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Rachael Robertson

I Was Isolated In Antarctica: Here's How To Prepare For The Post-Pandemic New Normal

8 Min Read
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I've been in extended isolation before with nine months of temperatures hovering around minus 35 degrees, blizzards, and months of inescapable darkness. The lack of privacy, the mundane nature of the days, and the interpersonal pressure of living with 17 other people was extraordinary.

Our mantra was "respect trumps harmony" — which simply meant we won't always agree with each other and we won't always like each other and that's okay.

As the Station Leader for Davis Station, Antarctica, I had extensive training prior and was well prepared for leading my expedition team. With over 120 people working at the station, it was a crazy buzz of activity with long days with 24 hours of daylight. I even had to lead a search and rescue following a plane crash. So, I thought I was ready for when the summer team sailed back to Australia and left the winter team behind in complete isolation.

For the first five months, it was a breeze. Everything slowed right down — no back-to-back meetings to get to, no traffic to navigate, no constant list of birthdays, weddings, and parties coming up that I needed to buy a present for. I didn't even have to worry about showering every day (as we're only allowed a three-minute shower every second day!).

For myself and my team, it was such a completely different experience for us that we actually enjoyed the serenity and for the most part, we lived quite well with no privacy or respites. Our mantra was "respect trumps harmony" — which simply meant we won't always agree with each other and we won't always like each other but that's okay. However, we will always treat each other with respect.

I have grave concerns for any team that, explicitly or implicitly, strives just for harmony at the expense of productivity and respect.

The expedition team was the most diverse team I've ever worked with. I didn't recruit them, I was handed them, and we were from vastly different backgrounds, a mix of professional skills including scientists, engineers, IT, trades, pilots, and weather specialists. The only generalist role was mine: Station Leader.

We were a mix of generations, genders, sexualities, religions, cultures, and personality types. With such a mix of people it was impractical to think we'd all get along with each other all the time. The interpersonal pressure was intense and privacy was scarce. It would be unreasonable to expect total harmony, so I didn't. Instead, we aimed for respect. Simple, professional courtesy and respect.

We all worked hard to build respect in the team. In my new book Respect Trumps Harmony, I express why I have grave concerns for any team that, explicitly or implicitly, strives just for harmony at the expense of productivity and respect. It's dangerous for three main reasons. First, dysfunctional behaviors will continue; they will just go underground so the illusion of harmony remains. Secondly, it stifles innovation. People are often too afraid to put up their hand and offer a different view or opinion because they don't want to rock the harmony boat. Lastly, it's unsafe — both physically and mentally. People will turn a blind eye to anyone acting unsafe or not wearing the correct personal protective equipment (PPE). When the overriding focus is on happiness and harmony people won't put their hand up and say, "Actually, I'm not OK right now."

Instead of harmony, teams should aim for respect because "respect trumps harmony" every time.

We prepared well and had a great year, all things considered. What I wasn't prepared for, however, was coming home. We had a full de-brief with a psychologist who prepared us as best they can. But there were so many things I was unprepared for — there were so many things that had not entered my head.

In fact, here is my journal entry from the day we set sail to come home after 12 months away:

Monday 14th November

As I sit here watching the bergs go by again, it's not exhilaration or excitement I feel this time. It's a deep sense of gratitude and a peace of knowing I have led a team in the toughest, most grueling, most intense workplace on the planet. And I've done it well. We all more than just survived. While right now we're spent, in two weeks I think we'll be full of energy, stories, and passion for this place.

But it's the colors I'll miss the most.

I truly believed we'd slip right back into normal mode. What I hadn't planned for, and I expect will be a challenge for many (but not all) when we return from this extended lockdown post-COVID-19 include the following:

Sensory Overload

Noise and smell in particular. After spending extended periods indoors, the noise and smells outside are really strong. On our return home (two weeks sailing in the Southern Ocean) arriving at night, we actually smelt Australia before we saw it. We smelt the scorched earth and eucalyptus well before we saw any landforms. Similarly the simple noise of a city was a huge cacophony for me — car horns, sirens, traffic lights beeping, and bicycle bells. I'd worked in cities for years, and yet suddenly the noise was almost too much. Take your time slipping back to the office if you can. Go back for a morning or afternoon through the first week or so and ease into it.

Speed

Everything seems faster: traffic, having to physically move from one meeting to the next, rushing out to grab lunch, managing school pickups, sports, or study commitments. It's all very fast and intense. Try to slow it down by continuing what worked for you in isolation: a morning walk, mediation, yoga, simply looking at the sky. Whatever worked then, will work now.

Choice

Suddenly we have choices again. Where to go on the weekend, who to visit, what sport or concert to attend, what to wear to work. The list is endless. When you've had considerable time in a personal world that's shrunk, things become simpler in this sense because you have limited choice, so you just accept it. But suddenly the doors of choice are thrown wide open and it's startling. Soon after my return, I recall standing in the breakfast cereal aisle of a supermarket simply overwhelmed with choice. So play the long game if you need to. Plan which days you will visit people, go out to dinner, and give yourself time to assimilate to these sudden choices.

Expectations

In total, we were away from home for 18 months and to some extent, I was thrilled to be back and over the moon to see my family and friends. But my team had a huge range of different responses to returning home. Similarly, people will have different expectations about how we respond on the other side — some will be thrilled to be back to a new normal, others will be scared, some will be ambivalent. There will be a spectrum of responses.

Physical Contact

A year without so much as a hug is difficult, but you do get used to it. I simply shut down the need for physical contact and put it out of my mind. As the leader, I couldn't cuddle my expedition team, so I didn't, and sex was totally out of the question (it actually stipulated that in my contract). It was quite simple. Many people have faced a similar challenge now. For single people living alone and not being able to visit family and friends, it may be months without even a handshake. To be back in the world being touched and hugged again may be challenging. That's perfectly OK.

Overwhelm

As we enter the other side you may feel overwhelmed. I did. Two tools that I used with my Antarctic team held me in good stead when I returned to Australia:

No Triangles

This simply means, I don't speak to you about him and you don't speak to me about her. I used this with my team and have taught this tool to over 200 teams since then. It works. I have extensive research to prove that a culture of no triangles builds respect and innovation. But importantly it frees up time and energy. When you already have enough to deal with, as we all do right now, the last thing you need is to listen to someone complaining about someone else. Or know someone else is whingeing about you behind your back. Have direct conversations, and don't get yourself involved.

Lead without a title

Encourage a culture of leadership at work, and at home. Every person can demonstrate leadership; it's a behavior, not a title. If you see something that needs to be done, do something about it. That's leadership. Take some pressure off yourself by encouraging the people around you to step up.

Mental Health

I didn't know how I would react after extended isolation. So to ensure I had an eye on my mental health, I kept a journal. It allowed me to write about how I was feeling each night and got the emotion out, which meant I slept better and was more resilient. Have regular conversations with the people you care about, and those who care for you, so we can normalize conversations around mental health. In Antarctica, my team had a saying: "NQR," which stands for Not Quite Right. It was a simple way of saying "I'm having a tough day today, nothing too serious yet, but I'm homesick and just not quite right." It built empathy and understanding because every one of us knew how that person felt. We'd all been there.

Coming out of extended isolation is difficult and the hardest part is we just don't know what it will look like. That unknown can be incredibly stressful for many people. But with lots of compassion, empathy, and good humor we will get through this –– we always do.

4 Min Read
Business

Communicating with Employees Will Be Key for Successful Remote Work Post-COVID

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, many companies were resistant to implementing remote work for a variety of reasons such as concerns about technology and infrastructure, a lack of trust that employees would get their jobs done, the longstanding (and understandable) bias in favor of face-to-face interactions, or some combination of these factors. However, not only has the COVID-19 pandemic forced many companies to switch to remote work despite their reservations, it's clear at this point that it's going to be very hard to put the genie back in the bottle. Remote work is here to stay, at least partially. By analyzing the pros and cons of remote work we've witnessed over the past few months, we can apply various insights towards maximizing its benefits while minimizing the downsides.

Remote Work Can Be Productive But Also Challenging

Ever since companies implemented remote work en masse, we have witnessed several general tendencies. One is that despite early concerns about remote work leading to less productivity, what many have seen firsthand is that a lot of work can indeed get done via remote work — in many cases even more than before when people were physically going into offices. There is a wide range of possible reasons for this, from having a quieter environment to work in (which is obviously not always the case for everyone, especially parents) to having more time freed up due to less commuting to no obvious start and end time to the work day.

Alas, the results have not been uniformly positive. One problem many of us have experienced is that remote meetings can be more difficult. The actual platforms used to run meetings online like Zoom or Google Meet are in themselves relatively simple and straightforward to use. The challenge is that online meetings come with some intrinsic limitations such as the inability to incorporate the same level of non-verbal communication that we use interacting in-person. Non-verbal communication plays an influential role in conveying meaning, and when it is absent, we lose important nuance. Perhaps the most annoying obstacle is that online people tend to talk over each other, albeit unintentionally. Part of this is because we cannot use those non-verbal signals to signal we want the floor, and part of it is technical issues of buffering, delays, and audio/video synching.

This is the time for employers to be analyzing, strategizing, and planning, to find out what employees need.

Making Up for Lost Planning Time

Companies have had to grapple with the lack of time to plan and prepare for a complete switch to remote work. COVID-19 forced them to go from 0 to 60 mph in what felt like a nanosecond, resulting in many hiccups along the way. Looking ahead, now that much of the initial craziness has ebbed, many companies will have the opportunity to make up for that lost planning time. They should make this a deliberative process and include to identify what worked and what didn't in the remote work process. Good, clear communication will be key. What limitations did employees run up against over the past several months, and what are their ideas for getting around those? What kinds of hardware and software do they need to acquire or upgrade? This is the time for employers to be analyzing, strategizing, and planning, to find out what employees need. They should also prepare thoughtful responses if and when they cannot make the changes employees request.

Avoiding the Pitfalls of Overwork and Burnout

Of course, a flexible workplace culture of this sort requires a great deal of trust, and good communication is the foundation of this trust.

As mentioned, remote work has not led to people being unproductive or doing less work. If anything, people are working more, and therein lies a potential problem. For many, COVID-19 has caused work-life balance and healthy boundaries between the two domains to effectively disintegrate. This is why communication is so important, particularly for companies preparing to offer a permanent remote work environment to staff. Companies need to encourage employees — remote or in the office — to take work-life balance seriously. In a tough employment environment, with so many layoffs and furloughs, many people feel lucky just to have their jobs. They are anxious about keeping them, and so succumb to the temptation to be available 24/7 as a way of demonstrating their value to their companies. This isn't good for the company, and it is definitely not good for the employee.

Overwork, stress, and burnout have detrimental effects on employees' functioning and job engagement as well as their performance and productivity. To help avoid this, companies will need to set clear expectations, clearly communicate what those expectations are, and, if necessary, actively encourage employees to take enough time away from work. They may also benefit by changing their workplace culture to focus more on results and final products and less on strictly defined work schedules. For example, as long as your employees get what you need back to you by the time you need it, perhaps the actual hours or days that they work should not matter so much. Of course, a flexible workplace culture of this sort requires a great deal of trust, and good communication is the foundation of this trust.

The Importance of Informal Communication at Work

One dimension that was largely lost because of the widespread transition to remote work was informal communication in the workplace. This is the casual socializing and interaction that naturally occur among employees in the workplace — the proverbial water cooler talk. It just seems odd to schedule Zoom calls for engaging in small talk or socializing with our work colleagues.

Good, clear, and frequent communication, once again, will be the key to maximizing the benefits of remote work and minimizing its potential pitfalls in the post-COVID era.

However, workplace informal communication is important and serves multiple beneficial functions. Conversations build interpersonal relationships and have positive effects on work whether or not the topic relates specifically to the job at hand. It is likely that going forward, companies will move to a modality that incorporates both remote and in-person work, although some may find staying remote works for them. If the company has all or many or some employees working remote, it will be worth considering how to create space and opportunities for informal communication. This could be through hosting virtual happy hours, recreating morning coffee breaks, or hosting brown bag lunches or whatever else fits companies' needs and situations. No reason these events could not include the employees in the office as well as those working remotely. A company wanting to celebrate could host a luncheon on campus and send takeout to those working from home — a truly virtual brown bag lunch!

Despite the numerous logistical challenges that the sudden shift to remote work has presented, the consensus among many employers and employees alike is that remote work can work. Not only can it work, it can be highly efficient and productive and provide employees with the flexibility they want as well as offer numerous advantages to companies. Good, clear, and frequent communication, once again, will be the key to maximizing the benefits of remote work and minimizing its potential pitfalls in the post-COVID era.