Social Distancing and Emotional Distancing: What has Covid Taught Us?

Thomas FairbairnJune 24, 20205min0
The Mona Lisa – a classic example of emotional ambiguity.

I think it’s fair to say that the past few months have been the strangest in my lifetime. I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking this. This crisis has caused enormous social and economic disruption, as well as many deaths around the world. At Awards International, our deepest thoughts and sympathies go out to everyone affected by COVID-19, both directly and indirectly.

Social distancing has become a way of life, forcing us to act against our nature and keep apart from friends and family. In the world of work, the Zoom call has become the new normal. For those fortunate enough not to be furloughed or even lose their jobs, this has meant huge changes to the employee experience, but I believe that many of these are actually beneficial and will remain in place once this crisis has passed.

Earlier in the year, just before the lockdown started, I interviewed DeAnna Avis from Solus Accident Repair Centres. As part of their customer experience strategy, she stressed the importance of “vulnerability, being mindful, and getting people to open up.” This need for greater humanity and acknowledgment of vulnerability has been a trend in employee experience for some time now. But COVID-19 has accelerated the trend.

On a Zoom call, we are reminded that everyone has a home life. We see many examples of this: it might be the sound of children playing in the background, or perhaps a cat climbing over the keyboard! Although some people might think this is damaging, I think the contrary: we are reminded of the essential humanity of the people we work with and, in my view, this lays the foundation for stronger working relationships.

There is no hiding our vulnerability: the mere fact that we are working from home and “staying alert” is evidence of this. Of course, professionalism matters, competence matters, but the idea that we need to present ourselves as in control 100% of the time seems to be breaking down. I call this concept “emotional distancing”. And I think we’re seeing less of it.

In my view, this is a good thing. In his book Happy, Derren Brown argues that a lot of our insecurities come from the contrast between social and inner selves. When we meet other people, we are confronted with their social self: a well-polished, presentable version of their personality. We then compare that to our own inner self, which can feel a lot less polished! The perception of that gulf, although in reality an illusion, is the source of a great deal of discontent. I think that this crisis has made that gap smaller. Seeing our colleagues in a domestic setting and discussing lockdown mental health reminds us of how similar we really are, and how we all face common challenges.

Having read many judges’ comments from previous Awards, I’ve noticed that this is something they want finalists to discuss. If a presenter gives a 100% positive account of their initiative, judges can often be sceptical. They might well ask a question about the challenges a finalist has faced – and they expect an honest answer. In my experience, finalists that can speak frankly about the challenges they faced, and how they overcame them, are rewarded for this honesty by the judges. There doesn’t need to be a contradiction between facing difficulties and doing great work.

As with many crises in the past, this pandemic provides us with a chance to reflect on our values, and think about the kind of world we want to see when this is over. And in my opinion, a world where we acknowledge our problems is one where we can truly help each other.



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Thomas Fairbairn

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