What coaching through lockdown has taught me

Having coaching conversations, one on one, with my clients through lockdown has provided a really detailed insight into the range of responses and emotions that leaders (and the rest of the digital workforce, I would suggest) have gone through. There have been some really interesting, common themes – some of which back up what psychology has been telling us for years, and some of which are new, and quite surprising.

Below, I’m sharing the five biggest learning points from my coachees, that I’ve seen from a number of them, and that have given me cause to reflect. If you have more to add, or thoughts on the ones I’ve picked, I would love to hear from you.

1. We’re all unrealistic about what we can achieve

We never have as much time as we think we are going to have. The crazy to do lists that everyone created early on remain fully intact for lots of people. We probably all knew, deep down, that this was going to happen. Or at least we should have done. Because as humans, we usually overestimate how successful we will be at achieving our goals. We believe we’ll bring in projects on time, on budget and, well, we all know how that ends. Lockdown has been a timely reminder that there are not enough hours in the day; that we’re not as productive as we think we are; and that life gets in the way of our best intentions.

2. The grass is always greener on the other side

Some of those who live alone are craving company and the human touch. I’ve seen those people battle away the tears in Zoom calls who then have to spend the weekend solo. Those who live with people long to be alone. In one of her recent newsletters, Christine Armstrong talked of parents craving some peace going to shut themselves in the car. It’s the clearest manifestation of the expression ‘the grass is always greener on the other side’ that I have seen in my career to date and one which I’ll be reflecting on for a while.

3. Purpose, play and potential

From what I can see, we need to make sure we are not being deprived of the 3Ps, because in this situation, it seems to be all too easy to neglect one or more of them. Your days need to feel purposeful; you need to save time for fun; and you need to be able to stretch and grow yourself – develop your potential. I agree with the research that says that these factors really motivate people. But I’d add another for the lockdown life that really seems to have helped people: Planning. For our wellbeing, it seems to really help (all the mental health advice says so, and anecdotes back it up) if we can schedule. My clients who have been able to keep a balance between planned activities and spontaneous, playful activities, as well as things which allow them to feel as though they have purpose and are developing potential, have said that they can feel the benefits to their health.

Listening to those who are retired might be key to this; our neighbours who are successfully retired (as in, retired and thoroughly enjoying it) say that, at the start, you can feel a sort of aimless drift. The days blend in. This is exactly what people reported in the early stages of lockdown, too. Friends coming to Zooms bleary-eyed at 3p.m. having just had a nap that they weren’t used to, and then up all night wired, said they were struggling with a sort of jetlag. But to be successfully retired is to find the plan and purpose within your days whilst saving room for fun.

4. It’s important, but it’s not

Last year, I went on a fantastic cheesemaking course in Tottenham. If anyone in London is looking for a great Christmas present for a special person, then this is one! (I say special because it’s fairly pricey but you come home with a LOT of cheese. I digress.)

The guy who ran it had a motto. When people were worrying that they had put too much (vegetarian) rennet in their cheese, or overheated their milk, or I can’t even remember what the other things are… they would say, stressed, to the teacher, ‘Does it matter?’ And he would smile, knowingly, and say, ‘It’s important but it’s not.’ In other words, it’s important if you want to make a Cheddar that you can sell at a farmer’s market under the name Cheddar and keep your professional cheesemaking reputation intact. But if you are a hobbyist, then does it matter if you invent a new cheese by accident? Nope.

There were plenty of situations in lockdown that seemed really, really important in the moment. They caused arguments. They caused tears. Clients spoke about things that were incredibly stressful in both work and personal contexts. Often both. But, without laying any judgement on them because we were all in a difficult situation – that fight about who gets half an hour extra to work today? It’s important, but it’s not. And, in fact, sometimes this mantra – which has become a standard in our house now for defusing many situations – often makes us realise that it’s just not important. Not a jot. Everything that is still happening globally – that’s important. Not getting around to that spreadsheet? Hmm. Think again.

5. People need people

The talk started early about how companies were going to downsize their office space, not make international flights, scale up homeworking, etc. Plenty of companies are already moving to a ‘working from home as standard’, Twitter included. Others are thinking about it. It’s the thing to say right now: ‘We’ll reduce our carbon footprint, reduce our overheads, reduce our staff’s commutes, reduce the premium for houses in cities (why live there if you don’t have to?).’ This is all great. Admirable. Laudable. But it’s also a tad unrealistic. Because if we talk to humans, they’re saying they need other humans. And in a work context, this could be the water cooler conversations, the sense that we are not being talked about behind our backs, the sense at having to work at relationships rather than just pulling the digital plug. The people I’ve been talking to, if they are feeling brave, seem hopeful that their companies will find the happy medium, wherever it lies.

So there you have it, a handful of features that I’ve noticed whilst coaching through lockdown. I wonder if this tessellates with your own experience, or diverges from it. If you have comments, questions or more to add, please be in touch. I would love to hear from you.


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