20 Oct Thriving during the COVID-19 lockdown (sort of)
When the words ‘COVID 19’ and ‘lockdown’ are heard in a sentence, there is an underlying feeling of uneasiness and a small sense of panic. At least those were my feelings when it was announced that South Africa would be going into a hard lockdown earlier this year.
For most people in the country, the fear of what was about to unfold hadn’t hit them yet as most were excited at the thought of being able to work from home, avoid traffic and more time on their hands to spend with family, hobbies or digging into some of the things they were interested in, but we’ll get back to that point as my journey of this ‘new normal’ started outside of the country.
A brief introduction to my background, I am an auditor and qualified chartered accountant currently working for a Big 4 firm but in December of 2019, I decided to take a leap of faith and pursue an opportunity in the USA. I spent the first 3 months of 2020 working through the audit busy season before the real COVID nightmares began and stay-at-home orders were announced. All of a sudden, businesses were slowing down, costs needed to be cut and I was told that my contract would be coming to an end prematurely. My tickets were booked to fly back to SA but unfortunately, it was too late, the country had announced the lockdown and closing of the borders.
Fast-forward a few months, I was eventually repatriated to the country which resulted in me being jobless and discovering newfound meanings of stress and anxiety. Added to that was a case of cabin fever and having to blow through half my savings that the US opportunity had provided. Although I was left feeling grateful as I hated to think what half the country went through given the slowdown of the economy, salary cuts and worst of all, job losses.
Since landing in SA, I applied for more than 20 positions and was left with little or no responses or hearing the famous line “we’re on a hiring freeze right now”. It took just over 2 months and a bit of negotiating before I finally got my old position back. And now, 3 months later I am afforded the opportunity to reflect, and finally, give a bit of input on the experience of the impacts of COVID 19 and ‘thriving’ under these circumstances.
So where was I, ah yes, I inevitably arrived at the ‘excitement phase’ of lockdown and I remember thinking “now that I can work from home I will have all this free time to focus on my career growth or potentially start a business, or take up a new hobby, or spend more time with my loved ones” and I have to admit, the first 2 or 3 weeks felt great. I loved not having to sit for more than an hour in traffic and I was saving money on petrol and by not going out socialising. Making home-cooked meals is much cheaper than ordering take-out. I was also developing a closer bond with my partner. Yes, those were the glory days.
Just over a month back at my old position and the announcement was made that working remotely will be the norm until the end of the year, there was still a sense of excitement at that idea, however, I started noticing the bigger challenges that bits and pieces of this new norm posed.
Don’t get me wrong, waking up 45 minutes before I need to switch on my laptop, getting dressed in sweatpants and a t-shirt and having access to a snack cupboard a few feet away sounds like aspects of a dream job… until those bits and pieces started to creep up and accumulate into real challenges.
The first big issue I ran into relates directly to our favourite service provider who shall not be named, however, being without power for extended periods of time meant I needed to leave home during the pandemic to find a place to work that would allow me to use their electrical socket. Sounds good if you are sitting in a nice quiet restaurant with someone willing to serve you food and drink, however making conference calls in a noisy public space with your mask on and having to explain who the people are in the background makes your boss wonder what you’re really up to.
The next set of issues I ran into was having to convert my dining area into a workspace, as well as the time spent making those home-cooked meals while trying to keep my house clean and tidy and of course internet connectivity. Trying to fit it all in along with the demands of a full-time job is where it all snowballed and eventually lead me to exhaustion.
I think every job has its pro’s and con’s and a year ago I counted myself lucky to be in a position that gave me a sense of purpose and fulfilment while still being able to have a balanced lifestyle. However, that assessment has recently changed.
Corporations believe that their employees are in an ideal setting to thrive in their jobs with the current situation allowing for a more flexible work arrangement and I would agree with them. There is a significant amount of time that is saved in our daily lives when working from home but for some reason all that free time is taken up by chores, cooking and general life admin. Working remotely does lead to a happier and healthier workforce but the key ingredients I have identified that will make this formula a sustainable solution and success in the future and they are 'balance and respecting boundaries.'
In the last month or so I have seen it become far too common for meeting invites to be sent during lunch, or meetings that run overtime or past working hours. With no consideration of ‘boundaries’, I find myself thinking that if this has become the new norm? Am I now expected to work harder than I normally would to prove to my employer that I am ‘actually working hard’ which is inevitably going to result in burn out. Putting in all this extra effort is a mix of having to prove your worth and the company’s impression that because we’ve saved 2 hours a day not driving in to the office we should be taking those lunch and late afternoon meetings which always run overtime. With all of this effort and constant need for meetings to prove you are still engaged and completing the tasks assigned, very little time is actually left in a day to focus on deliverables which leads to working later into the evenings.
Working in corporate is a never-ending rat race of chasing deadline after deadline and there seems to be a sense of “If I can’t see you physically working and presenting signs of stress or fatigue, I will continue to add to your to-do list until you say something” but there’s also the element of fear in saying you’re overworked or tired and faced with a response of “Why? You’re working from home now”
I really don’t mean to sound like a buzzkill but I do strongly feel that working remotely during these testing times has the potential for employees and businesses to thrive. However boundaries must be respected and employees must practice balance so that they don’t burn the candle at both ends leaving everyone with a bitter taste when deadlines aren’t met, after all, there’s a sense of resentment when giving up personal time to meet deadlines.