, I’ve thrown myself into learning how to learn. I know it sounds a bit out there, but it seems like the Open University requires a particular mindset, and that’s something I’ve never learned.
Let me explain: I have a good understanding about how I think and process information. I am one of the annoying kids who always needs to switch between tasks and revisits half-formulated thoughts as I go along. In the end, the results seem to satisfy – at least my employers and before that my university tutors. However, I struggled in school – and I think that had to do with being pushed to learn in a particular way – to predetermined outcomes. I rebelled against that – so much that I almost didn’t finish school at one point. University gave me the freedom to structure my own learning experience, and I enjoyed that as much as I had hated school.
Since then (post Bologna) and with moving to the UK, the world has changed, and university has become a lot more like school. Defined learning outcomes – especially on Master’s level – give me the creeps, but at least I understand where the problem lies for me. Any reader of my blog will know my views on outcomes based learning. Now here’s the thing – I consciously signed up for a course that follows this type of rulebook. It may seem masochistic to subject myself to what I struggled with so much in my youth, but as you may recall I’m doing it for professional reasons … and because I wanted to take that challenge.
I’m not a thrill-seeker (given the topic of my course, I guess that was clear), but I always had an impulse to improve on things that I’m not good at. I find that challenging and entertaining, but it makes many pursuits in life more of a marathon than a sprint (the latter of which has always come easy to me). That may be a recipe for being so-so at many things rather than excelling a few – and never really ‘winning’ anything – I’m basically all about delayed gratification. This is no different – and my work rhythm on the PGCert has been one of one hour or so per day, working towards incremental improvements. I’ve even got a plan with tick boxes.
To be fair, that’s what the Open University seems to expect from me – I’ve gone through their tutorials and have focused on such interesting topics as critical thinking, personal development planning, and essay writing strategies. It’s all the stuff we expect our students to do – and I want to make sure that I understand what they’re up against. Someone said that only a minority of our institutional leaders in higher education have engaged with a post-1992 university environment – I’m doing it now, and I find it hard work. I am starting to apply a number of techniques to improve my professional skills, as usual using technological solutions – e.g., running pretty much every piece of writing through Grammarly helps me sharpen my writing skills; retaining and annotating every piece of reading with Evernote and Skitch makes me look at texts in completely different way. This is currently exciting – and I hope it lasts.