Chris Read: Lockdown lessons from astronauts

Covid-19 has accelerated the digital interaction revolution by as much as 20 years, writes Chris Read

Autumn storms herald a Covid-19-inspired recession. Value has been squeezed out of the investment world as more stocks slash dividends. Short-term opportunities to realise value are increasingly scarce.

At the same time, regional lockdowns will invariably lead to national measures to further restrict travel and create social distance between us. Any return to work initiatives have been prematurely curtailed and reversed in the rush to hunker down for the autumn.

Like a submarine, we were able to surface from our isolation in the summer months, but now it is time to batten down the hatches, flood the ballast tanks and sink below the surface.

As we approach the long winter months, our heightened awareness of mental illness, triggered by increased isolation, is a major cause of concern for business leaders. Over the past few weeks, I have heard anecdotal stories of some employees have been flourishing under lockdown, while others are clearly suffering with stress, anxiety, and fear in equal measure.

The experts, according to an article in UCL’s June newsletter, estimate that rates of mental health problems are currently divided between the 30% suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), 15% with depression and a further 15% with anxiety disorders. During the peak of lockdown mental wellbeing charity Anxiety UK took more than 900 calls from sufferers each week.

Sunshine after the rain

But after every storm there is sunshine. We can draw positively from our experience of hard lockdown earlier this year. Furthermore, we can learn from professionals who isolate for a living, such as astronauts and submariners on how to live through isolation.

John Rafferty, a former submariner in the US Navy, would spend extended periods of time submerged. His advice was to focus on life beyond isolation. To help him through the day he would create routines. For instance, showering and putting on clean clothes once a day and making time to do the things that he loved at least once a day. It’s also important to keep talking to others and making plans for the future.  

Chris Hadfield, the Canadian astronaut best known for his guitar rendition of Space Oddity while he was up on the International Space Station, also recorded another video at the start of the pandemic which offered his advice for those facing periods of self-isolation:

  • 1 Understand the risk better and work out what you are able to do to reduce that risk
  • 2 Determine your objectives and choose your goals
  • 3 Don’t be afraid to explore new projects and get creative
  • 4 Keep repeating this cycle

Space is deep. The YouTube video shows Chris peering out of his portal window on the space station towards Earth below. His connection to the vastness is through a glass panel, an intermediary. Communications for us in lockdown too, has been through an intermediary: a Zoom call, a Teams meet, a portal interaction, an App.

Together, all of these are synthetic, artificial substitutes to real life.

Commentators have suggested that Covid-19 has accelerated change in interactions in business by as much as 20 years.

Is it not strange that when you are the midst of the vortex of change, it is difficult to describe what has changed or where that change may take us?

In any event, the future manifesto and direction of travel is going to be the substitution of human interactions with digital interactions, virtual settings, and artificial intelligence. This is no bad thing.

I have never been a great advocate of trying to stop the tide. As humans, we can kick back and let the machines get on with it. When we do have to interact digitally, we want it to be positive and efficient – slick, quick, and direct to the point.

As more and more businesses in the savings and retirement market are forced to interact with their value chain digitally, the availability and capability of technology to interact with clients and business processes is increasingly salient.

Technology provision that can be broken down into functional building blocks and then re-assembled in different contexts and sequences. Software needs to be increasingly ‘hot swap-able’, as old  ‘rip and replace’ strategies increasingly fall out of favour.

In times of accelerated change, there is no time for projects built with long-term return on investment lead times attached to them. Change becomes tactical as there is no time for strategic thinking.

Software must help us edge forward relentlessly – keeping pace with the inevitable waves of change which the pandemic is stimulating. 

Chris Read is group chief executive at Dunstan Thomas