My original thinking on this post was around the risk that Covid-19 has placed on organizations and how a digital workforce can help mitigate them, but the more I read about agoraphobia, the more I thought it was a better place to start and ask the question:
- Given we have just spent a very large percentage of the first half of 2020 in our own homes, will a temporary or a potentially early form of agoraphobia have taken hold in some of the population?
“Agoraphobia is a fear of being in situations where escape might be difficult or that help wouldn't be available if things go wrong.” UK NHS website.
I have been thinking a fair bit about the future of work and what the "New Norm" will be. Even the phrase "New Norm" in itself opens up a whole debate: are we in the "New Norm" now or is it some future state of living and working? Are there going to be many phases of the "New Norm" and the "New Norm" will just be a constant shift with varying degrees of change that we will have to contend/live with?
As I say, this got me thinking about the fact that while there will be some major changes to the way we live and work, some aspects might (or should) not actually change that much in many respects. At some point there will be a need to do some form of commute, be in the office occasionally, travel to a client or partner (locally, nationally or internationally), go to meetings, restaurants or the pub, meet family/friends etc.…But against the backdrop of the last 3 months, how many of us will be looking at those activities with reluctance and loathing rather than excitement?
If you then consider the various communications that have been bombarding us around lockdown for the past couple of months. They are generally simple, direct, they stick in your mind (they were designed to) and if you really think about it, rather scary.
- “Don’t go out if you can help it”
- “Social distance”
- “Protect yourself and others by avoiding contact”
- “Wash your hands - frequently”
- “Don’t touch your face”
- “Travel only for essential reasons” (Dominic Cummings you are clearly exempt)…
Given all this scary noise, how can we expect everyone to just pick up where we left off and start the reintegration of our "New Norm" life. It was a discussion with my wife about one of our children – “should they go back to school for the last few weeks of the summer term?” that made me think on a personal level how I could reintegrate myself and my family back into the "New Norm". We discussed the pros & risks and decided not to send her back. This was based on the fact that:
- Home schooling was still being offered and while somewhat “interesting”, it was generally working (so she would not lose out on the education side).
- The processes and procedures at the school were untested (everyone is doing their best, but it is still new)
- We were not sure how other people would follow the “rules”
This last point was the one that got me going…
We inherently must trust complete strangers every day to stay alive.
This is how society works – I stand on the path (sidewalk) and trust that a car will not deviate off the road and knock me over; I get on a bus or train and trust that the driver will not do something stupid; a chief will not poison my food in a restaurant; the person walking past me will not punch you – you get my point. You need to just trust that people will not look to do you harm. Society, in simple words, is a human perception, inherently built on subconscious level of trust.
It’s a common mis-perception that agoraphobia is simply a fear of open spaces, but it's actually a more complex condition. “They'll avoid situations that cause anxiety and may only leave the house with a friend or partner. They'll order groceries online rather than going to the supermarket. This change in behavior is known as avoidance.” NHS
Someone with agoraphobia may fear:
- Travelling on public transport
- Visiting a shopping center
- Leaving home
i.e. many of the activities we left behind when the world went into a state of lockdown, and those that we will soon have to face again.
A big factor that can trigger this anxiety is the fact that the brain cannot tell the difference between perceived fear and actual danger.
Was the decision to not send our child back to school based on a perceived or a real fear?
It doesn’t actually matter – As Lee Atwater said, “Perception is reality”. What is reality for my wife and I, maybe different for you, but regardless it is the filter which we are currently looking at the world.
Whereas previously there was little need to think about the risks of integrating with other people, it is something that is now at the forefront of our minds. Even during the simple act of going for a walk, I find myself walking off the path or on the road to ensure that “social distancing” is in place with a person walking towards me.
So, while I said that I don’t suffer from Agoraphobia, it is clear there is something that I (maybe all of us) can sympathize with now as lockdown restrictions begin to ease.
Fun fact: Statistically, I am more likely to die in a car crash than from Covid-19
I guess we are all looking to understand what is real and what it means. I am sure I can’t be the only one looking around for almost the first time in my life and wondering about the person walking towards me – should I have my mask on, do I need to walk out into the road to avoid them, have they got Covid-19, what are they going to do, etc. It has never before occurred to me to think about this base level of social interaction, my society.
Companies and their people
Companies will need to be cognizant of the fact that their employees are going to have (possibly for the first time) a very conscious hard look at the risks of living in the outside world. Doing the things that only a few months ago (Jan/Feb 2020) were subconscious activities. They are going to need to support their people and reintegrate them back into the world, into society again. The company I work for has been very supportive and the Blue Prism Chief People Officer James Mitchell sends out regular company updates, but also includes other messages – looking at people’s well-being, ways of working and stories (some humorous, some more personal, some both) etc. I liked a recent line from one of those updates that I think is pertinent:
We will, as part of our new approach, need to consider what behaviors and norms we want to see, expect and reinforce, aligned to our values. Being kind, considerate and understanding may be seen as fluff until such time as we are subject to actions or behaviors that aren’t.
It is the measure of any positive society - and especially if any positive company culture that we have trust in others. This pandemic and the new norm will test that ability to trust. So, let’s be kind and be aware that others may currently have an altered perception now. Our individual behavior can act as a mirror and help shape the reality and allow people to be trusting again and reintegrate into this "New Norm".
I’ll defer my thoughts on how a digital workforce – especially a SaaS solution like Blue Prism Cloud could help mitigate the risks- to another day.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this and what companies can potentially do or are doing.
NHS Covid-19 & Agoraphobia https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/agoraphobia/#:~:text=Agoraphobia%20is%20a%20fear%20of,travelling%20on%20public%20transport
Covid-19 & Agoraphobia tips https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/agoraphobia-and-covid-19#tips
General Agoraphobia Article https://www.priorygroup.com/blog/managing-agoraphobia-during-the-covid-19-pandemic
Photo credit: https://www.pexels.com/@latronico