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Continuing his thoughts on what he's learned during lockdown, Harbour's strategy lead Kevin Chesters discusses why he thinks its important to keep it real when it comes to what's placed in the background of video calls. 

Last month, I wrote about some of the ‘lessons of lockdown’ and some of the new behaviours I thought we should all keep from these months of virtual working. Now I want to delve a bit deeper into one lesson I think we should all adopt to ensure some positive mental health in the weeks ahead.

Although things are far from ‘back to normal’ in the UK we have at Harbour, like loads of other companies, been going into the office (the socially distanced, Covid-19 proof office) for over a month now. We have designated days where everyone goes in, and then days when everyone works from home. This balanced way of getting back to some sort of normality seems to be working well, for the company and for our clients.

I’ve never liked binary answers of  ‘all this’ or ‘all that’  so for me, the mix that lots of companies have been following for July and August is a perfect solution. It’s not exactly the same as it was but we’ve found that – although it is entirely voluntary – everyone has quite enjoyed getting back to working two days a week in a ‘normal’  office again. I think lots more companies will be quietly adopting this as a way of working in the months ahead.

But this doesn’t mean that most client/partner meetings haven’t still been Zoom, or Teams, or Hangouts, or Wherebys, or some garbled version of FaceTime or WhatsApp. I think for the foreseeable we will be doing most of our work ‘virtually’ - see Google's announcement of not opening offices until mid 2021.

Now this isn’t easy for us humans. As a connected - and connecting - species we still find it tricky to not be in close proximity to each other, not to see the whites of the eyes, not to be able to judge outcomes via the reaction and body language of our colleagues. And for our mental health we will all still struggle – most of us – with not being in a daily social environment.

As I said, recently I’ve been thinking about mental health and how the changes to the way we are all working might adversely affect it – and what we can do about it. I wanted to pass on some advice that I think can help everyone to adapt to the changes, and maybe keep on an even keel.

So, Zoom, or Hangouts, are still probably the biggest part of our working days – and they will be for the foreseeable.

And it seems that everyone gets very exercised over what’s going on in the background of these calls. All those desperately curated bookshelves. All those painfully art directed rooms and walls. It seems people are very keen for everyone to know how very cultured and mega bright they are. All those copies of Kahneman, Taleb, Harari, etc. There’s even an hilarious Twitter account; @BCredibility dedicated to the bookshelf curating part of this phenomenon. If you ever want a proper laugh just look at MP Grant Shapps' background in any interview – he’s tried so hard that it is borderline tragic (even down to his comically oversized Union Jack). But I think all these backgrounds are really quite revealing. It makes me wonder how many people have spent as long thinking about their foregrounds.

Let me explain.

Lockdown wasn’t easy for anyone. If anyone tells you they enjoyed it they are a massive liar. It was taxing on all our health – mentally and physically – and remains so. We should all be more honest about mental health (I know from experience working with mental health charity Time to Change, talking literally saves lives). There were moments in March and April when I was at a pretty low ebb. A medical condition I share with my youngest son meant we were properly shielded, 100% confined to barracks, for 14 straight weeks. What helped to save me wasn’t a bookshelf or the admiration of a client or colleague on Zoom. What kept me safe and sane was the support and love of those closest to me, my family. In front of my eyes on my wall – that no one else could see – were the messages of love and the photos of my loved ones or special memories. In particular was one post it note. Allow me a small digression…

In the darkest part of lockdown I grabbed a post-it pad and wrote down everything that was on my mind and what I thought should be my priorities for the coming days – personally and professionally. I then grouped them, sorted them and listed them in priority order (planners, eh?). After a while, I realised that only three things I had written really mattered. I wrote them on a post-it and it stayed with me every day from March to now. It’s now framed and sits in my eyeline every day. I won’t reveal it to you because it’s very personal but needless to say nothing on it was about Zoom backgrounds or window dressing or industry think-pieces.

The view I saw (not the background everyone else saw) for hour-after-hour of Zooms was what kept me sane. This is also a metaphorical lesson for us all. Let’s worry a bit less about the window dressing and the theatre - and think a bit harder about what is important; We should all spend a lot more time thinking about the foregrounds of our lives and a bit less time on background.

This works equally well for agencies and clients about brands and creative work. Stop obsessing over proprietary processes or methodologies - and focus again on the important bit, the quality of the creative end product.

The best bits of lockdown Zooms were those glorious interruptions and the intrusion of real life; Scarlett and the bookcase (see below), two cookies, etc... The best Zoom background I saw was when someone had to relocate from their usual workspace and dial me from her daughter’s bedroom. The background of unicorns and pink fluffy whatever was way better than any bookshelf. Because it was real. I have loved seeing babies and kids and kittens and dogs lumbering into view in the middle of meetings. I’ve loved peeking into the kitchens and spare rooms of some of the most senior marketers in the country!

I’ve just really liked the fact that we’ve all been a bit more human outside of the usual veneer.

The best part of being part of a collective at Harbour has been how our different partners have been willing to step in and support each other, in all sorts of ways. As a consultancy, we met every day - virtually - during the main part of lockdown. Some of it was about status meetings and making sure things didn’t drop, but it was mostly about pastoral care and making sure that WE didn’t drop as colleagues and friends.

We’re running a series of webinars at Harbour for our member agencies and clients on the ‘Lessons of Lockdown’ – using proprietary qualitative and quantitative data from the last six months. It’s all very revealing from a professional standpoint.

However, the biggest lesson I’ve learned in lockdown is it’s not about what everyone else sees that keeps you safe and sane, it is the things in front of you or inside you that no one sees. We need to get better at taking care of ourselves and each other in this business.