We’ve all seen the viral videos of respected experts, working from home, who are being interviewed for a news programme, only to be interrupted by a small child who then proceeds to embarrass them, whilst making the rest of us laugh. Since the increase in working from home brought on by Covid-19, it has become quite common to see similar dramas acted out on our own computer screens as colleagues struggle with children – and sometimes adults – turning up unexpectedly in front of the camera. We tend to laugh these occurrences off – quite rightly – and to be aware that they are often much more embarrassing for the affected party than for the rest of the participants. In all of the situations that I have witnessed where this has happened, the other members of the video conference have been shown understanding both of the fact that the incident occurred at all, but also of the frustration and embarrassment of the affected party.
This is all as it should be, but I think that we have a larger lesson to learn here. The emotions evidenced by this sort of incident are obvious and, what is more, it is usually entirely clear what has caused them: we have, after all, just seen the drama unfold in front of us. What I think I am also seeing, partly due to the broadly shared experiences of lock-down, is a better understanding that there are frustrations and emotions that occur due to events which occur off-camera, and that people need to be given space to manage those as much as any other, more obvious issue. Taking time at the beginning of a call to ask a colleague – or even someone from a different organisation – how things are going, how they’re coping, and what’s on their mind – has become much more commonplace than it was when most of us spent most of our time in offices. An acknowledgement of the impact of these trials and tribulations that everybody is facing has become much more acceptable in a work context, because the separation between the work context and the home context is become, for many, so blurred that that are almost indistinguishable.
What is astonishing about this is that we all know, and have always known, if we are honest with ourselves, that these trials and tribulations have always been there. What we seem to have believed is that because there are two separate spaces for most people who are not remote workers – the work environment and the home environment – then everybody should somehow magically be able to compartmentalise their feelings and emotions into corresponding separate boxes.
This was always a fiction, and, more, a self-evident one, which only ever worked in one direction. All families and partners know that there are occasions when a frustrating day at work will leave someone annoyed and upset on their return home. Equally, we expect to celebrate work successes when we arrive back with our families. But while telling work colleagues about the birth of niece, or the arrival of a new puppy, has been seen as just about acceptable, “burdening” them with news about a sick child or the impact of a major flood in the bathroom, both of which may be a major stressor in our lives, has often been seen as “unprofessional”.
Yesterday, my wife and I had to take our dog for emergency surgery. Not only did this have an impact on my ability to attend a meeting, but I was also aware that my ability to function fully at work was impaired. I’m very fortunate to work at a company (Red Hat) where the culture is strongly supportive in dealing with such emergencies, and so it was: colleagues were ready to go out of their way to help, and this morning, one in particular was very forgiving of a rather confused technical question that I asked yesterday evening. I’m pretty sure that the same would have been the case outside the Covid-19 lockdown, but I was cheered (and helped) by their reactions. My emotions and ability to function in this case were due to an obvious and acute event, rather than a set of less visible or underlying conditions or events. Instances of the latter, however, are no less real, nor any less debilitating than instances of the former, but we are generally expected to hide them, at least in work context.
My plea – which is not new, and not original – is that as we fashion a “new normal” for our working lives, we create an environment where expressing and being honest about all parts of our lives – home, work and beyond – is welcomed and encouraged. I am not asking that we should expect colleagues to act as unpaid councillors, or that explosions of anger in meetings should suddenly become acceptable, but, instead, that we get better at not pretending that we are emotionless automata at work, able (and required) to compartmentalise our home lives from our work lives.
There are benefits to such an approach, not the least of which are the positive mental health effects of not “bottling up” our emotions. But an opportunity to see our colleagues as more “human” can lead to better, more honest and empathetic relationships, as well as an increased resilience for businesses and organisations which are able to flex and bend to accommodate tensions and issues in people’s lives as the norm becomes to “chip in” and support colleagues who are struggling, as well as celebrating with them when they are joyful.
There are tensions here, limits of behaviour, and support structures which need to be put in place, but a honest and more rounded person, I believe, is a better and more understanding colleague, and leads to better, more diverse and higher-functioning workplaces.
1 – to fix a slipped disk. Initial signs are that the operation went well.
2 – I want to acknowledge and note that mental health issues are complex and need special management and treatment: something I have neither the expertise nor space to address in this article. I am, however, strongly in favour of more openness and less stigmatising of mental health issues, by which the vast majority of us will be affected – first or second hand – at some point in our lives. I know that I have.