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Reflections on the coronavirus lockdown

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Timing is key. A few weeks before the lockdown began, when the management team at SETL was preparing for employees’ remote working on the entire company scale, there was still scepticism about whether it was really necessary. In the same evening, just after we had successfully completed the company-wide test of remote working, Prime Minister Johnson gave a significant speech to the nation addressing the COVID-19 crisis, which included asking people to work from home if they could. Remarkably, we were able to switch to the recommended working mode straight away without delaying or major issues.

Since then, a corner of the study which was neglected for years has become an important part of my world, where I spent most of my waking time five days a week. The Microsoft application, Teams, has become the window which not only allows me to function as a working person, but also provides me with the vital connection to our work community. Within this community, the online communication enables work to continue progressing and colleagues to continue bonding. The routine, the reporting structure, and the discipline that have remained from the “normal days”, although re-shaped slightly I’d say, help greatly for maintaining our mental health.

Our mental health is being challenged during the outbreak. We all had to adapt to the new way of living on very short notice. What is happening out there is frightening and unsettling. For multi-occupancy households, those emotions could be amplified as there is a lack of channelling for them to get outside of the household. Couples and family members have to absorb each other’s fear, anxiety, anger or depression inside a limited shared space. For people who are from the same family but isolating from each other, it is even tougher, not being able to see them or hug them when they are ill or anxious. The interactions between human beings have turned to heavily relying on digital forms.

The world has changed so much overnight. The pandemic is tearing the fabric of every economic unit, creating new orders, putting societies through the hardest test. The interconnections, the dependencies, yet, the differences between countries, the gaps and cracks within each system and some of the aspects that had been long overlooked are now exposed more cruelly than ever. It does make us reflect and realise what we had always taken for granted. Small moments such as joking with teammates during our twice a day “stand-up” video calls and seeing their cats start appearing on Teams once they have overcome the initial camera-shy can be a little comforting, against this gloomy time when uncertainty is our biggest enemy. With every misfortune, it is important to appreciate what we still have. And we are very fortunate to be able to work remotely, unlike many other jobs in which the workers have no choice but to expose themselves to higher risks. It happens that we live in an era when information is highly digitalised, communication is mostly done via the internet plus more and more data are stored in the cloud. In fact, the very existence of our jobs depends on the technological revolution, let alone the ability to work remotely.

The world may never be the same again. The worst affected countries may not recover from the wound for decades to come. However, there are countries which dealt with the crisis much better than others. There are organisations and individuals who stepped up to show incredibly efficient responses and the best of humanity. They provide inspirations that are rarely seen in normal circumstances. It is a reminder of what we could achieve as a group. Sharing a common biological form at microscopic level might be one of our weaknesses, but when we work towards a common goal, we can be resilient. Looking ahead, what is really going to distinguish the good and the bad will depend on our learning from this experience and prepare for similar catastrophic events that are likely to occur in the future.

How do we prepare for things that are yet nothing but many vague possibilities which might or might not happen someday? And we don’t know when. As organisations or nations, perhaps the better questions to ask include: How can we be more flexible? What structures and tools could enable us to be faster changing? How do we give ourselves more room to manoeuvre? How can we effectively predict any significant forthcoming event as early as possible and estimate its scale and impact? What are the principles of defining our priorities at all times? How do we economically stock backups? What would give us a better chance to obtain supplies quickly? What are the strategies of “fail-safe”? How do we prepare others for dramatic changes without jeopardising their stability? How do we design systems that would absorb shock waves buying us time to adapt? The big questions often sound irrelevant, but they help us build the backbone of strong qualities for long-term interest.

Perhaps in the wake of Spring 2020, more organisations will take their Disaster Recovery Plan more seriously and make one if it had not yet existed. Probably, remote working will become even more fashionable, just like emojis replacing facial expressions when faces are hidden behind masks.

Thought piece written in lockdown by Catherine Cooper of SETL.

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