Do the worst of times bring out the best in us?

“…it was the season of hope, it was the winter of despair…” Charles Dickens’ mid-19th Century observations may be truer than ever, writes Kate Kearins.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

As we endure the challenges of another Covid lockdown, I’ve been thinking about this quote from Charles Dickens’ 1859 classic, The Tale of Two Cities.  

In Covid times – and from a work perspective – these mid-19th century observations may be truer than ever. 

Several managers I know have remarked upon ‘uncommonly good behaviour’ during the latest lockdown that, once again, means most staff work from home.

The managers readily acknowledge the dedicated work of colleagues who, in the face of ongoing stresses and strains, have stepped in and pulled off amazing feats, including shifting fully online at short notice.

My colleagues also note that, this time around, there have been fewer work-related disputes among colleagues, despite the slew of pressures and anxieties of Covid.

Why might this be? Why, in the face of real concerns about life and work in a global pandemic, are we putting our best selves forward?

Perhaps we are all just so busy getting on with what’s needed to deliver products, services, and projects that we don’t make time for, or buy into, time-consuming, avoidable – petty – disputes. 

Perhaps, too, some feel a little less overwhelmed without the daily commute, and without some of the other in-the-workplace pressures.

Maybe – just maybe – our perspectives and priorities around what really matters have fundamentally changed.

AUT Professor Jarrod Haar, an expert on employee well-being and burnout, thinks our collective good behaviour might be a mix of: 

• Less free time.

• Less energy for what’s not fulfilling. 

• A little more chill.

• Less interpersonal interaction – so that annoying colleague doesn’t set you off.

• A realisation that being petty – or reacting to petty behaviour – is pretty petty in itself.

Like many others, Jarrod sees that people’s priorities have changed – from being busy being busy to thinking about family, fitness and other fundamentals alongside work. 

His research data shows the number of people resigning from their jobs spiked in December last year and is even higher now. 

Jarrod suggests this shows that some people (those who can afford to) are reassessing what they do for work, what it means to them personally, and who they want to work for.

Generally speaking, the pandemic has created more choices about whether and how much to be present in the physical workplace.

Agency and choice are no doubt key ingredients in helping us stay sweet on the job.

Another AUT colleague, Professor Candice Harris, an expert on gender and work, thinks that many employees are relieved to have kept their jobs – unlike others they may know in organisations that have really done it tough. 

The mere act of recognising there are others less well off – and the sense of gratitude that comes with that awareness – also helps us keep things in perspective.

Candice points out that for those of us still able to do our jobs remotely, the work demands continue during lockdown. 

In addition to covering the bills, paid work can be also a welcome distraction from the other things we could (should?) be doing at home – things like housework, cooking and monitoring our kids’ screentime. 

It can also provide some much-needed structure to the day and week.

“Work-life balance studies have tended to treat work and home as separate domains,” says Candice. “Covid has proven that many of us can work at home productively and in a way that also strengthens the work of others. Such evidence provides exciting new directions and decisions about where and how we work.”

Excitement and optimism are the cornerstone of resilience – that much-vaunted virtue we need to help us through. 

The big challenge, of course, is how organisations embed these Covid learnings to help us all remain buoyant in our new world of work. 

How can our policies and practices reflect and encourage a better way of prioritising what matters – in our professional interactions, outputs, and outcomes? It is certainly the best of times to consider these matters.  


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

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