High stress and culture change, aka 2020.

Due to this pesky virus thing that’s making the rounds killing people, a whole bunch of web folk are suddenly being encouraged or ordered to stop traveling, start washing their hands, and work from home.

If your company has a remote-first culture, you’re going to find everyone is more stressed than usual, but assuming it’s a healthy culture, you’re probably going to be fine.

If your company has a co-location first culture, and work-from-home is a flexibility option or there’s only a handful of remote-work employees, this is going to be a  learning experience. I don’t just mean for you — your team and your organization are coming along for the ride.

If you’re a manager or decision maker, please do not take what happens over the next few weeks in your new work-from-home culture as an indicator of what it’s like to work at home when there isn’t a novel virus pandemic.

The experience we’re having now is not typical. If you were given the option to create a remote-first or remote-friendly culture, you wouldn’t start by announcing that contingency plans are going into action and everyone has to bring their laptop home now. They’re called contingency plans because we hoped we’d never have to use them. We certainly didn’t design our corporate cultures around them.

Contingency plans are both reactions to stress (because something horrible has happened) and causes of stress (because now we have to do something different from the norm). Judging the success of a cultural shift by whether it works in a contingency plan is bad planning.

Stress is  the body’s reaction to change. It evolved as a protection against the natural world constantly trying to kill us. Sometimes that’s a mountain lion. Sometimes it’s a pandemic. Sometimes it shows up in the form of  burnout. We’re going to assume that you’re at least passingly familiar with it.

Most non-natural-disaster days, we may be in a group at home or at work where one or two people are experiencing high stress but the rest are not. We might be surprised to find that being around people who are under high stress suddenly makes us feel stressed, even if everything was calm between us. It turns out stress is contagious. Secondhand stress is a real thing.

It’s not coincidental that being around someone that’s stressed out makes you feel stressed. It’s chemical. Their body is telling your body to look out for the murderous lion they spotted without making a sound, and your body’s not aware that it’s a murderous lion but it is aware it’s time to go on high alert.

(A whole bunch of readers just when “OH THAT EXPLAINS 2019/2020” and I feel you.)

When it comes to COVID-19 though, this is not a scenario where “fight, flight, or freeze” will do any of us any good. Viruses aren’t alive, so they’re not only incapable of being bullied, they’re incapable of recognizing that they’re viruses. That means we can feel the stress, but there’s not a lot we can do about its cause.

Some people (hi!) have had good reason to fear respiratory infections for most of their lives. My husband has Cystic Fibrosis, so his experience of a common cold is closer to my experience of bronchitis, and his experience of bronchitis would be my experience of pneumonia or worse. (And, it’s worth noting, I have asthma so my experience of bronchitis was already worse-than-normal.)

We may be  experiencing fear of an infection for the first time, wondering if our parents or friends or kids are going to make it through, especially if we live in North America or Europe, where epidemics are rare events. We’re used to going to the doctor, getting treated, and going home. “Cancer” is something we think will kill us. “The 1918 Spanish Flu Epidemic” is just a bunch of stories biologists tell us to fund their research, right?

Yeah, turns out no.

We may also be stressed about the pandemic’s consequences: schools closing, workplaces closing, supermarkets or other stores shutting down, food delivery disappearing, work disappearing, quarantines, medical bills, regular bills, shortened hours… In the US, where healthcare is tied to your job and sick days may be nonexistent, catching a virus that requires you to self-quarantine for 14 days may very well cost you your job, your home, and your future.

If you and your family are healthy but the schools and offices close, it may  mean facing down family stress. I know lots of people who choose not to work at home because they love their kids and if the kids are home, they want to spend their time as a family. I know others who find it difficult because their kids’ schedule is disrupted, causing stress, or there’s other family stress that is ramped up when everyone’s in the same building together. (Cue stereotypical comment about “the teen years”.)

If we actually do catch the virus, we could be facing not 14 days of quarantine but 3 or 4 weeks of quarantine as the disease makes its way through the household from oldest to youngest. In a best-case scenario this means everyone’s home sick coughing together wishing their fairy godmother would heat up the soup. In a worst-case scenario someone’s in the ICU and nobody from home can visit because they’re all sick too.

So almost all of us have reasons to be feeling stressed, whether they’re firsthand or secondhand stress responses, and whether they’re fears of things happening now or fears of things that could happen.

For many of us, when home life is tempestuous, work life becomes our anchor (and vice versa). Our desire is to have some space where we can stay the course for eight hours a day, go to the office, do what we always do, “keep calm and carry on”…  except that the things we always do, including bringing large groups of people together on a daily basis where they can share infected surfaces and breathe each other’s air is how COVID-19 spreads.

Which brings us back to the beginning.

If we’re working at a company where remote-work is not the norm, and our corporate contingency plan is everyone shifts to work-from-home, we’re about to make huge cultural shifts in our workplaces, under a time of extreme and contagious not-work stress.

This isn’t going to be your routine work-from-home situation, even if you already have one. Organizations are going to learn a lot about what tools, social structures, and expectations they have do and don’t transfer from lower-stress co-location culture to higher-stress remote-first culture. Some of our teams are going to fail.

We all need to go into the next few weeks with the understanding that not all of the lessons we learn are going to transfer well into future decisions.

There are dozens of things that will help us be successful (but not guarantee it). I’m going to recommend two tonight.

One is learning about good work-from-home behaviors and cultures if you don’t have one already. Abi Jones wrote a Twitter thread on work-from-home tips over the weekend. Abi’s a manager, so her threads generally cover advice good for both independent contributors and managers. (And she does great threads on lots of UX-adjacent topics so you should follow her.)

The second is learning about the biology and psychology of the stress cycle.  When I said earlier that we can feel the stress of a pandemic but there’s not a lot we can do about it? That’s only half-true.

We can’t individually solve the source of the stress. Viruses are gonna virus.

We can individually take actions that bring our own bodies through the physical stress cycle so that we feel less stress and are more prepared to deal with the next stress-causing event.

The book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking The Stress Cycle has all the details. The following video by the authors will give you the top tips to help release the stress we’re feeling so that we can recover and get well.

So stress: it’s high right now. Because of the pandemic conditions, it’s higher for some than others, and it may be affecting both our lives at work and our lives at home, especially if we’re asking entire teams to move to work-from-home cultures that have never experienced them before.  It’s not a good idea to use this petri dish of change as a baseline for other less-disaster-oriented cultural changes in the future. It is a good idea to read up on what we need to know about working from home, and learn how to release ourselves from the physical stress cycle.

Be well, and take care, my friends.

Author: Anne Gibson

anne gibson is a Senior Staff Product Designer and General Troublemaker working on design systems from outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She's an editor and writer at The Interconnected. She is also published at A List Apart and The Pastry Box, and publishes short fiction when she's not persuading the terriers to stop wrecking things. (The terriers are winning.)