Commentary

Navigating lockdowns and human interaction during a pandemic

December, 2021

By: Frank Olsson

President NZ Europe Business Council

Interesting times with the COVID-19 pandemic changing our lives.

We hear of one in a hundred-year events, and my experience is that in any ten years, at least three such events will occur, and we need to learn to live with that and navigate our lives and businesses around them.

I think all forecasts have one thing in common – that they are often wrong.

If they are right, then it is by fluke as we cannot predict the future. If someone got lucky by making an accurate forecast, this doesn’t translate to them being right in the future. An important lesson is to not believe everything you hear, but to understand the underlying reasons and then drawing your own conclusions and keep a close watch to allow you to reassess as needed. 

Through both lockdowns I have set a goal to walk 15,000 steps a day and do a short work-out. It is important for mental health to stay physically fit and healthy! I have found that just being outside is very good for health and well-being. It feels like one is part of something vast and wonderful and there is life everywhere, including people you meet. My walks give me some exercise and structure and the odd brief chat when meeting a friend or anyone who wants to exchange a word. Goethe, the German poet, and author said: “The best thing there is, is gold, better yet, there is the sun, but best of all is good human conversation.” Make sure to talk to people outside work as well.

It is amazing how just a smile and short verbal exchange can have such a big impact on how one’s day is perceived. As often as I can, I comment when parting: “lovely to talk to you, you made my day”. A brief friendly contact can make anyone’s day and break perceived isolation. Also, a reminder to all of us to smile and say “good morning” as often as we can. It creates good moods, and good moods are contagious. The majority of people I meet are not wearing masks outdoors, which makes it easier to relate.

When lockdowns first occurred, many thought it is amazing that we can work and achieve on a high-level, even when working from home – so easy and practical. No commute or late nights, and no need to dress up or brush your teeth and put on make-up. However, it didn’t take long before people began to miss the human contact, and many wanted to get back again. Nothing compares to good human interaction. Remote working and zoom meetings are all a useful surrogate for the real thing, but they can never replace face to face encounters. Meeting nice and interesting people is often half the reason why we participate in events. If that is not on offer, I become bit more choosey.

The key point here is that it is great that working from home can work, but longer term it does not replace human interaction. Another point is that we, as workers, should be treated as adults with as much freedom as possible to enable a choice and a mix. When you are dealing with good, motivated staff, the less prescriptive you are in terms of rules, the better. That may be a learning we can all take out of this period. I arrange and attend a lot of networking events, and a good in-person meeting is very stimulating.

Even under normal circumstances, loneliness and boredom can be challenging. 40% of people are lonely, and boredom is a bigger issue than stress. If you add to that fear and lack of socializing, it is grounds for depression. It is imperative that organizations, managers, and colleagues are cognizant of these risks and reach out to those who live alone with a chat or friendly interaction including encouraging feedback. This sadness can sneak up on anyone, and it is good to look after each other. My son just got back from a few years in Europe. He had started a new job, but felt the load just continued increasing with no support or feedback, so he chose to resign. It is healthy if one can be proactive when things aren’t going according to plan.

No matter what level or income you enjoy; encouragement, appreciation and confirmation are things we all appreciate and thrive on. This is so easy to do and costs nothing. Expressing appreciation is therapeutic at both ends.

So much of who we are resides outside of us – in family, friends, contacts, and experiences which confirms that no person is an island. And when those connectors ‘thin out’, our life and existence also wane, and we become more vulnerable. That is sometimes the cause for ending ones’ life – when no one asks after you and your sense of purpose disappears. Something to care for, even if only some flowers or a pet can extend and give meaning to life.

And as we realize how important this is, we should try to be on the giving end of joy and appreciation. When the going gets tough and you feel exhausted and overworked, if you stop and take a little time out to help someone, you can take the satisfaction after a long day to think: “at least I did that, I made a difference to someone”.

Man is not a means to an end, he (or she) is the end himself (herself). Work is important but it is only one of several components of the good life. Good, satisfying and encouraging human interaction is at a higher level than productivity. And only when this higher goal is attained will we be able to perform to our maximum at work.

Most employees know their job well and do a good job, BUT equally important is to try to be a catalyst for others around you to do well and feel good about themselves. The most important act by managers is to add value to their staff. Although not normally included in a job description, this is the essence of leadership. Having a positive influence on individuals’ spirit and the organizational culture. Lifting people’s moods lifts your own as well, and the virtual circle is set in motion.

It’s good to consider that smiling works both inside out and outside in. When you are happy, you smile. And if you smile even when you are not happy, people will smile back at you and put you in a better mood. Anyone who doesn’t laugh regularly cannot be taken seriously. Humour is career-enhancing! Humourous people are perceived to be more intelligent and confident.

If we all try to make a daily contribution to all those we interact with, not only in terms of progressing work, but in terms of joy and happiness and a positive work culture, chances are high that we will be more successful and lead a better, more satisfying life.

Work and leisure are not mutually exclusive but can and should be mutually enhancing.

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