Six months back in the office since our WFH stint ended, and we’ve learned plenty. A particular type of learning became so important to us, that it’s now a critical component to office life we’ll keep front and centre in the year ahead. And I’m not talking about learning like we thought we knew it, either.
We’re always learning – I get that. New software, new requirements, new content formats, new publishing platforms, new TIK TOK dances. I expect wherever possible, most businesses learn the same things as we do (except maybe the dances). Learning or ‘upskilling’ is not only expected, it’s essential to business survival. Most people under the age of 30 will tell you they want to work in an environment where they are constantly learning. Most people over 30, approach it with growing exhaustion and resignation of sorts – contemplating the huge time and financial cost of getting smarter. And then there’s people like me, who, no matter how many lessons and demonstrations they’ve had, still need help with the printer.
In our field, learning usually falls to technical subjects sitting under gargantuan headings like ‘digital marketing’ or ‘digital design’. But what about the other kind of workplace learning we need to do, whatever side of 20, 30, 40 or 50 you sit on? I’m talking about emotional and psychological learning that includes emotional intelligence and personal development, and spans skills like listening, empathy, patience and communication. I’m not sure learning these things have really been prioritised in business until now. At this moment, that’s the stuff we need to learn, as quickly as we can, especially while everyone is feeling anxious about everything.
Our Emotional Education
This year we discovered we needed to learn ways to strengthen our resilience, to help ourselves and each other cope – at work and at home. And at our agency, with no HR department or anyone with any kind of related discipline on our team, we would need to lead that learning ourselves.
It’s the kind of learning that modern dilemma philosopher Alain de Botton describes as helping with our ‘ability to introspect and communicate, to read the moods of others, to relate with patience, charity and imagination to the less edifying moments of those around us.’
It was this kind of learning we needed, to deal with the local and global catastrophe of the past year. We had to find ways to help each other keep on learning – to cope, survive and somehow evolve amid a general mood of despair. We also wanted to be better at reading the signs – to anticipate and acknowledge our charged emotions that could, if not checked, become roadblocks to our ability to focus and do our jobs.
We started with the acknowledgement of fear and anxiety in places and situations where we weren’t used to feeling it.
Commuting to and from work was anxiety-inducing. So was being in a bar or a gym, attending a cricket or tennis match, going to the beach…all these things that were so normal – so ingrained in our lives, that of course we took them for granted. They were simple, basic freedoms to enjoy, accessible to most. Until they weren’t. There was also a daily conflict between the leaders of our states and territories, which led to people being mad at people in cities or states, other than their own. And adding to that tension was the complexity that one group’s freedoms (through restrictions being lifted), in turn, threatened another’s – which they sometimes did. This was just bizarre. And then there was the traumatic impact of global news reports on our already fragile mental state. There’s a kind of omnipresent anxiety and fear everywhere we turn – on every platform we use – and reflected in just about everything we read or watch or listen to. We understood this was like being clobbered with an emotional sledge hammer, because that’s exactly how it felt. And if we didn’t somehow learn to address it, things would get worse.
Find the thing that brings respite through humour or empathy or insight – then bring it into the workplace.
We needed to ensure time spent at work was a positive experience. We couldn’t control what happened outside our walls – but we could control what happened inside them.
Acknowledgement of some of the good things happening was important. Someone attended their first live concert in 8 months, someone else went to a cabaret show, returned to a much-loved restaurant, went to a wedding (and danced!). These were small but important nuggets of good news that brought some much-needed balance back into our daily orbit.
We also began to actively share forces for good when we found them. We shared books, articles, blogs, docos, podcasts, series (Schitt’s Creek we love you) and even artists with a sense of humour about the world. This provided us with a pile of resources and stories and perspectives that educated us, made us smarter in ways we hadn’t thought of. It also gave us a much-needed laugh about things that were sometimes the source of stress (a shout out must go to _meanmachine on Insta for the precise insight into our minds and the laughs you gave us). This kind of casual sharing was so important because it didn’t feel like contrived team bonding – it simply started out as a survival tactic that became a really important daily ritual.
Talk about it
We talked about it. And often. Talking about feelings of being scared/frustrated/angry/tired/depressed brought relief. Mostly there was someone who felt the same way – or was moving through the same thing. A simple acknowledgement ‘I know what you mean because I feel that way, too…’ can go a long way to making people feel better and less alone. People felt heard in a supportive environment and discussions were respectful regarding different perspectives people had about things. We needed to talk about the slog of it and what our hopes were for a time when it was over.
Carve out the calm
We also learned to live with the acceptance that there was a lot of things we couldn’t control – including where the work would come from next. We learned that acknowledging it helped stress and its bedfellow, anxiety, pass through rather than get stuck in our heads. This helped bring a sense of calm – rather than anxious reaction – to our motivation. And this helped us lead from a positive place. No matter the size of the team – or company – people take their cultural cues from the people in charge. An atmosphere of calm in chaotic world is needed to think; make decisions, devise a plan, chart a course. The goal was to stick to the plan, expect the unexpected and get as prepared as we could in the event of the inevitable roadblocks.
Mostly, we did all these things out of self-preservation. These small but significant changes in our workplace have led us on an inclusive and evolving learning journey. It’s DIY, and we don’t always get it right. But we’ve learned through listening to each other a lot better than we used to, that there were a lot of coping strategies readily available to us – we just needed to be able to see them, or have someone point them out amid the fog of weariness and resignation. Because there’s always a path forward.