Agility and resilience in uncertain times

By Guest author on 18th May 2020

By Sarah Bolas & Rebecca Marks

The impact of COVID-19 has been far reaching – and will inevitably leave an impression on the way we work and live for a long time to come. With a long road ahead of us, we are still navigating the range of emotions that accompany each stage of change, with our minds and bodies responding to the uncertainty in various ways.

Let us firstly acknowledge our collective reality – the range of emotions we have been feeling, and will continue to feel, is normal. We are all on our own journey of change – a journey that would have been inconceivable just three months ago.

Many of us have found ways to cope over the last few weeks, adjusting to this temporary normal by creating new routines and habits to help us stay sane. Lockdown for MCM and the majority of our clients has seen our world become much smaller; cocooned in our little bubbles at home. Even going out to the supermarket has felt like a big adventure. Of course, this isn’t a one size first all: our key workers face a different reality – and we appreciate their bravery and hard work.

With the government strategy changing, we are now entering a new phase. For many of us, this means yet more changes to the new habits we’ve so quickly created. Our brain’s done its very best work, helping us to feel safe in our new normal. Now like little chicks, moving from the (relative) comfort of the nest to take those first teetering steps into the great unknown, we’re suddenly once again having to contemplate outside our immediate surroundings. It is scary, and no wonder our brain is once again firing on all fronts as it responds to this new perceived threat.

Last month, we published a white paper, Extreme Agile Survival Guide: Building Our Resilience in Uncertainty sharing tools and tips to help us, as individuals, take control of our own personal response to COVID-19. As the lockdown starts to lift and we see a shift in circumstances, it is time to look at which of these tools will continue to serve us on our journey forward.

What have we learnt, and what can we take with us?

Where we have come from?
Reflecting on our individual experiences, as we were catapulted into this situation back in March, our initial reactions and those that followed included things like:

  • Shock: I can’t go back to the office!
  • Panic: Will I be able to access food and essential items (e.g. the toilet paper debacle).
  • Denial: This can’t last too long, surely I won’t have to cancel my summer holidays…
  • Frustration: How can I home-school my children and perform at work?
  • Depression: I have no motivation…I feel lonely, I miss my family, friends and colleagues.

For parents, whole routines were thrown out the window: we had to find new ways of balancing our careers with the needs of our children. As employees, overnight we were expected to adopt new technology, change our professional routines and still remain engaged and productive. As human beings many of us were initially just collectively overwhelmed.

We are not here to say these emotions are behind us – what’s around the corner is still very much unknown. However, it’s clear that each phase of the pandemic is bringing new uncertainties to the surface. Now is a good time to reframe our thinking, and take a look at some of the tools and practices we have adopted over the last eight weeks. Going into a different stage, which will continue to serve us? What are we taking with us?

In our white paper, we spoke about four key areas of focus to help you at this time. We encouraged you to:

  • Practice emotional hygiene;
  • Looks for ways to help ’reduce the load’;
  • Distinguish between certainty and safety; and
  • Build a connection to maintain your tribe.

Specifics which might still help through the next transition are to:

  • Limit the triggers: Continue to manage your exposure to things that are not serving your wellbeing at this time. Try turning notifications off on devices to help you take control of what you read, when. Fear is contagious thanks to pheromones. Be aware of the impact of others and pro-actively manage your own response. Emotional hygiene is important to practice when you notice you’ve been triggered, but our recommendation is to also build it in to your habits for optimal benefits, and to help you out for those times when you aren’t consciously aware. Some of us are used to highly normalised states of stress, so you need to build it in!
  • Become AWARE and CONSCIOUS of what your brain is doing for you: Take note of the narrative you tell yourself. How they make you feel helps you notice how they might be shaping your behaviours. As we move into the next phase, elements of fear, panic or shock may come back around. For example: ‘Yes, I notice I am focusing on all the things I am missing out on right now and that is making me feel sad’. With awareness, you’ll notice patterns and can ask yourself whether they are serving you well.
  • Still maintain a ‘Work’ cue and a ‘Home’ cue: Rather than ‘work/life balance’, we are experiencing a ‘work/life blur’, which may continue in the coming months, especially if you are still required to WFH. Create ‘cues’ for your brain that signal ‘this is work time now’ and ‘it’s home time’. These can be as simple as packing up your stuff at the end of the working day and put it to one side.
  • Connect with yourself: Self-care is ultimately that. Look at this opportunity to continue to connect and care for yourself. It might be as small as an extra-long soak in the bath, ordering an absorbing new book to read – or finally getting around to reading the one on your shelf. More time for baking, for your hobby, to start that exercise programme. Deliberately ‘loving’ and looking after yourself, the same as loving and connecting with others, releases oxytocin and dopamine, the perfect antidote to an over-adrenalised system.

Everyone is different and, depending on your personal circumstances, some of our suggestions will have more relevance for you than others. We would also love to hear what else might be working for you at this time – do reach out and let us know.

Into the next normal.
The COVID-19 crisis has forced our work and home lives to interlace completely. It has been an emotional roller coaster and the ride isn’t over yet. The tools and strategies we have identified will support us into the next phases – but could very much carry us into the next normal too – whatever that looks like.

This could be a silver lining; so take time to notice positive new habits you’re creating now that you’d like to keep beyond COVID-19. These may be new routines to distinguish home/work time (a line that blurred way too often before). Maybe we’d forgotten how simple things, like regulating our breath or baking bread just make us feel better. Or we didn’t realise how much exercise could really boost our emotional wellbeing until it was a last resort. It’s still ok to feel the way we do right now. Embrace your emotions as they come - accept that it’s your brain doing its job. Be kind to yourself. Choose to stay connected in the way that’s right for you and proactively seek help and support if and when you need it.

Sarah Bolas is the Head of Behavioural Change and Rebecca Marks is the Senior Behavioural Change Consultant at MCM, the award-winning design consultancy transforming the way people work, play and live, today and in the future.

More From the Blog...