In mid-May, one of London’s most seasoned investment bankers, published a cryptic series of uppercase and lowercase letters to a LinkedIn post. “Yvpmyym,” the enigmatic message — ostensibly penned by the capital markets pro — read. “Vn” and “NBHp”, it went on.
Soon a handful of his hundreds of connections and followers had started to react, no doubt musing what the financier may be referring to. A niche new measure of market volatility? An acronym hinting at his next career move? Or was lockdown just really getting to him?
Then came the merciful answer: “This post is a tangible reminder of the dangers of homeschooling,” he divulged in a comment. “Apologies to everyone.”
There was, of course, absolutely no need to apologize for the apparent unsolicited keyboard takeover. The enigmatic contribution to the networking site is the typed equivalent of a toddler obstructing your Zoom call, or a gormless relative accidentally interrupting a virtual team meeting.
It’s a stunt that was arguably pioneered by Korea expert Robert E. Kelly’s children on the BBC back in 2017, but it’s been perfected during the pandemic-ridden months of 2020 by little humans and animals of all sizes alike.
Moments like this might be a touch embarrassing for the person responsible for the culprit, but for everyone else they provide endearing comic relief on days too frequently overridden by disease-induced anxiety or plain old virus-fatigue.
Beyond that, rogue pets and kids might also serve a more profound purpose. When we see small people traipsing through the background of a video conference, turning laptops to toys and making emails their own creative canvas, or even cats and dogs putting on a show, it reiterates something we tend to forget: our colleagues and managers are mere mortals too.
Just like us, they have to deal with the messy, tiring reality of social distancing and daily battles with babies and beasts. No matter how hardnosed and composed they may seem to you and to their clients, they too will likely face moments of total domestic chaos and parenting pandemonium on a reasonably regular basis.
That realization is no doubt one of the most heartening side effects of working through Covid-19 and might also teach us one of the most valuable lessons that will stick long after this trying time has subsided.
Psychologists refer to the experience of being actively engaged in one role while simultaneously thinking about another (giving a market update while preventing your infant from drawing on the walls, for example) as a cognitive role transition. Such transitions can be tiring because they challenge you to retain focus while your concentration drifts, and naturally they can be a major source of stress, but dealing with them can be a good thing too.
In the past, there was a general belief that we should try to minimise these transitions to reduce stress and enhance wellbeing, but research published in the journal Human Relations in 2016 suggests the opposite might be true.
Study subjects who strictly divided home life and work life experienced fewer incidents of cognitive role transition than those with looser boundaries. The latter group, however, was more likely to have developed strategies to transition between the two roles more easily and was also less likely to have their productivity stifled by transition-triggered stress.
With many of us working from home as a result of Covid-19, some of us homeschooling kids and others keeping pets in check, all while trying to do our jobs, we’re likely to be in a near constant state of navigating cognitive role transitions.
Of course it’s exhausting and of course most will be craving at least an hour of not having to multitask (particularly women who in many cases are picking up the majority of domestic chores) but let’s take a moment to appreciate what we’re learning. Even if—or when—we head back to the office, work life and personal life will never and should never exist on opposite sides of an impenetrable psychological wall. Cognitive role transition is a reality and, depending on what the future of work will look like, we might experience it even more in future than have up until now.
Let children unceremoniously crash conference calls and your LinkedIn profile, let dogs bark and play, and even let your partner make an inappropriate joke when he’s not aware your whole team’s listening. Everyone deserves a laugh right now—needs one, even—and if someone can’t recognize the humour, just tell them it’s an investment in your future productivity. No one can legitimately argue with that.