2020 has been an interesting year to say the least, and with a month still to go it remains to be seen whether the universe will gift us a final surprise before we bid farewell to what is surely the new annus horribilis.
But while there is an all-too-understandable desire to think of the future and what we hope to be brighter days ahead, it is also important to take some time to reflect on what we have learned from living during a year like no other, and what our experiences mean as move forward into 2021 and the years beyond.
Now I am no philosopher, and so am not going to attempt to answer any existential questions you may have about what this year means for humanity. Nor am I an oracle of the commercial - or any other - world, and so will not attempt to answer any of your practical questions as to how to navigate the professional world in the context of the pandemic. There are articles aplenty to that end. What I can do however, is share with you some of my reflections on what I have learned both about myself and others managing through this pandemic, and how there are indeed many positive things we can take from this experience.
Lesson 1 - Being remote doesn’t mean being far
I should start by making a confession - as I lead a global team, switching to remote management has not been the radical shift for me that it may have been for others. That isn’t to say that it hasn’t been without its challenges. Right before we made the move to fully remote I took on leadership of a new team, a team that I otherwise would have been seated next to in the office, and a team that I really did not know at all. You would think this may have made it difficult to establish a rapport with them, or to get to know them and how they work. Well, this is where you, and I, were wrong.
What struck me about working remotely was how little I really knew about my colleagues. That is, everything that I knew about them was based on their ‘office’ persona - how they dressed, what they put on their desks, essentially what they chose to share. And even though we have a very open and comfortable workplace environment, I think human nature means that people naturally maintain a degree of separation between their professional and private worlds.
Working remotely though has changed that. And while some people - myself included - value such a separation of church and state, as it were, there is no denying that the new reality of Zoom meetings means I see a side of people that I never would have seen in the office. I see people’s children, their partners, their pets, their plants, their ukuleles. Things that stimulate a discussion and discovery of them as people which never would have eventuated in an office environment. As a result, I feel I have learned more about my team during this time than I ever would have in normal circumstances. Even though we’re apart, we feel incredibly close.
Lesson 2 - It’s Okay To Not Be Okay*
The flip side of remote working is that you not only have a window into people’s homes, you also have a window into their lives. We’ve all had a laugh at some point when a mischievous young face pops up on screen mid-call, but we’ve also seen when that same face is not happy about something, sometimes often, and our colleague’s frustration or that of their partner reaches its limit and erupts in spectacular fashion. While I’m sure most of us realise that raising children is not easy, we may have perhaps underestimated the pressure people felt during the lockdown to present an image of harmony and control in their home environment.
And for those living alone, myself included, it was a different challenge - turning up every day with a smile, focused and ready to work, free from the distractions of family but not free from the distraction of loneliness and isolation. I was acutely aware of this as many of my team are young, single and living away from their home country, family and friends. I am not saying that it was a challenge for everybody, but rather it was important not to make assumptions that being ok on the outside meant you were ok on the inside. After all, everybody has a story.
Take me for example. My husband and I are currently based in two different countries for work, and we now find ourselves approaching 11 months since we last saw each other in person. While we have managed this temporary separation reasonably well, there were and still are days where I just don’t feel like smiling or being that positive person in the room, and that’s ok. My own vulnerability here is important. In as much as leaders need to appear stoic and what we perhaps would incorrectly describe as strong in order to bring their teams through difficult times, they also need to be relatable as people. Empathy is key. It connects you to your team and helps you bring them through the challenging times with you.
Lesson 3 - People are more resilient than you think
In spite of these challenges, I have been inspired by the perseverance, commitment and professionalism of my team. Even as they faced all sorts of challenges in their personal lives, they have managed to remain focused and dedicated to doing the best work they can, regardless of it being virtual. This is all the more impressive when you consider that so many in their profession have been affected as a result of the economic impact of COVID. And while this has undeniably been a point of stress for them - I know, we’ve talked about it openly - they haven’t let it distract them from their work. When I consider that for many, if not most, of them this is the most turbulent time they have known in their professional or even personal lives, it makes it all the more impressive. While I may be their leader, they are the ones who, through their own resilience, have led me through this.
Lesson 4 - Korean dramas have lessons for us all
Despite living in Asia for nearly 4 years, I was late to the K-drama party. Don’t worry though. I have made the most of my forced confinement to jump on the rollercoaster of emotions that is Korean drama and have come away with some valuable life hacks:
- You must have hope - this can be hard to believe sometimes when we look at the current state of the world, but despite the monumental challenges our Korean protagonists face, be it a corrupt judiciary or evil chaebol, goodness always prevails.
- Stay true to yourself - so many times our protagonists, when faced with despair, have been tempted to follow the wrong path, but through sheer determination, extensive internal dialogue and many clenched fists, they stay true to themselves and conquer the day.
- Eat a good meal - have you been framed for murder? Uncovered government corruption? Or maybe your crush has eyes for another? Whatever the challenge, make sure you take time to treat yourself to some kimchi, a bowl of black bean noodles and a glass of soju. After all, you can’t take on the world on an empty stomach.
*One of 2020’s K-drama hits. You’ll find it on Netflix.