Panic and pandemic: a series of coaching and leadership conversations – part 2

In this series, Rachel Ellison MBE shares a beneath-the-surface approach to what’s going on around us, for leaders and coaches.

Panic and the pandemic: Part 2: the business of boundaries and quarantine

Places of work are emptying out as employees are instructed to self-isolate against catching Covid-19. Working from home now represents multiple layers of need: individual, corporate and community protection from contagion.

This unprecedented global event may demand that all of us make our social contribution. Not only those we live and work with, but also to those we may never meet. Scientists implore us to think community in terms of virus transmission. Our behaviours, choices, actions – even down to vigorously disciplined and frequent hand washing – may save a life.

Hence the evacuation of many staff to home-working. There has been little time to plan. But people have been swift to action.

In recent years, working from home has become an enjoyable and indeed normal perk for many employees. Parents of young children or employees with elderly parents, appreciate increased flexibility. Today’s 20-something workers do not hold share the starched ideas around location and fixed work hours that just half a generation earlier, were assumed and obeyed. Leaders – and indeed their followers too – claim to be more productive and more motivated to work hard, when they can opt for a mixture of home and the office as a base.

A slight skive or more productive?

Once assumed as a slight skive, working from home saves on the property costs of sitting workers at desks in expensive cities. From a transactional analysis point of view, employers trust their workers and treat them as being ‘in the adult’.

Working from home offers time to think. A counter-balance to the office hubbub which can inspire but also inhibit productivity. If you need your boiler serviced or have a doctor’s appointment, working from home is the sensible, honest option. Before one might go off sick or be forced to take half a day’s annual leave.

Isolation and boundaries

But these are very different times. Home-working as a choice is one thing. Forced self-isolation is quite another. The coronavirus environment is not a fluid option. It’s about minimising social contact all of the time, not just some of the time. This will be a test of the human drive to connect. To touch. To hug. To be physically close.

This pandemic is unprecedented. So are the measures being used to attempt to reduce or delay its onslaught.

Never before have we seen such social quarantining. Boundaries declared. Barriers erected. Distance maintained. The exact opposite of our usual goal of integrated, collaborative, non-silo working. Executives are flown across the world at great expense, in order to have a meeting. To establish rapport. To build relationship. To invest in human connection. Before cutting a great business deal as a result.

Leading in isolation

Virtual working and a habit of online living will surely make shift to quarantine easier than it might have been. Huge efforts are being made by the IT sector to keep broadband buzzing. Attempts to retain connection both for business and people’s personal lives.

As some families huddle in, other workers will be separated from their families who are behind closed borders. Some workers will relish the autonomy, but others may feel lonely.

However senior leaders should not assume that everyone who is now working from home or self-isolating, is in fact alone. Some workers may not have a private work space at all. Employees in accommodation with shared kitchens and bathrooms may not be able to fully quarantine themselves, both physically or professionally.

At a time when leaders may be consumed with practicalities and sorting their own family’s needs out, they might also remember their duty of care – including psychological wellbeing – towards those they lead. Even if you feel scared and bewildered by what is going on, use your soft power, starting with kindness and empathy. Be that a text of appreciation or encouragement, or a genuinely caring sentence in an all-staff email. As the existential philosophers tell us, never assume a small action has only a small consequence.

Thinking creatively

Fear is understandable. But let’s consider the opportunity to be creative amidst the emotions being thrown up within us and around us, as a result of the corona virus pandemic. I am not being trivial. Take the opportunity to reframe. Having made a growing list of all the things we now can’t do, how about starting a list of things you might possibly consider instead?

Commute time to work could now be spent gardening. Local living and not going out, might offer time to read the book club texts languishing in a pile by the bed! Friends could start a group (but remote) podcast listening evening or a film night…and then critique over a mug of cocoa.

Cycle to the greengrocer, play tennis outdoors or go for a walk in a local park in the middle of the day. Could you start an exercise group in a green open space or in someone’s garden? What about balcony-to-balcony workouts, similar to the musical interludes apartment block communities in Italy have been creating so movingly.

Embracing the discomfort

At this time, we are challenged to find friendship and connection in new formats. This mirrors the demand on leaders and future leaders, to develop a flexibility of leadership style. According to the different personalities in your team. And now, according to the different work environment. This is about psychological agility. The capacity to be spontaneous, to change the plan, to confront our inflexibility and discomfort.

Virtual breakfast

For leaders who are anxious about team cohesion, a practical step might be establishing check-in buddies across the workforce. This could be with already established friends in a team, or deliberately arranged so that people who do not usually work together are paired. Or both. There should be a protocol to follow if a colleague indicates that they are not faring well psychologically.

Team leaders could set up a system of virtual team ‘coffees’ or ‘breakfasts’ as an expected meeting everybody needs to attend. This is for important business but also creates continuity, connectedness and a sense of team and community. Check-in buddies are more discreet, personal way of taking care of each other.

A bit like bringing cakes into work, the virtual office could organise home-made offerings – shared visually only (such a shame!). Again, a rapport builder which offers a slither of escape from virus talk.

And finally…

For those who fear isolation, there will be others who fear the reverse. Let us remember that not everybody can work from home. Builders, bus drivers, doctors and cleaners have to come to work. As result they are potentially exposed to increased risk of infection. The alternative may be to go without pay.

If you are working with or coaching a leader taking their team through the current Covid-19 crisis, you may wish to explore some of the themes or ‘power words’ planted throughout this article. They come from beneath-the-surface or psychoanalytic thinking.

Psychoanalytic, beneath the surface concepts, to for leaders to explore with their teams or for coaches to explore with leaders:

  • attachment
  • boundaries
  • quarantine
  • isolation
  • integration
  • abandonment
  • exposure
  • infection
  • community
  • embracing discomfort
  • retaining connection
  • emergence
  • emergency
  • emergent learning

Here are some coaching questions coaches can ask their clients, or offer to colleagues who can work through them individually or with their peers at work:

–       Confront what is most perturbing you…what is this situation feeling like for you?

      What does your head say about working from home?

     What does working from home feel like?

      How is your body responding?

      What else do you notice about yourself right now?

     What are you learning about individuals?

      What are you learning about community?

     What do you now realise you can now do which you couldn’t before?

      Ring your check-in wellbeing buddy.

      What about creating mini-wellbeing teams and work through the above questions together?

     This is a chance to hone your listening with presence skills.


First published in the online magazine Training Zone


About the author

Rachel Ellison MBE is a former BBC news reporter, now executive leadership coach. Rachel was awarded an honorary doctorate for her book, Global Leadership & Coaching – flourishing under intense pressure at work. She takes a beneath-the-surface psychological approach to leadership challenges and events in the world around us.

Rachel is currently offering short-burst 30 minute virtual ‘emergency coaching’ packages, for leaders and those supporting them during the Covid-19 pandemic.

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