In control

It’s just after 5pm, and I’ve knocked off after what feels like another busy, but productive, day working from home.

As it has been the last few, it’s a pretty day. The sky is blue, the temperature mild. Streets are quiet too, but then that’s the new normal.

It’s too early to say if I’ve formed a new set of routines, but it feels quite comfortable and seamless. Much of the routine is set for me. Every morning I have scheduled team meetings at 9.30 and 10.15 via Teams to catch-up on what’s going on. Today there was a much broader online catch-up at 10.30 for the whole department. I was on mute throughout as I didn’t need or want to say anything. It came as a distraction to me, and as I listened, I continued to work.

What becomes clear in times like these are the different ways people operate. It’s been said that extroverts will struggle in this current environment, and I can hear it in the too enthusiastic contributions to these meetings. I get nothing out of that. In fact, to be honest, I find it mildly irritating. There’s a lot of frivolity and mucking up, much more so than normal. These are abnormal times though, so it’s permitted and I turn a blind ear to it.

There was a clamour at the end of the meeting to make it a weekly thing. If today is anything to go by, there’s not much meat on the bone, but it’s not about that. It’s about contact and connection, and probably a lot of things I wrote about yesterday. The everyday routines are slipping away, and in times like this – for many – a meeting such as this is like clinging to a bit of wreckage in the sea after the ship has sunk beneath them.

I’m self-motivated, self-directed, self-sufficient. I draw from the inside, not externally, which paints me as a typical introvert. I prefer to be independent and do my own thing. Working from home presents no great challenge to me as I don’t need to be led or told (and prefer not to be). It works well for me now, and probably will continue to, but it’s something I need to be wary of.

My instinctive reaction today was typical. I get nothing out of what seems to be an artificial frisson, but then I’m the man who’ll do go it alone even against the best advice. I don’t like being needful or dependent or entangled, but it’s meant that when I should have asked for help in the past, I never did. That was a mistake, and something I need to be better at in general.

Today I got plenty of exercise, and perhaps I have those routines in place. This morning I went for a walk up to and behind the shopping centre, and to Hampton station. I climbed the stairs of the overpass and returned the way I came, just to make it a bit more strenuous. This afternoon I took Rigby for a walk in the sunshine. As it stands, I’ve completed a bit over 7,000 steps today.

I’ve also made a big pot of tomato sauce, and dinner is in the oven. Tomorrow I plan to make myself an omelette for breakfast before my first meeting. I feel in control.


The thinning veneer

I got invited to a Zoom party last night. It’s scheduled for next Friday night when a bunch of us in our homes spread around Melbourne will join online through the application to share drinks remotely, and banter and conversation and all the rest of it. It’s a thing now.

I think most people expect to be in this situation for a while, depending on how successfully we manage to control the coronavirus. I think most people have been sensible, but there’s still enough playing up that it remains a risk for all of us. The best-case scenario, I would think, is 4-6 weeks. The worst is months. And those numbers take no account of if you or I get sick with this thing – a fair chance – in which case numbers don’t matter.

Earlier I was wondering what we learn from this, but then it seemed premature. What can we learn until the lesson has been delivered in full?

So, then, what happens from here? What if we become virtual prisoners of our home for months to come?

Right now it’s new, and there’s a touch of unwelcome novelty about it. Zoom parties tap into that. I read how families are returning to simple pleasures like reading and playing board games. I myself took a couple of hours off yesterday to watch an old movie from the seventies, Heaven Can Wait.

As this continues, I figure the general sense and experience will develop and change. I imagine a lot of people will endure cabin fever, especially if a lockdown becomes official. And I imagine those of us participating in this will experience something like the seven stages of grief as it goes on.

Not all of this is a bad thing. Not in my eyes, anyway. Lifestyle and habit obscure reality and most are happy for that. There’s barely any interruption to it and so rarely cause to question it. Our lives are made up of routine and ritual. We catch the train to work each day and return on the same train at the end of it. We buy our coffee from the same cafe at the same time every morning and exchange the same meaningless banter with the barista. Our work, more or less progresses, down predictable lines. We go to the same meetings, nod to the same people, lunch at the same place. At night we return home to the ritual of family time. We eat together and share our stories and perhaps this is the time it becomes most real – though even then, mostly, it hardly varies from the program. We do it in the same ways.

At night we settle down to watch our favourite programs, the lifestyle and reality shows, the blockbuster series. These will inform conversation we share with others, a common ground of shared experience. Come the weekend there’s shopping and kids sports and leisure. Maybe dinner out, or catch up with friends to blow off steam, but how often does the conversation become intimate? That great regulator of time, sport, comes up on TV, as regular as clockwork. We know that if we turn on the TV at any time, we’ll see a variety of contests available as we flick through the channels. In the winter it’s footy, a great and well-embraced opiate of time and sensation. Tick, tick, tick, there it is, and next week too, and the week after, and all the industry about it, and the conversation it leads to Monday morning, fodder for interaction.

What we have now is a situation where hardly any of that continues. All routines have been disrupted. Rituals are called into question. Habits no longer apply. Real-life has hit us full in the face.

What does it mean now then with those great life patterns in the rubbish? Separated from our routines, who do we become? Not yet, but soon, the real texture of living will become apparent as the veneer we’ve applied to it wears off. We’ve been spoilt. We’ve had it good and easy and who would turn it down given the choice? We have a life that has taken us away from the basic meaning of existence. We live in a buffer zone where miracles are taken for granted. Now the buffer is being stripped bare. For many, that will mean abject hardship. For the rest of us, the sense of entitlement we’ve felt our birthright very likely will be proved a sham.

Maybe I’m getting too far ahead. Maybe it’ll blow over. Maybe I’m getting too philosophical, or perhaps too negative.

Time will tell, and the rest is perspective. What seems negative to others to me looks like a necessary correction. I hope we’re better and more authentic after this, and closer to life. A crucial part of that is humility. We’ve lost that as a society.

I’m in a different situation to most. I have no family to concern me. I live in a small home with a small yard with a big dog. It’s never felt so stark as it does now. I have friends within walking distance I may not see again for months.I’m fortunate by temperament. I’m an introvert with the skills of an extrovert. I can self-sustain, though I’ll miss people. Self-sufficient by inclination and independent by nature, I’ll find ways to keep going. I’ve been through the mill before.

I’m safe in the short term with work because – for now – I have a critical role. I have some seniority now too, as well as about eight weeks of leave up my sleeve. None of that guarantees tenure. Should this go on more than six weeks I’m sure my role will be subject to review also. Before that, I’m sure many others will already have been stood down – and I don’t know if enough, understand the full gravity of the situation. I work with people who blithely expect to continue working regardless, forgetting that if there’s no money in the door then nothing to pay their wage.

In times like these, I expect us, over time, to revert to something of our essential self. That won’t be pretty in many instances. Inhibitions will dissolve. Peer group pressures won’t exist.

For many, it will be good to get back to the person they believed in when they were young and expectant. For me, I expect, I’ll go back to my books, and will find in them meaning, as well as diversion. For others, it may be as simple as re-connecting with the family – though I think in times like this we need to find something for ourself, as well.

I prognosticate. Perhaps I am getting too far ahead of myself. I can do that. It’s only been a few weeks, after all. I have no crystal ball. I think things will be different after this, and I hope what we have experienced is a form of enlightenment.

Go now

I suspect as this progresses, the days will begin to blur, and the distinctions between them fade. For the record, it’s Saturday. When I got up this morning, I did some work. My excuse is that there’s still a lot to be done – but it’s easy to sit in front of a monitor that hasn’t been switched off and get back to the job wearing a pair of tracksuit pants and a torn t-shirt.

I got up late, though. I turned the light off early last night because I needed the sleep, but when I woke this morning at the usual time, I felt unrested. I turned over again and for the next two hours slipped between drowsy, cosy, half-sleep, and the real thing. I got more out of those two hours than I did a night full of sleep.

My usual routine on Saturdays is to read the paper, catch-up for a coffee and a pastry with Cheeseboy maybe, then up to the shops for my weekly shopping. There’s no coffee happening these days, but I read the paper. There were things I needed at the shops, but I hesitated. Eventually, I went and got the necessary stuff – nothing for lockdown as such, but ingredients I needed for some recipes I planned to make this weekend (a beef stroganoff, a pot of tomato sauce). I got home, and I figured that’ll do me now. If I can – lockdown is imminent, I reckon – then I head up again in a week for the perishables, but that’s it. I’m playing safe.

I feel healthy still, though that’s no guarantee of anything. This thing is the real McCoy and lockdown needs to be announced. I think it should have happened a fortnight ago.

One day when we look back, the mistakes made that seem obvious now will be glaring then. The federal government responded early to the threat of C-19 by closing borders. That was the right thing to do and slowed the infection down. The time saved was wasted, though. Instead of acting decisively, the government dithered. At first, I don’t think they took it seriously enough (a mistake I made, though I quickly repented). Even though they’ve figured it out, even now, they’re conservative, as if afraid of what they might do, not understanding that to do nothing is much worse than doing something. Now is the time to go big.

Somehow, the government believed they could come out of this unscathed. That was their mistake. Had they acted quickly, they might have saved the patient by amputating at the knee. Instead, they went back, again and again, cutting here and there, while the infection continued to spread. Now the knee’s gone, and we’ll be lucky if the leg can be saved – but the operation has to be now.

That extends to the economic measures, which have been piecemeal, slow to enact, and not considered fully. The result is thousands of people lining up outside Centrelink offices in the middle of a pandemic. It’s almost funny.

I have much more faith in state premiers than I do in the federal leadership. I’m hard on Scomo, but I feel some pity for him – these are tough times, and he’s not up to it.

It’s pretty sad when someone like Boris Johnson makes you look bad – but the Brits, after being slow to act, have been bold. So too a bunch of other countries. In the meantime, Australia faces huge unemployment as systems crash. I agree the economy has to go into hibernation but to enable that you have to support business to retain workers, and landlords given support so that the jobless have a home to live in. Far better, I would have thought, to administer measures through existing payrolls and maintaining employment, than to send everyone to Centrelink.

Whatever that takes – reduce company tax rates, suspend state payroll tax for six months (Victoria have done this), offer wage subsidies as other countries have done, look at income tax options, as well as stamp duty, and so on.

Much better to go bigger than you need to than too small, because there is no other priority now.

I’m just a schmo in the suburbs. Another guy online with an opinion – but you don’t need to be a Rhodes scholar to know that something has to be done, and done immediately.

The secrets of the body

For Christmas, I got myself one of the fitness watches that track your every movement and physical metric. This one is a Garmin.

I was slow to that party. Most people I knew had some variation of it, but I turned my nose up at it – if everyone’s doing it, I probably don’t. Since getting it though I’ve learned a lot about myself, and about health in general – the signs and indicators.

I never thought about it before, but I can observe that when I’m not feeling well, my heart rate is elevated. There’s a stress measurement also, which reads off variations in heartbeat – the higher the reading, the greater the stress. I’ve noticed the more ‘stressed’ that I am, the more calories I burn. For the last couple of weeks, my stress readings have been high dealing with the challenges of work. Some of that is physical – going up and downstairs – but much is simply a part of dealing with so many things at once. In a way, for me, it’s almost a measurement of mental activity.

Recently they added a function called Body Battery. As it sounds, it basically measures how much stored energy you have, much as it would your mobile phone. I’ve really struggled with this in recent times, and no surprise. A few times it’s got as low as 5, and stopped there (thankfully). Any further I’d be in deficit, or dead. In theory, the battery is charged with proper rest, especially sleep – like you charge your phone. It’s depleted with activity and, I’ve noticed, with stress – using your apps too much, or making too many calls. Unfortunately, you can’t just plug yourself in to charge.

Part of my problem is that I’m not getting much out of my nightly sleep, but one. The big sleep I had Saturday night added about 70% to my battery – the next best has been about 30%.

I’m really struggling at the moment. I’m fatigued all the way through, and somehow my watch picks that up. By the end of the day, I’m completely stuffed.

But then, Thursday night, I’d been crook in the afternoon, due to fatigue, I think. In the evening I sat on the couch and watched TV. I felt myself slow. I was so still that I could feel myself slowly restore. I watched the app on my phone with the measurements showing coming from my watch. My heart rate slowed, as I could feel it, and fell as far as 54 bpm. At the same time, my Body Battery gained about 25 points.

Last night was the opposite. No matter how still I became, I didn’t rest – and my heart rate got no lower than the high eighties. I knew something was amiss, and now I could see it as well as feel it.

My sleep last night wasn’t great. It was full of strange dreams. It wasn’t restorative. I need a good few days of doing nothing and hopefully will see all the signs come good.

One thing I have insight on now is how to look after myself. I’m someone who’ll often work when I’m unwell, on the basis, it’s only inconvenience and discomfort. Now I understand, when I do that I don’t give my body the chance to correct itself. I stress myself when the body is already stressed. I need to rest and let nature take its course without disturbance.

Day two

Now that I’m working from home for God knows how long I’m facing the same challenges as thousands of others having to suddenly adapt to it.

I’ve done it before, and once FT when I had my own business, so not a huge stretch – though all the stuff around it is very different.

I’ve often found it much more productive working from home. There are not the distractions or interruptions of the office. You won’t waste time going up and down in the office (I race between floors), nor the general pointlessness of meetings. You work to your own natural rhythm. I generally start early-ish, then might drift off to have a shower or breakfast. Often times, I find myself to caught up in work that I look up and find hours have gone by. I’m always having lunch late. And sometimes I’ll work in the evening also, dipping in and out.

I’ve got my home office sorted after taking delivery of another monitor yesterday. I’ve got a Surface Pro, which is nice and portable, but not ideal for heavy-duty working – I’ve got it hooked up to two monitors in the office. Here I’ve got the one.

I think it’s important to create a routine in situations like this and to make an effort to remain active. I wake at the same time as I would if I was going to work. Instead of showering and getting dressed I make myself a coffee and check the important email from overnight, and respond as needed – I’m working if an offshore team. I’ll head back to bed for about an hour then catching up on news and social media, and maybe a chapter of the book I’m reading (currently, James: Varieties of Religious Experience).

I have online meetings first thing, but after that, I make an effort to go up the road to get a take-away coffee, while I still can. I’ve set myself goals in terms of activity, and won’t walk out the front door until I’ve had at least a thousand paces under my belt. I’ve got a bunch of exercise rituals I’ll tick off through the day, and I’ve committed to a minimum of 6,000 paces daily – at work, it’s nearer to 10,000, and around 13,000 more recently.

Here there are no stairs to climb, no place to roam come lunch, nobody to see – I’m not allowed. I go for my morning walk, and I walk Rigby in the afternoon or evening.

I plan to take a break around 4pm to do some cooking – a rice pudding, today. Tomorrow I’m making zucchini and feta fritters. For dinner tonight I’m having a homemade pizza. I also have a bunch of ironing to do around 5.30.

I’ll do a bit of work after that, have my dinner, and maybe I’ll have a hot tub after that. I was severely fatigued up to this morning, but some good rest has had a restorative effect. I still fancy in a bathful of radox tonight.

I’m umming and ahhing over my appearance. I dress casually through the day, naturally. But the haircut I had booked for Saturday has been cancelled, and it might be a while until I get my next one. I might go long then.

I’ve carried a beard since Christmas, but I thought I might shave it off in lockdown, which sounds counter-intuitive. It’s a close-cut beard that makes me look rugged – very much like a Viking. It also makes me look about ten years older because it’s predominantly grey, with pale sandy blonde bits. I like the beard, but I like seeming younger, too.

This is day two. I reckon there’s probably another month of this at least, and possibly much more. Whatever I do now will evolve into something more, as will the situation itself. I have a job now, am busy, but as the situation deteriorates – as we all know it will – what will come?

The old cliche, one day at a time.

From home, now until when?

Yesterday afternoon we were given the option to work from home if it was feasible. I have laptop and VPN, and so I elected to take that up. This morning the message came through that alternative rostering options were now off the table, and if able to work from home you should do it. I’m home now, don’t know when I’ll get back to the office next – months, I suspect.

It was a strange feeling yesterday. Much of the business is trialling work from home. On my floor, which is on the corporate level, probably 60% of people were away. When the news came that we could work from home, there was a strange vibe. Like Christmas, someone said, though not like Christmas. You know, there’s a scheduled break coming up for everyone, and there’s a sense of farewell, see you next year. Except in this case, there’s nothing joyous or expectant about it, and no-one knows when we’ll see each other next.

Unfortunately, it’s not possible for everyone yet. This is the busiest time of year for the business, and for many, there aren’t the arrangements in place to work anywhere but in the office. That’s making a lot of people nervous, and some pissed off. I understand that. I also understand that if the business fails, then people lose their jobs. It sounds a bit callous, but it’s a balancing act.

That’s pretty much been full time on – enabling a way for the bulk of the sales and operational staff to continue in their jobs working from home.

We cutover on Monday night, as I described nervously that afternoon. I worked 15 hours that day, finishing a little after 11pm. Somewhat to my surprise, it was almost a complete success. Given the rush and the sheer scale of change, I fully expected for parts of it to go awry. I factored that in when planning the deployment, figuring it was better to have something in and working than to delay in these uncertain times. As it turns out, the bugs were minor. It was a mighty achievement.

We delivered about 80% of the solution on Monday night. The remaining 20% was implemented last night. Once more, almost perfect, and very well received.

I know a lot of people were heaving sighs of relief, but probably none more so than me.

In terms of the business, this isn’t the final call. I’ve facilitated the underlying technology, but there’s also VPN licensing and applications to be deployed and, in some instances, actual devices to be handed out. Thankfully that’s not in my purview, and I’ve done my bit.

In times like these, it doesn’t feel right to be too personal. It feels indulgent as if perspective is askew. I’m conscious of the troubling times, and the tremendous personal challenges many will face. Many people will fall ill. Many others will lose their job. Society itself is disrupted like never before.

All that is humbling, but I want to share for the record something is personal, and quite possibly self-indulgent. I feel some satisfaction at what we’ve achieved, and my part in, though perhaps not as much as what you might think. It’s my job, and I enjoyed it. It’s significant at a deeper level, however.

Coming out of my homeless phase, I wondered if I had lost anything in the process. Was I still the same man? Was I still as capable? Was all that a myth?

Within a few years, I realised that I was just as sharp and as capable as ever. The problem was that I was hardly allowed to show it. For various reasons, the opportunities were infrequent and limited in scope. It’s taken a while to find myself in a position of influence, and a crisis like this to show what I was capable of. It took a budding catastrophe for me to take the stage again.

I don’t know if I proved anything to myself through this. It’s probably proved something to others, but find I don’t care as much about that as I would have expected. It feels almost a mic drop moment for me. There, I’ve done it. I don’t have to do it again. I’ve proven a point. I wonder now if one of the motivating forces in me these last few years will now quieten?

Practically speaking, this is the start of it for me. I’m home, but I’ve identified other opportunities that have been green lit to do. I’ll do them from home, in conjunction with other people working from home. That’s the world today.

Being practical, I’ve probably assured my role for the immediate future. I expect a lot of others will lose theirs.

Pardon my self-indulgence. I know much greater things are afoot.

Lead the way

I watched Scott Morrison in his press conference announcing updates to COVID-19 restrictions. For the first time in my life, I almost felt sorry for him.

Customarily Morrison comes across as a smug prick, with an unwelcome smirk on his face. Most of what he says and does it couched in political terms. He’s always trying to gain an advantage, as if the prime purpose isn’t the national good, but political gain. For me – unlike many others, obviously – he’s never come across as a convincing national leader. First and foremost he’s a political operator.

That remained true until about a week ago. Then he woke up, I think. He realised he was in the middle of a catastrophe and it was his job to do something about it. He was very late to that understanding, which explains why the response to date has been slow and hesitant.

Last night there was no smirk and no sign of being smug. Instead, he appeared almost vulnerable – the most human I’ve ever seen him. He was caught up in the biggest challenge this country has faced since the wars, and he knew it. He was verbose, as he tends to be, but gone was the political cant. Still, the message was vague.

I think one of the issues we have is about the strategy we should have adopted. All the talk is about flattening the curve – a phrase that will live on in the language long after this. The right strategy to achieve this is hard to know because, essentially, there’s a conflict between economic and physical health. Right now they’re almost at odds. The best way to curtail infection and save lives is basically to shut the economy down – a lockdown. That’s a harsh cure, and one the government has been pussyfooting around. Throughout, they’ve sought to compromise between the two poles.

Personally, I think that’s misguided and probably pointless. My view again is that you have to take the firmest measures and try and stop this thing in its tracks. That’ll save lives and if it means going into lockdown then so be it. Better a sharp shock than prolonged agony, which is what we face without decisive action.

We’re now where we should have been at three weeks ago. That’s three weeks lost, as well as extra lives ultimately, and it means the pain will likely extend longer. I’m sure tougher restrictions will be required, why not jump to them now? It’s this creeping, indecisive process that dilutes the confidence of people.

One thing I know from leading projects that you must be decisive – or at least, appear to be so. I know there’s a lot of conflicting advice in this, the most extreme of pressure environments, but this is not the time to equivocate. You’re not going to get it 100% right in such extreme situations, so don’t even think that, but if you are to err, err on the side of caution. It’s only human to have doubts, but in times like this, you can’t show it. What people want are leadership and certainty. They want firm resolutions and a set strategy. They want to trust you have this is in hand, and that’s not going to happen unless you’re out in front leading the way.

I think people are ready to do the right thing. There are many crying out for it. There’s a lot at stake. Now’s the time to be strong.