Saturday, 11 April 2020

My pandemic lessons

I’m not the type of person who would go on a Staycation – I mean, wouldn’t you rather spend the money on a short getaway instead? Last weekend, I went on a Staycation for the first time in my life. I was supposed to be on Overseas Leave but because of the travel ban, I had to settle with a makeshift vacation in the heartland of my bustling city. The silver lining was free flow alcohol between six to eight, and of course, the company.

I got a call from my boss on Saturday, in the middle of Staycay. I was to report to camp with my platoon on Monday at 2200H for a one-month isolation, as part of the nation’s effort for the Circuit Breaker. Yes, I am a Platoon Commander and also an essential worker. The rest of Staycay was a combination of scrambling to make sure everything was in place for the team by H-hour and trying to savour every last bit of freedom before going back to confinement. It was a mess, but I’m thankful for the Staycay nonetheless.

Like everyone else who was preparing for lockdown, I experienced a mix of dread (mainly because I won’t be able to see my loved ones for some time) and apprehension while understanding why I had to do what was expected of me.

It has been five days since we have been confined in camp; and instead of having to find ways to kill time or keep myself sane, I find myself having a very enriching time and being more grateful than ever.

Let’s rewind. I stepped into camp on Monday evening and saw that everything – and I mean bunk beds, new pillows and bedding, a large stash of snacks, and a bottle of water, a hand towel nicely folded into the shape of a bunny, and a welcome card lying on our individual beds – was prepared for us. And within the next two days, we had WiFi, a Washer cum Dryer, water heater and air purifiers set up for us. Whenever someone sends me a text to check on how the team is doing, the first thing I say is that the logistics team really outdid themselves. I never imagined that living in camp could be this comfortable. And I suppose the same can be said for the people outside, working at the back end to ensure that the Circuit Breaker causes as little inconvenience as possible. Thank you.

I have been a PC for a year now and as soon as this isolation is over, I will be taking on a new role as a Staff Officer. I think one of my greatest regrets as a PC is that I didn’t invest much time in my NSFs. At work, fulfilling our primary task already takes up all our working hours – and even more – that we have to sort the rest of our tasks in order of priority. For me, admin always ranks at the bottom, and I think this applies to many other officers. It is only after fulfilling the requirements from the higher ups that I would remember to approve my boys’ offs and leaves, think about who to nominate for Soldier of the Month and so on. This leaves me absolutely no time to get to know them or listen to their concerns, apart from the periodic PC interview, in which they never ever raise any concerns.

This isolation with them gave me a chance, for the first time, to get to know them (not all, but at least the more vocal ones) properly – their BMT stories, their grievances in unit, their aspirations, etc. And what I learned from speaking to some of them over the past few days is that there is so much more potential in engaging your people as individuals with a mind of their own rather than as economic digits.

Large organisations have the tendency to create blanket policies for their people, for the sheer reason of efficiency. It’s all about generating results. The big picture. Why? “There are just too many people and we do not have the resources to adopt a targeted approach.” The problem with this is that we are dealing with human beings who think and are motivated differently. And this is why you find that in any form of governance, there will always be some form of opposition – of course unless you persistently eliminate them. In my conversations with the NSFs, I came to realise three things: (1) many of them have brilliant minds, (2) but they are motivated differently – some use their intellect to better the unit while others think of ways to slip through the loopholes; and (3) they are being “dumbed-down” by the way we perceive and treat lead them. What these imply is that the traditional army-way of treating our soldiers (i.e. ordering them to do something with no questions asked) doesn’t work anymore. Our young people nowadays are way more inquisitive, want to be heard and will do a good job if they are convinced of why it is necessary.

Obviously, we can’t expect our Commanders to engage every soldier individually and I think this is where my role as a PC comes in – as a street-level bureaucrat. We should be the ones to find out what matters to each soldier, make them feel important and cared for, explain to them the rationale of each policy, and be their voice to the decision-makers. Again, this applies elsewhere – in schools, in MNCs, and in politics.

In the past year I have been racing tirelessly to meet requirement after requirement, but to what end? The work gets done but our people’s morale is low, and they do not feel valued. I wrote earlier this year that it is the people who make up the organisation. People and not digits. I’m thankful for this opportunity to get to know my people better and I wish I had made time to do so earlier.

During this period of time, let’s remember to be grateful to our back end workers and do the things we never really made time to do in our busy schedules, yeah?

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