I wrote this piece for the Blog-a-Thon that happened at work. I was asked to write about 2020, and how I navigated the year. I am saving it here for posterity.
In the end of March 2020, when the pandemic shed its cloak of mystery, appeared with fangs and all, and became almost palpable, I imagined myself running around like a lost dog. A wave of questions reached my mind’s shore – “What is really happening? What does ‘Work From Home’ mean really? When do I go back to the office? Will my books in the Little Free Library I set up at work miss me?” Above all, I perpetually meditated on the question, “How do I become a better leader?” Just like the questions, the answers came in waves too. While the pandemonium demanded distance in the physical world, while I operated from behind the opaque curtain of the virtual world, the gap between the worlds threatened to become wider. The abyss was hungry, and it wished that something would fall through the crack. However, an ancient tool – words, words, oh-so-glorious words! – unfolded itself, offering comfort, and assurance. Colleagues’ non-verbal cues – the all-is-well smile at the one-on-ones, the raised eyebrows which accentuate curiosity at meetings, the stretch that follows a completed task… — could have gone on a sabbatical, at least until I befriended MS Teams fully, but the old-world charm of words came to the rescue. Even as the pandemic raged, communication became the panacea. It’s ironic, yet utterly beautiful.
The Antidote to Phone Anxiety
Until the Work From Home started, the only time I picked up the phone to make a call every day was when I had to talk to the Transport Team to know my cab’s arrival. Most times, the sweet team would drop a message even before I could call them. I am the quintessential millennial who prefers texting to calling. I would spend a couple of extra minutes to send you a carefully crafted message on WhatsApp, but I wouldn’t dial your number. It’s a quirk that’s loved and loathed in equal measure. When the Work From Home began, the initial uproar didn’t hold any space for texting. Calls flew relentlessly like migrating birds. Calls from my team, peers, sharing updates, requesting for information, seeking help, and offering support. Every time the phone rang, my heart would plummet. I would see the phone quietly hum Erik Satie’s Gnossienne No 1, and mutter all the courage I have got to place my unsure finger on the green button. For the first two days, the calls went in a blur. In a couple of days, the time I took, stalling and listening to my ringtone, gradually reduced. I flexed some muscles, and began answering calls after three rings. Most times, there was always an excited, enthusiastic colleague thrilled to share some information. Other times, there were tired souls who hoped that the telephonic conversation would give them a respite from the quotidian agony of the quarantine. In time, it dawned on me that we were seeing something truly unprecedented, and that it was futile to stay looking inward, succumbing to new-age anxieties. The microbe, as it wove its web across the globe, offered an antidote to my phone anxiety, and alleviated the apprehensions gifted unasked by technology. The beauty of words had a healing effect on the conversations. Collaborations seemed easier. It felt good to pick up the phone and say, “I am so glad you called…”, or something even more vulnerable like, “I can actually hear your smile…” or “I wish we were at work!” Calls are not bad after all. They need not be judged harshly, perhaps.
Not A Black Hole
As we waited for the roadmap to emerge after the quarantine began, as calls continued to travel back and forth, messages started raining on WhatsApp. People wanted to feel heard and seen, people wanted to participate, and especially when the pandemic pulled the rug out from under us, creating space to share the extraordinariness of our ordinary lives became paramount. On our team’s WhatsApp group, we encouraged people to tell us about their lives in the lockdown. The traffic on the group continued to soar. Just like how listening is critical in real life, responding to someone’s message, regardless of how significant or trivial it is, becomes important in virtual life. 2020 taught me that meaningful relationships can be forged at work, even if we work from home, by merely sending thoughtful, empathetic messages. On our WhatsApp group, people shared pictures of the food that they made during the quarantine, images of their children’s artwork, aww-inducing pictures of their furry and feathery companions, and I saw the importance of not being a black hole that simply absorbs information but responding to as many messages as possible to tell people that they are being heard. My responses ranged between being super mundane and super emo, but I responded all the same. Instead of doling out templated responses, I took refuge in the beauty and power of words again. I abused adjectives, wrote sentences after sentences, and told them that whatever they were flaunting was worth it; our world was shut down, but it still needed to be celebrated for surviving. The practice of fervently responding to messages extended to professional conversations as well. Every tiny update met with a ‘Thank you for the note!’. Every heads-up received a ‘Thank you for sharing!’ In 2020, I understood that people don’t want their messages to disappear up in the air, but they want them to be received, and acknowledged, and the mere act of sending a tiny signal back is considered as revolutionary as receiving a message from another civilization from an unknown place in the universe. Everybody wants to be told that they are not alone, and that we are all in this together.
I Hear You
The Awkward Silence missed us when the lockdown began. It waited in its home – our lifts at work – with the hope that we would return in 2020. When that didn’t happen, the Awkward Silence left the lifts, and moved into MS Teams. “Can you hear me?” the organiser would ask at the meetings, and we all would wait, thinking that somebody would say yes. The Awkward Silence would enter and stay. “Are you able to see my screen?” the organiser would ask, and again we would be washed over by the bystander syndrome. The Awkward Silence would do a quick happy dance. “Have you got any questions for me?” The Awkward Silence would smirk. “Is anybody okay to switch on the video?” The Awkward Silence would wait and watch. 2020 pilfered the difference the calendars could have on our lives, and the ways we recognise the passage of time, but it also taught that when times become tougher the real difference can be made by doing one small act at a time, bringing one small difference to the table. Like saying, “Yes, I can hear you.” Like saying, “No, your screen is not shared yet.” Like saying, “Thank you for giving some time back in this meeting.” Like switching on the video sometimes when the organiser requests for some support. They all can seem minuscule in the grand scheme of things, perhaps, to that person, who is trying hard to swallow the anxiety that comes with organizing any virtual meeting, it might matter more than I can imagine. 2020 taught me that we can be sounding boards, devil’s advocates, but active participation is the building block to constructive exchange, especially when it happens through two black mirrors.
2020 was all about switching between microscopic and telescopic views. It made me be enamored with an ant entering and exiting a crack on the wall. It made me be transfixed by Camus’s reflections on existential dread. It filled me with despair and gratitude. It made me take a stroll on memory lane, and it moved me with the restlessness to break into the future. It made me miss my office, and it held space to discover new things about my coworkers despite the distance. It wasn’t a year of binaries, but of nuances. And I explored its diverse landscape on the vehicle called Communication, with words as its sturdy wheels. 2020 could have been an unyielding concrete, but by the way communication made ways to strengthen collaborations, be inclusive, innovate in our own ways, and look after ourselves and everybody around us, I believe that communication is the heroic plant which rebels, and grows from concrete.
“The words. Why did they have to exist? Without them, there wouldn’t be any of this.”― The Book Thief by Markus Zusak