Masking a good thing – looking after each other

Regardless of whether we’re in the throes of, or at the tail-end of this (or any other) pandemic, the lessons from lockdowns are applicable anywhere, anytime, writes Kate Kearins. 

Kate Kearins is Professor of Management and Pro Vice Chancellor and Dean of Business, Economics and Law, at Auckland University of Technology.

If anyone had told me a year ago that I would be raiding my patchwork fabric stash and sewing facemasks for family and friends, I would have thought they were crazy. 

Even in January this year, I would have not believed I’d be regularly sporting a mask pieced together with old bits of elastic and whatever cotton fabric and thread I had on hand. I was in Milan mid-February for a conference. They were temperature checking at the airport… What a difference a global health pandemic makes.

Reflecting on the year that has been (and continues to be), I am struck by the unforeseen challenges and opportunities 2020 has created. 

The challenges are numerous (and to most of us, previously unimaginable): how to pivot, navigate, produce, deliver, multi-role and simply survive the sudden move into lockdown version one; then, how to slowly and carefully emerge from our bubbles and re-enter the now normalised, post-lockdown world; and then, almost overnight, how to do-it-all-again-but-this-time-do-it-better in lockdown version two. 

No wonder so many people seem exhausted. 

For managers, this year may feel particularly daunting – loaded not just with individual duties as team leaders, but with responsibilities to look out for and look after colleagues, customers and supply chain partners.

How, then, to summon the energy, courage and fortitude required to even begin thinking about what 2021 will bring – let alone finding the stamina to plan for and mitigate the seemingly inevitable uncertainties that lie ahead? In the spirit of sharing our knowledge and experiences to build strong and resilient communities together, I offer my own ‘lessons from lockdowns’. 

They may be useful as you, like me and so many other people leaders, try to future-proof our organisations and teams when all bets about what lies ahead are off.  

1. Everyone’s tired. Accept it. To the mantra “Nothing is certain but death and taxes” we can now add “2020 burnout”. It’s real, it’s pretty much ubiquitous and it’s going to impact the way we look, feel and behave in the final gasps of this crazy year.

2. Personalise your support. For some, lockdown V1 was a breeze; for others, it was an ill-wind that continues to blow no good. Understand that everyone’s experience of Covid-19 is different and tailor your responses accordingly.

3. Patience, empathy and forgiveness are the building blocks of solid teams. From muted microphones and frozen screens to Zoom fatigue and howling kids/partners/pets, we’ve all seen, heard and felt each other’s pain, frustration and technological glitches. It’s never been harder – or more important – to breathe, smile, and stop sweating the small stuff.

4. Take care of yourself (so you can better care for your team). A good leader draws on bandwidth – the mental and emotional capacity to deal with a variety of situations, whether personal or work-related. Maintain your supply by practising what you’re preaching to those around you. By topping up your own bandwidth, you’ll receive more data, faster.

5. Let go of perfection. It’s so 2019. 

Perhaps ironically, the challenges of lockdown have themselves created opportunities for bricolage – creating new things from a diverse range of bits and bobs, like I mentioned at the outset. There’s a bit less of the flashiness, and more of the real (though I can’t help myself admiring some of the designer masks). Entrepreneurial activity – more of which we are going to need – is undoubtedly helping us move through the sanitary and health crisis.

But most of our best and most creative ideas don’t come when we are tired and stressed. Or when colleagues we work with are too tired and have too much on their plate to come on board or offer good/better ideas of their own. 

Regardless of whether we’re in the throes or the tail-end of this (or any other) pandemic, the lessons from lockdowns are applicable anywhere, anytime. 

As the vehicle of worldwide death, devastation and destruction, Covid has also driven home the powerful reminder that caring for people – in all our messy, imperfect, emotional and unique ways of thinking, doing and being – is the most important lesson of all. 

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