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  • Writer's pictureClaire Aston

Comms in the time of Coronavirus - one month in...

A month ago, I launched my freelance communications consultancy business, right in the depths of Coronavirus lockdown. As the world very slowly begins to open up again, I've been reflecting on those first few weeks. Here's what I have discovered...

Starting a communications business in a global pandemic is a very levelling experience. When I typed the words 'Coronavirus has challenged us all' into my website a month ago, I didn't realise quite how prescient this was going to be.

Every single piece of new business I have picked up since then has been as a result of the global pandemic throwing existing communication plans up in the air.

Whether it's a small charity wrestling with how to reach local stakeholders without physically gathering, or a large corporate working out how to communicate virtually to its workers scattered in their homes globally, the global pandemic really has challenged us all.

Audiences, objectives, messages and channels all need to be refreshed. As we do so, new opportunities emerge - realisations that digital ways of working really can be liberating, that a charity's original purpose now speaks to a wider audience, that work can be flexible.

There's also something wonderful, if initially strange, about only meeting new colleagues and contacts online - all those tiny little screens across my laptop, revealing kitchens, home offices and gardens across the world. Since no one was going to see anything other than my head and shoulders, I didn't bother with a new work outfit, but did buy some dramatic new ear-rings to celebrate a new client and liven up the same headshot staring back at me daily.

Without any real life introductory coffee's or lunches to chew the cud over, I've become expert at picking up little clues about peoples' life outside work - the brutal early starts that enable parents to squeeze work in before home schooling, the references to inner tubes and cadences that reveal a weekend cyclist, and (no detective work needed), the background barking to indicate a fellow dog owner. Together, we're all navigating a new world of work / life balance, with house mates, partners, pets and children making cameo appearances.

Sadly, the global pandemic has also revealed some uncomfortable truths about just how unequal our global society is. Charities like Christian Aid are raising money for countries where living conditions make it impossible to social distance, and finding soap is a challenge.

Closer to home, we learnt the shocking news that the death rate in England is higher among BAME people, and ongoing research facilitated by Refugee Action is recording just how difficult lockdown has been for refugees and asylum seekers living in the UK. Food poverty, digital poverty, and feelings of isolation have all been exacerbated in recent weeks.

Food poverty, digital poverty and feelings of isolation are also very apparent as we all try and navigate the school situation. As two freelance parents, we're fortunate enough to have the flexibility to support our two boys as they navigate home school, but we had to dig out an ancient laptop that churns very slowly to enable the two of them to actually learn at once, since we hadn't bargained on the 6 year old needing internet access quite yet otherwise.

With my school governor hat on, I've seen just how hard our local CE Primary School is working to ensure that everyone gets a fair chance; printing out and delivering school work to those not online, ensuring free school meals still reach those who need it. All whilst home schooling their own children, and running actual school for key workers. But it's tough.

Finally, there's the big question of time. I did buy myself a new watch as a leaving present from the old job. But since I haven't had to rush anywhere since, I haven't really used it!

I'd always imagined freelance life as a very efficient way of using the quiet hours when our two boys are at school. No commute, just the kitchen table as an office, and 6 full hours a day to write. Of course, since neither my husband, nor either son has actually left the kitchen table themselves, this isn't exactly how it turned out! We have tried everyone in separate rooms, but somehow we all gravitate together. A sort of open plan family office, working between us on maths, science, e-commerce & communications strategies.

So, instead, I've been slowly mastering 'extreme compartmentalism'. Setting up an online English lesson, then popping my headphones on and writing a strategy, or joining a call. Making the most of the quiet hours after school work and dog walk, to clear emails.

This works best when I put into practice a theory I totally believe in; that our more original thoughts occur when we are, seemingly, 'doing nothing' (see Bored and Brilliant for one of the most readable explorations of this phenomenon.

And so, I'm trying to make the most of dog walks, weeding or chasing a football round the garden to let ideas for communications plans or speeches filter to the top of my brain.

That, and making sure we still have a weekend. And so I am switching off to do just that.

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