Much has been written of the New Normal, the suitably socially distant paradigm by which we might return to something similar to the lives we once lived and embrace once more that sense of inevitable victory that has so characterised the decades of the late 20th and early 21st Centuries.
But that high and beautiful wave has forever crashed and rolled back, and nothing will ever be quite the same again. Like the aftermath of a Tsunami, the landscape is forever changed; we are forever changed. What we rebuild must be different and it must be stronger. And it is not just the external landscape; we must find ways to ensure our internal wellbeing is as protected as our external.
Social distancing is easiest for those with means, and nearly impossible for those living in poverty: those who cannot isolate, who share cramped living space with people they might have adored in small doses. Whether it is the loneliness of isolating ‘from’ or the hell of isolating ‘with’. The test for many in the current COVID-19 crisis will be how do we keep our heads whilst keeping our distance?
For some there is tragedy on a horrible, personal and visceral level, for others there is great sacrifice and heroism, opportunities to save and be saved; but for all, there is change, frustration, uncertainty and, inevitably, fear. Fear of the loss of loved ones, of economic and financial distress, but fear also of the removal of the norms by which we existed and that formed the architecture of our identity. Fear changes our brain chemistry – it increases levels of the hormone cortisol. In the moment, this has largely positive effects –contributing to the ‘flight or fight’ response by constricting the blood vessels, quickening the heartbeat, and tensing the muscles for better preparedness against threats. It creates a Good stress (Eustress) – a “seize-the-day” arousal that can be envigorating. But, over time, elevated levels of cortisol contribute to Bad stress (Distress) that can cause anxiety, sap energy, interfere with learning and memory and alter the body’s immune and digestive functions. Equally, social isolation is a well-known contributor to stress, depression, anxiety, fear and indeed aggression.
Our physical workplace will become different – space will be marked out, crowding avoided. We will meet less, use less paper, drain fewer of the world’s energies and resources in how we conduct business. How might we mirror this in our mental workplace – create space, avoid crowding and drain fewer of our own resources?
The attention economy (i) is embedded with a huge financial incentive to keep us in a state of individualised anxiety and an obligation to be constantly reacting. Being solitary, alone with one’s thoughts – doing nothing (and not tweeting, WhatsApping or Instagramming our aesthetically pleasing “doing nothing” or artfully juxtaposing it with a minute’s frantic TikToking) is becoming a lost skill.
We submit our lives, even our leisure time, for numerical evaluation – how many likes did we get – and frequently check back to see if we have improved or fared better than others. Did we clap for the NHS more joyfully and loudly than others? Is our parkours across the sitting room furniture more adventurous? Why is my banana bread flopping in the middle or my cat unable to grasp yoga to a standard worthy of viral videoing?
For us, and I imagine many others, there have been unforeseen benefits of working from home. The concerns we had about productivity, efficiency, disconnection, dilution of culture, have been largely unfounded. It has arguably helped cement our culture, make the pivotal elements of it more manifest. Communication and collaboration have been tested and proved in the fire. It turns out that the physical proximity afforded by the office never really had anything to do with this. Do we really need an office? Do you?
What else have we learned in lockdown that we must not forget? We have learned to listen more. The zoom meeting admits of far fewer side bar conversations; there is an accepted notion that when one person is speaking one should be silent, until they have finished. Fewer people arrive late to Teams or Zoom meetings; certainly, fewer people wander off because their phone has pinged or rung, or someone puts their head round the door to tell them X is on the line. The discourteous habit of taking a call in a meeting seems to have stopped (anecdotally I had a friend who, if someone took a phone call whilst he was speaking to them would start “ringing” – Brring, brring, brring, brring – very loudly in front of them until they came back to the conversation they had chosen to interrupt). Might we listen more, more attentively and more courteously by phone? If we interviewed by phone would we fall less pray to implicit bias, would we hear people more fairly than we see them?
So, for all the companies out there planning social distancing measures at work, ordering hand sanitiser, preparing work or public transport rotas, consider too the long-term impact of fear and isolation. How will you keep your employees well mentally? In the late 20th Century, companies reacted to the wealth of data supporting the notion that physical wellbeing aids performance – they supported gym membership, even built gyms on site; fostered intercompany sports events and generally encouraged everyone to run at least 5k for charity at least once a year. Healthcare insurance, medicals and dental plans became the norm. But concern for mental wellbeing has lagged behind. This crisis must change that. Where will be your on-site mental gym? What will be the support and encouragement mechanisms to keep the stress levels down? The space in which people might increase attention? Will you encourage and contribute to the coach, the mind fitness trainer, the group challenges and events that foster mental health, that keep fear from becoming loathing – of self or others? Might you be braver and change the metrics of evaluation? Encourage listening over speaking, collaboration over competition? Less scoring against others and more cooperative endeavour and purpose? Could the energy of a whole generation come to a head in a long fine flash and change not simply the way we keep ourselves physically distant and safe but the way we keep ourselves mentally together and safe?
(i) The concept of Attention Economics was first articulated by the American economist, political scientist and cognitive psychologist, Herbert A. Simon when he wrote “an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it” (Simon 1971)