When time stood still - 16 March 2020 to 16 March 2021

16 March 2021

A personal reflection by Jaco Marais, Creative Partner.

My family lives in New Zealand. It was the place they chose to emigrate to when they left South Africa in 2005. I was on an extended visit meant to last until the end of April 2020, but when the coronavirus news broke, with cancelled flights and borders locking down, I made the decision to return to the UK at the end of January.

The information available to us ranged from the disease having effects as serious as the Ebola virus, which is a death sentence that kills rapidly, to being as easily controlled as SARS. My concern was that if COVID-19 was allowed to spread uncontrolled, we could witness devastation on the scale not seen since 1918-1920, when the ‘Spanish Flu’ killed 3-6 percent of the world’s population.

It was a tense flight as half the passengers wore masks and the other half looked concerned, no doubt wondering whether one was necessary. Hand sanitiser and gloves were sold out, but soap was still available.

I decided to fly early because I was concerned that there would be imminent lockdowns that would last for anything up to two years. I was surprised to see that apart from a welcome uptake in personal hygiene, very little was done to curb the spread of the virus in London, until Boris Johnson mentioned the words: “herd immunity” while being interviewed for Radio 4’s PM programme exactly one year ago.

Overnight the streets of London emptied and GGI went into lockdown after an urgent but measured email from Andrew, our CEO, explaining how working from home was no longer an option at GGI, but mandatory.

The new normal

Leaving my bachelor pad in London to live in a farm cottage with my ex-husband, his boyfriend, a stranded Romanian waitress and two dogs, one of which was about to give birth to nine puppies, was new for me, but definitely not normal.

The GGI headquarters became a hive of activity as we eked out separate living quarters, cooking, cleaning and exercise schedules, better internet connection and a programme of work that would prove useful for NHS board members who were also learning how to cope with the ‘new normal.’

By the time the Prime Minister announced the official lockdown on Friday 21 March, the GGI team was set up in our home offices, registered and trained to use Zoom for business and we had each set out on our individual ambitions to achieve a GGI transformation campaign in line with what our supporters will require from us in the months to come.

On Monday 23 March we published the first of 100 COVID-19 bulletins.

Command and control

The last thing we did before we vacated our London workspace was to interview for a new GGI Director of Communications. We offered the job to Stephen McCulloch, but he wasn’t to start with us until August. The role of interim director of communications fell to me at a crucial time when there was a lot to change.

For the communications team it was a very different way of working and the pace of work had increased ten-fold as we were now publishing daily practical advice for NHS and other public or third sector boards, while organising several weekly webinars for NHS NEDs and Mental Health Chairs, the Seacole group etc., while learning everything there was to learn about the pandemic and its many consequences.

I drew on my experience of crisis management gained from working as a chef and also a sailor. Quickly the team were divided into clearly defined roles with distinct areas of responsibility prioritised as tasks. My job was to keep oversight, check tone and smooth out the kinks in the production line to solve the stresses between consignments.

The idea was to see what motivated people and assess how much each person does in one day to form a structure for us all to thrive in. As soon as I was confident that people were comfortable in their roles, I would hand back control in increments until this level of managerial oversight was no longer useful and each person was working well in the team.

As soon as I could assess that team was working autonomously from me, I was freed up to create or find something new for us to work on. Introducing something new would cause inevitable hiccups, which would prompt a return to agreeing daily or weekly priorities until the system once again ran without any unnecessary stresses.

We could measure our success in various ways but ultimately we increased traffic to our website by over 110%.

A time for kindness

16 March was also the beginning of an evolving personal tragedy as my father was taken into hospital in South Africa after suffering a heart attack and a catastrophic pulmonary embolism.

Unable to visit, all I could do was to involve myself with his care and many hospital transfers and delays caused by the virus, over the phone with my brother until our father died on 22 May. He was my rock and we were best friends and I miss him every day.

The tragic news came just as I was putting the finishing touches to the bulletin I wrote called Time for Kindness, in which I present the idea that it is possible to be ok in some ways, even when we are not in others, if we are able to compartmentalise and set aside time in the day for kindness to ourselves and to others.

GGI has grown, and many of my colleagues I am yet to meet in person. I am honoured to have been of some use to my team, to GGI and to the NHS during the lockdown, even if that use has been to keep everyone far too busy to fall victim to isolation or an excess of idle pleasures.

Thank you.

Meet the author: Jaco Marais

Creative Partner

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