Minus one wedding and a funeral

Today was that day.  The day once a year I quietly sit down with a pile of Christmas cards, envelopes and stamps.  Alongside the stack of admin is my address book.  A delightful tradition and an old school approach, I know, to still have a hard-backed address book.  Surely we all have everything on our ‘phones these days?  But it’s one I don’t want to let go of.  It feels like a constant and a ‘back-up’ in the event of technology letting us all down.  Today was a moment’s pause in a typically busy year.  A different year, we all know that. And enough said on that matter.

Today did feel like an oasis of routine. There was almost a nice warm glow akin to what we are sold in all those seasonally saccharin TV ads.  It is a pleasure to write little notes and updates and best wishes.

There is another side though.  The sadness that comes with reviewing the year and updating the address book.  This year there has been one breakup and one death.  It is to be expected, it is real life and time passes.  But the experience is an emotional one.  Crossing out a name in the address book feels real and tangible.  It feels more polite than deleting a contact on my ‘phone.  However, it seems less final, the shadow of the relationship or of the dearly departed friend remains on the page.  Until it is time for a new address book that is. 

The whole idea of Christmas and even birthday cards is, we are led to believe, on the way out.  Something that is being replaced by texts, social media postings, or video calls.  I think that would be a shame.  Whilst I use all these new methods, and enjoy them, there is something more tangible when writing on a card and sending it in the post.  Online communications have kept us all together this year, in some cases it has brought many of us closer than before.  But a card has something else to offer, a physical connection, an expression of thought, love or friendship.  And for me, it is an opportunity to share art.  A card is usually an artwork, an illustration or a photograph.  Which should be regarded as a gift itself.  And favourite examples can be kept in one’s scrapbook.  Now there’s another tradition – how old school am I? 

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Plan on the worst-case scenario; then the only way is up!

Recently I was working with four groups of people looking at planning for next year.  We all most likely want to put 2020 to bed and think ahead to the promise of 2021.  2020 has been nothing short of a nightmare.  But at the end of all nightmares we wake up and realise things in reality aren’t as bad.

Planning ahead can be a difficult thing to do.  I’ve noticed how different people have different attitudes to it.  For some, it is such an abstract concept they simply don’t function on anything but concrete facts, which totally blows any chance of planning out of the water.  For others, they like, no love, to plan everything in meticulous detail and for every conceivable scenario.  Both groups have very distinct attitudes to risk.  The former are prepared to take risks, even enjoy them.  The latter are risk-averse, it leaves them in a cold sweat.  I guess if you are in a team you need some sort of hybrid version of the two approaches. 

By the end of the session with the second group I was starting feel surprised how many people were adopting a ‘wait and see’ style.  Was this a result of such uncertainty in 2020 and an ever-changing narrative or stream of government diktats?  Was it a symptom of change and planning fatigue?  Let’s face it the past nine months has been pretty exhausting reacting to emergencies and no notice issues.  Perhaps our planning skills have diminished this year.

Keeping our fingers crossed, because something might change, isn’t a super sensible approach.  But surely it does have some merit.  You might save the time spent on unnecessary planning on better more enjoyable things – like life, self-care, rest. 

However, I think there at least needs to be a plan A and a plan B.  Plan A needs to be structured on what we most likely think will happen.  Our best guess based on the analysis we have undertaken.  Founded upon on what we think.  Plan B needs to be an outline of what we might do if the plan A assumption is wrong.  It’s the back-stop position.  Plans in reserve.  So if it is needed, at least there a starting from scratch or a blank sheet of paper situation.  Not that all plans need to be written down. 

Then, there is the joy that a doom-and-gloom worst-case scenario plan can bring.  What’s that you say?  Bear with.  We all have colleagues who are the glass half-empty, the ‘Eeyore’ to our ‘Winnie-the-Pooh’.  It can feel frustrating, but every, and I mean every, team needs one.  They keep our feet on the ground and temper unrealistic optimism or denial.  So, please let us value the contribution such colleagues bring.  They help us think about the most terrible things that could happen, and this should be a springboard to help us formulate our plan As and plan Bs.  And very likely, their prophecies will not fully come true.  And in that event, it can feel like a little boost when things aren’t as bad they could be.  Little consolation, but we must take what we can this year.  Planning for me in 2021 is based around the notion it will be better than 2020.  That 2020 was the worst-case scenario.  Here’s hoping, fingers and toes crossed, and plan A and plan B ready.

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Forget working from home (WFH). This lockdown, all I want to do is WFB: work from bed

Its all too depressing isn’t it?  Facing the prospect of another few weeks with freedom of movement curtailed and economic recovery stifled for longer. 

During last lockdown from March, like many others I was able to work from home.  Cocooned in my basement office and feeling safe from the threat of COVID-19.  Some of it felt like a guilty retreat, a holiday from the routines we had all become used to.  A change is as good as a rest, grandmother would say.  And it did feel like a good excuse to slow down, stay in, and spend time doing other things instead.  Things that I hadn’t got around to, or never devote time for.  There was a list, I must admit, and a daily log.  In the absence of structure, I created one. 

The trouble is this picture is a little too rosy.  The reality was we were afraid.  Fearful for our health and safety and we didn’t know what was to come.  Attention was very much on keeping our businesses going against all odds.  What was happening was extraordinary and unparalleled.  There was a loneliness at home cut off from the social world, and an eery and unnerving quiet on the streets.

I would pop to the office occasionally to check the post and the building.  Visits became more frequent and longer in duration.  A balance between homeworking and office working was found.  Then it seemed I was always in the office, and slowly and surely being joined by colleagues returning from furlough.  Like in a thaw from winter to spring there were green shoots and reasons to be cautiously optimistic.  It was summer.  We did everything we needed to at work.  There were difficult decisions, successes, team spirit and positive change.

Nine months on and so many of us are tired, under pressure, stressed even.  We know what to expect, mostly.  We more fully understand the risks and the challenges at play for home life and work life.  Uncertainty, we have learned, is a key pressure.  Certainty though is another matter altogether. 

The temptation for me now is to forget this ‘working from home’ malarkey.  Instead to devote this lockdown to retreat under the duvet – until it is all over, for some ‘working from bed’.  Not to stop work completely.  Trouble is, there’s no such luxury.  Life and business must carry on.  And we have a moral duty to help staff and colleagues, to support children and families, and to dig deep into our resolve, not bury ourselves in soft bedding.  Just allow me the fantasy of thinking an escape is possible, just for a little while anyway.  Until I realise that it solves nothing and doesn’t meet my preferred working style.   

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Ups and downs are to be expected, and we must listen to what they are telling us

Not every day is the same emotionally. Nor should it be. The highs help us notice the lows, and the lows should help us to enjoy, or at least notice and acknowledge the highs. The bits in the middle typify the usual, the normal, or the run-of-the-mill days we live and work through. They are necessary as well. They give us useful perspective.

When we are under pressure, or if we aren’t getting enough pressure or pleasure, we feel overwhelmed. This year, when we are living in uncertain times, the rhythm of our highs and lows has changed. This is normal and to be expected. Lesson one.

Like many of those around me, I have noticed recently my lows may be getting more frequent and deeper. The highs are less often and lower – to boot. That’s step two in managing one’s emotional being; checking one’s barometer. Awareness and recognition are powerful tools.

“Life is a rollercoaster, just gotta ride it” sang Ronan Keating.  He was right.  But merely riding them is not simply enough.  Of course, we have to live through them.  We must.  But rather than passively journeying through them we must notice, be aware and understand them. 

Step three for me is to talk about it with others around me. Not easily done. Talking to your partner, family, and/or work colleagues is vitally important. To check-in with emotional feelings is powerful for self and helps those around you. They can feel included and informed in what is happening. But what happens next? I find as much normality as possible is the best response at this stage – for me. I don’t need anything much; not too much fuss or special treatment. What’s not good is any sense of people treading on eggshells or being too caring – if that makes sense. Some people benefit from a break when feeling like this, but for others this is the last thing they need. I may switch from one to the other. My body will tell me which way to go. What’s important is we all develop our personal knowledge about what works – for us. And that we give ourselves permission to do so. This is an issue of self-investment.

Usually these lows pass with little fuss and attention and my emotional state returns to the bit in the middle. That sense of things being okay, the routine of life. If I am lucky, a high might appear on the horizon as a useful distraction or morale booster. But as we all know, the likelihood of these occurring at the moment is reduced and we are all under enormous pressure from circumstantial events.

What happens if the low doesn’t ebb away, or it continues or deepens? What if you are indulging in unhealthy coping mechanisms or habits? Perhaps your sleep is affected too. Well, if you have spoken with those around you, then they may also be noticing this if you are lucky. And they may suggest some things to help. If not, you might need to revisit the conversations and let them know you’re still struggling and perhaps need extra support. And if that doesn’t work, then seeking professional health, wellbeing or counselling support might help or be appropriate. There are no quick fixes here, and returning from a deep low can be a longer job than many are prepared for. Longer term issues may start to manifest. And if these have been fed for decades, they will not be addressed in weeks.

Whatever, the whole ride needs to be viewed as a personal, judgement free, and open and honest journey with the aim of turning it around as best we all can.    

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I’m going off the idea of job titles

I remember earlier in my career I delighted in my first job titles. It made me feel all ‘grown up’ and they were obvious signs of my career progressing incrementally. I was so chuffed at the age of 27 years to bag the word ‘senior’ in my job title. How premature that seems now. Something I know I would recoil at these days, some 25 years later.

At Hempsall’s I’ve had the same job title for over 20 years, director that is. I have other project related titles, national this, programme that, and I am a psychotherapist as well. In the latter role it is probably more justified to have such a title, like a doctor for example. You wouldn’t want to be operated upon by anyone without the words specialist or surgeon on their badge or CV would you? But in general modern work environments we must ask are they necessary anymore?

Job titles do have a function.  They give the people you work with, internally and externally, including customers, the clues they need so they can work out what you do and tailor their interaction with you accordingly.  It’s the natural next step after they have consciously or subconsciously completed their initial assessment of you.  You know, they’ve looked you up and down, checked out your dress code, and worked out how old or experienced or senior you are.  They’ve analysed what you look like, sound like and feel like.  And that is the problem, right there.  That’s exactly what people do.  And I’m fed up with it. 

“Once you label me, you negate me.” Søren Kierkegaard was supposed to have said. And I agree. It is one of my favourite quotes, or at least the one I most easily remember. The trouble with titles is they do squeeze people into small boxes. And in these egalitarian, flatter-structure, multi-tasking, nimble and fluid environments at work, who wants or needs to be so tightly defined? Not me. And I don’t want the people I work with to be either. I want customers to be able to speak to any member of the team with confidence that their needs will be met.

The big risk is that as organisations get bigger, roles become more separate, specialist and disconnected. If it isn’t in your job description or title, then it simply isn’t done. And if your role is tightly defined then the ability to work in a fluid and team-focused way can often, although not always, be stifled. Some aspects of job titles can be almost impossible to shake off. They limit change. And there is a huge risk of them reinforcing inequality and hierarchy and power. Which is the polar opposite of what we want to achieve in tackling privilege and opening up opportunity.

We should all be able to fulfil all sorts of basic and essential business functions in our roles. By that I mean we should be health and safety focused, sales hungry, decision-makers and innovation creators – for example. I have presided over enough staff or business restructures and reviews to know how powerfully attached some can be to their job titles. The process can be a long and torturous one of negotiation and one that can be slow to change. All rather distracting and pointless. It doesn’t effect the change we are all aiming for. I’d rather focus more on roles and contributions and impact and difference made in roles, than what it says on the tin. And I want people in the team and our customers to be able to interact with each other equally and across all ‘levels’ of the people in the business. What makes this work is good communications across a business.

All this is easier said than done. This is my intent. Now, how does it happen?