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  • Ben

Contagion Isolation

Updated: Apr 6, 2020

In this Coronavirus blog (part 2 of 3), I share my experience of remote working and how it impacted my emotional health.

Social distancing may stay in place for several months, but life as we previously knew it is unlikely to return.  Thrust into a global experiment, we all became remote workers over night. We are reconfiguring how we do this on the fly, whilst also educating our kids at home, rethinking how we socialise, exercise, and much more.

This process will reveal pros, cons, winners, and losers.  I find remote working difficult, but it doesn’t mean others will.  Surrounded by one-size-fits-all approaches, it’s easy to forget every one of us is unique.  We all respond differently depending on our circumstances, our environment, and genetics.   


This prolonged period of isolation provides all of us with an opportunity to get to know ourselves better.  Who are we in terms of values, motivations, strengths, vulnerabilities, and how do we develop relationships and respond to stress?


I went through this discovery fairly recently.  Change can appear impossible, and whilst adversity can be all-consuming, overcoming it provides the space for growth. I found working remotely for short periods of time fine, but struggled when it was day after day.  How we adapt to remote working will be nuanced and personalised. We need to think about our response within a wider context which includes the purpose of our job, the business culture, relationships, leadership, our environment, and state of mind.  

Here is what I learnt about remote working, isolation, and myself.

A short backstory


I had a fragmented childhood, an absent parent, and financial insecurity. I grew up in Suffolk but moved to London in my 20s, living there for 12 years. I cherished my time there, but Zone 1 living has a shelf life.  Unquestionably diverse, culturally stimulating, and creative, it was also intense, unequal, and man-made. 4 years ago, my wife and I craved space, peace, and countryside and made the call to move back to Suffolk.


This kick-started radical change - a new house, surroundings, and career.  I traded the Financial Times office - overlooking the Thames - for a non-air-conditioned soulless box and a distribution warehouse to gaze at.  I pivoted from Digital Media to Workplace Technology, and contemplated how a new virtual workforce (Intelligent Automation) would reinvent every job, function and industry. 


From a cultural viewpoint, London is different to everywhere else.  I found it more diverse, inclusive, curious, and social. Whilst competition played a healthy role in business, there was space for collaboration, developing relationships, and having fun.  In business we often prioritise transactional activities, but it’s the intangible things that enable human beings to thrive. I found that losing these created a persistent and toxic combination of stress and insomnia.


My brain was rewired to cope with its new way of experiencing and navigating the world, culminating in an ADHD diagnosis. My subsequent recovery required me to relearn how to communicate, coordinate, understand people, think and organise information.  These were intuitive and instinctive in London, but increasingly I found myself self-conscious and focusing my attention on organising myself.  


As I faced up to my health challenges, my company shut its office premises.  In London, I had spent most of my day with colleagues, customers, competitors and friends, now I was suddenly well out of my comfort zone, working at home alone.  

Who am I?


How I get my energy - From being with people, having conversations, sharing ideas, and having a shared purpose. 

How I respond to stress - From a physical perspective, I found working for several hours, looking at a screen without a break raised my blood pressure by 10-15%.  This is what Microsoft calls ‘Technostress’ which describes how excessive screen use raises stress levels, lowers job satisfaction, commitment and productivity.  I now turn off distractions and set time aside for deep work and creative endeavours. I found I could reduce stress levels by exercising, having conversations, laughing, or being outside.  


How I communicate and interpret - Simple instructions, sharing ideas, or asking questions are fine using digital tools, but I need much more.  These are transactions which don’t help to build relationships, or give context to complex problems. Understanding people requires us to read body language, facial expressions, between-the-lines, and observe people in different situations.  Drowning in digital characters whilst losing conversation in person was disorientating.

How I learn and memorise - I don’t learn by somebody telling me what to pay attention to.  I learn all the time, but in my way. I am an experiential learner, meaning I understand theories and concepts when I see them play out in the real world.  I proactively develop new skills when I sense a gap developing. Imitation plays a significant role in my development, which is why I cherish diversity, role models, and coaches.  I understand subjects by observing, listening, and discussing with other people. My memory is optimised when these subjects trigger emotions, and it’s these experiences and feelings that often guide me.


How I’m motivated - I am not motivated by administrative tasks, but by solving problems which interests, excites, and helps me and others to grow.  Doing something just because we always have, is why many people with ADHD have their neurochemistry hijacked - so they can cope with the mundane.   


How I think - I naturally turn to diverse people and seek anomalies.  I process information from a big picture perspective, absorbing broad data points, visualising how disparate problems relate. I challenge convention with divergent thinking not because I’m awkward, but because this is how my brain works by default.  


Where I solve problems - Not staring at a screen.  Motion and gentle distractions are key and I find playing sport, having a shower, washing the car, being on the train, or going for a walk create many “aha!” moments.  


The culture I crave - Spontaneous and experimental, built around trust, safety and purpose.  One which is collaborative, diverse, open, and most importantly empowers us to be human.  

The things I value - Not salary, job title, holidays, or objects.  Instead it was my health, relationships, nature, a sense of belonging, kindness, and a purpose which all jumped out.  As we try and reduce everything around us to a metric, it's those things which escape which are most important.


Sleep - Often neglected, but a good night's sleep was the biggest determinant of a good day for me.  It enables better conversations, productivity and creative endeavours. This is my red line, I will not let work disrupt this vital regenerative process.  Our environments have detached us from nature’s cycles, and poor sleep is the result.  


Conclusion


Join the dots and you’ll realise I'm not well suited to our current social distancing situation.  You’d be right, but I've been through this painful process once. It was necessary and I learnt a huge amount about myself which helps now.  I found many workarounds, and am clearer about the things that enable me to thrive. This benefits me of course, but I am part of something much bigger - society.  Me being my best self day-in-day-out allows me to be a better volunteer, colleague, neighbour, husband, and friend.   


Although it doesn’t feel like it at the moment, this is an important step for all of us, as we reconnect with our innately human senses.  We haven’t moved on from our industrial past with young people still being prepared for an imaginary production line. Workplaces still adopt overtly scientific methods of managing and deploying human ‘resources’, despite it not working.  Over time, this has stripped back many of the components which make up Dan Pink’s much lauded motivational framework - “autonomy, purpose, and mastery”.  


What allows me to live, learn, and work optimally, won’t be the same as you.  Some people will cope better with isolation, staring at screens all day, and never going outside. But, we shouldn’t think of this as a template for ‘normal’ and build systems and procedures around it.  


We are rapidly moving towards a personalised world, and let's not forget it’s in everyone's interests that we each play to our strengths.  The reason we’re unproductive today, despite technological progress, is that we are plugging these powerful gadgets into our factory mindsets and antique operations.  We need to think more strategically about the problems we’re solving, and the ways we deploy technology.  

Our future depends on us quickly recognising this, but also grasping the differences between human beings and machines, so that when we come out the other side, we are ready to rebuild a society where people flourish.

Next up - Part 3 of 3 - Where next?