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Rachael Robertson

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

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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.

3 Min Read
Business

Five Essential Lessons to Keep in Mind When You're Starting Your Own Business

"How did you ever get into a business like that?" people ask me. They're confounded to hear that my product is industrial baler wire—a very unfeminine pursuit, especially in 1975 when I founded my company in the midst of a machismo man's world. It's a long story, but I'll try to shorten it.

I'd never been interested to enter the "man's" world of business, but when I discovered a lucrative opportunity to become my own boss, I couldn't pass it up—even if it involved a non-glamorous product. I'd been fired from my previous job working to become a ladies' clothing buyer and was told at my dismissal, "You just aren't management or corporate material." My primary goal then was to find a career in which nobody had the power to fire me and that provided a comfortable living for my two little girls and myself.

Over the years, I've learned quite a few tough lessons about how to successfully run a business. Below are five essential elements to keep in mind, as well as my story on how I learned them.

Find A Need And Fill It

I gradually became successful at selling various products, which unfortunately weren't profitable enough to get me off the ground, so I asked people what they needed that they couldn't seem to get. One man said, "Honey, I need baler wire. Even the farmers can't get it." I saw happy dollar signs as he talked on and dedicated myself to figuring out the baler wire industry.

I'd never been interested to enter the "man's" world of business, but when I discovered a lucrative opportunity to become my own boss, I couldn't pass it up.

Now forty-five years later, I'm proud to be the founder of Vulcan Wire, Inc., an industrial baler wire company with $10 million of annual sales.

Have Working Capital And Credit

There were many pitfalls along the way to my eventual success. My daughters and I were subsisting from my unemployment checks, erratic alimony and child-support payments, and food stamps. I had no money stashed up to start up a business.

I paid for the first wire with a check for which I had no funds, an illegal act, but I thought it wouldn't matter as long as I made a deposit to cover the deficit before the bank received the check. My expectation was that I'd receive payment immediately upon delivery, for which I used a rented truck.

Little did I know that this Fortune 500 company's modus operandi was to pay all bills thirty or more days after receipts. My customer initially refused to pay on the spot. I told him I would consequently have to return the wire, so he reluctantly decided to call corporate headquarters for this unusual request.

My stomach was in knots the whole time he was gone, because he said it was iffy that corporate would come through. Fifty minutes later, however, he emerged with a check in hand, resentful of the time away from his busy schedule. Stressed, he told me to never again expect another C.O.D. and that any future sale must be on credit. Luckily, I made it to the bank with a few minutes to spare.

Know Your Product Thoroughly

I received a disheartening phone call shortly thereafter: my wire was breaking. This horrible news fueled the fire of my fears. Would I have to reimburse my customer? Would my vendor refuse to reimburse me?

My customer told me to come over and take samples of his good wire to see if I might duplicate it. I did that and educated myself on the necessary qualities.

My primary goal then was to find a career in which nobody had the power to fire me and that provided a comfortable living for my two little girls and myself.

Voila! I found another wire supplier that had the right specifications. By then, I was savvy enough to act as though they would naturally give me thirty-day terms. They did!

More good news: My customer merely threw away all the bad wire I'd sold him, and the new wire worked perfectly; he then gave me leads and a good endorsement. I rapidly gained more wire customers.

Anticipate The Dangers Of Exponential Growth

I had made a depressing discovery. My working capital was inadequate. After I purchased the wire, I had to wait ten to thirty days for a fabricator to get it reconfigured, which became a looming problem. It meant that to maintain a good credit standing, I had to pay for the wire ten to thirty days before my customers paid me.

I was successful on paper but was incredibly cash deprived. In other words, my exponentially growing business was about to implode due to too many sales. Eventually, my increasing sales grew at a slower rate, solving my cash flow problem.

Delegate From The Bottom Up

I learned how to delegate and eventually delegated myself out of the top jobs of CEO, President, CFO, and Vice President of Finance. Now, at seventy-eight years old, I've sold all but a third of Vulcan's stock and am semi-retired with my only job currently serving as Vice President of Stock and Consultant.

In the interim, I survived many obstacles and learned many other lessons, but hopefully these five will get you started and help prevent some of you from having the same struggles that I did. And in the end, I figured it all out, just like you will.