As a 42-year-old city worker, I unapologetically love London and all its quirks — the hustle, the people, the diversity and yes, I said it, the commute — a key part of my “Girl in London City” experience! I’ll admit that despite the extortionate travel fees, lack of seating and an hour of pissed-off passengers, the commute is sometimes missed! Admittedly, I reminisce about those moments even as we approach almost a year in chunks of lockdown for our own safety, as we eagerly await confirmation and hope that the COVID-19 pandemic will eventually meet its demise in the U.K. and across the world.
With most of the country now placed in the highest Tier and forced to remain indoors, this rule also applies to my London-based company’s current work culture for the foreseeable future where our make-shift offices — within kitchens, bedrooms or living rooms — remain as is. Whilst many revel in this newfound semi-permanent way of functioning, where casual attire and braless chic is fashioned with pride — as well as the reduction of costs in travel — there are those who dread this new definition of “normal,” including me.
Living alone and confined within my four walls for most of the working day whilst absent from team dynamics — as I attempt to enforce a new daily work-life balance regime — the “out of sight, out of mind” theory vigorously cycles in my once-fragile mind. Losing a dear friend to the dreaded virus in April and not having an outlet to say goodbye during the peak of the pandemic, was the catalyst that sped my mind into overdrive. Ironically, it was this same friend, who often reminded me, that the once younger Sejal, would have been able to overcome any struggle better than my current self often manages.
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Stepping foot into the city as a newly graduated 22-year old almost two decades ago brought its own adventures. My curiosity of working in this larger than life place was met with experiences unknown to me which shaped my future self — professionally and personally — kudos to Sauvignon Blanc for helping me try and become a social butterfly!
But for the best part of my 30s, my love-hate relationship with the city, saw it walk me through my journey of recovering from an eating disorder triggered by clinical depression, during a time where mental health discussions in the workplace provoked unease. With the limited social media channels in those key years of my working life holding little importance, what we now see as Snapchat, Insta or Facebook Stories translated back then in the lens of my mind as life encounters.
Ignorance was bliss; the world didn’t need to know and didn’t give a flying fuck about my delayed commute, what coffee I picked up, how cool my office space was. A drink (or more) after work was often unplanned, cheap and cheerful — and not designed to be part of a glossy Facebook post where all my work colleagues and I were checked in!
Parking LinkedIn aside, our personal lives could remain just that — personal, because there was no direct urge to desperately peek into how our peers lived outside of our 9-5 world. Our social skills at work naturally developed with people of different walks of life at pure face value. What we had contributed during our working day in our allocated hours with the resources at our disposal, was sufficient. Even with the introduction of the Blackberry Messenger, for those who were privileged to receive a work phone, the concept of having a constant “active” status was of minimal importance. This was our “normal.”
Last year, however, was a completely different ballgame, which will roll itself into 2021 as the new way of working. The era of technology has transformed the once structured office work culture. Remote working, email access on every one of our devices and virtual chat rooms have proven physical presence in an office is no longer a prerequisite to enable us to carry out our daily tasks. Hours and money saved on travel and the work-life balance especially for those who have dependents are often voiced as an opportunity to be more efficient. So if employees have the option to be flexibly available, with limited out of work activities to participate in during the COVID-19 era, can we ever really switch off from work? Or do we scramble through work emails until the nth hour of the evening as we do with Facebook?
Pre COVID-19 days, the flexibility to pick and choose the days we wished to commute or work from home was the ideal scenario. It was the best of both worlds; the team dynamics of face to face meetings, the banter and coffee break catch-ups instilled confidence and work satisfaction. Equally, having the option to use the working from home days to disconnect and concentrate on challenging tasks, whilst being able to catch up on personal errands was a fitting balance — until it became a more permanent fixture. Absence from my work “family” generated what social media millennials call — FOMO — fear of missing out. I fell into that trap — head first!
The toxic cycle of not conforming to so-called societal norms and ‘ticking the boxes’ contributed to my own lack of self-worth ten years ago — and today I stand guilty as charged to adhering to all the must-dos by appearing not only as “socially” visible and “doing ok,” but as a victim to the 24/7 work availability channels — simply to feedback into my own self-worth. If my Skype or Teams’ chats are set to “Away” for x amount of hours, will my presence, or lack of, be questioned? Are the number of emails I send out, including the ones past 10 pm, a measure of my work ethic? Why does the lack of inclusiveness in every God-forsaken meeting force me to question whether I am still valued in the eyes of my peers? If at 30, I convinced myself to keep losing that “a little bit more,” how is that different to the woman today who says “just one more hour online?”
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At the height of the pandemic, the enforcement of remaining within one’s household was and still is, undoubtedly a necessity. Yet in parallel, face-to-face interactions, that I had taken for granted, was now replaced with digital conversations which raised the same question the frail 30-year-old once asked herself, “Am I good enough?” These sentiments are echoed by friends and colleagues who, whilst adhere and respect the applied safety measures, equally yearn for the return of the human work inter-relations.
The loss of my friend, however, forced me to count my blessings as one of the lucky ones in these challenging times. I am fortunate to live in close proximity to family and friends, and have spent key events amongst loved ones, knowing there are many who cannot do the same. I’ve been given the opportunity to support families in need with food boxes through local town volunteering programs. But most importantly, I was able to acknowledge that the empty chairs I sat across this Christmas were just temporary absences. There are thousands of empty place settings, some of which were known to us, in many households that can never be replaced — a feeling I cannot begin to fathom. If gratitude doesn’t awaken one’s self-worth, what else will?
I don’t know when or even if I will ever see London City anytime soon, nor is there any guarantee that the City will ever feel as familiar as it once did. London, you witnessed my rollercoaster of a two-decade journey within your embrace. As hard as I fell at your feet, you uprooted me back to become more resilient — to which, especially in these uncertain times, I am forever thankful. As I clawed my way out of the toxic cycle of self-loathing, the past which you often reflected back to me, has helped me to try and erase these uncertainties for the sake of my own well-being. To quote L’Oréal: We are all worth it.