Lessons from my 7-person house during a pandemic: how to navigate feelings and create effective agreements (plus, tips on translating those lessons to the workplace)

Michael CalozBlog: Synthesizing & Simplifying Complexity, Group Dynamics, Living with the PandemicLeave a Comment

dandelion blowing in the wind

This is post #2 in my COVID-19 series.

  • #1 is here on general COVID info and precautions (somewhat outdated now)
  • #3 is here on specific risk management strategies using objective tools (this info is still valid)
  • #4 is here on the coronavirus variant discovered in the UK, the latest research-backed precautions, vaccines, and more (this info is still valid too)
  • #5 is here on how risk changes once you or your friends have been vaccinated (this info is still valid too)

I live in a house with six other adults, a cat, and an agreement to be real with each other.

I’ve learned a lot about group dynamics as we’ve supported one another during a pandemic, an anti-racism uprising, and a range of individual life changes.

In this post:

  1. I’ll suggest some concrete guidance on navigating COVID-19 with your household or “bubble.”
  2. I’ll offer some lessons for working through challenging emotions that could apply to your teams in the workplace, friend groups, and families too. 
  3. I’ll also share a detailed spreadsheet that you can use with your group to align on pandemic agreements.

Reading time: 11 minutes

A note on privilege: The people in my house are able to afford to have these conversations. Communities of color and other marginalized populations have been hit a lot harder by the pandemic and might not have the luxury of tending to the nuances of relationship. Many people who can’t work from home don’t have control over their work environments and are forced to take on more risk than they’re comfortable with.

Living with people is less lonely but more complicated

Even before the pandemic, we were all living in an age of loneliness. 

To fight that, my partner and I began an experiment in intentional communal living. A little over a year ago, we assembled a group of people with shared values. Beyond just a group of roommates sharing a building, we hoped to create something closer to a “chosen family.”

When the pandemic started, we’d already had nine months together to build trust, and we quickly aligned around a shared vision for the short-term: Buying emergency supplies, closing off our house to outside visitors, and wiping down surfaces twice a day with isopropyl alcohol.

That was April. 

Fast forward to August, and it’s become harder to stay fully aligned on the vision for the next… year? More?

We’re all exhausted after marching in the protests, worrying about at-risk loved ones, supporting friends who have lost their jobs, wondering when we’ll be able to see our parents again in person, and having to live with this constant low-level (punctuated with high-level) anxiety for months now. 

House meetings haven’t felt as fun, and it’s become easier to be judgmental of each other when some of us want to stay in lockdown and others have been drawn to work out at the gym or go on dates.

Hardest of all, we lost a couple of housemates who could no longer afford to live here. We’ve had to conduct interviews over Zoom. And this time, we’re not just looking for people who could feel like family (which was hard enough!), but also for coronavirus-risk-level fit.

There have been some hard, emotional conversations. Here’s what I’ve learned. 

Gather the whole group regularly to talk, even if it feels like everyone’s already on the same page

When it comes to any subject involving a safety risk (whether perceived or real), the potential for strong emotions, and quickly-changing information, frequent conversations are a must.

Here’s why:

  1. People’s needs will shift over time—especially as a state of heightened stress like this keeps stretching on. A group agreement that was manageable a few weeks ago might feel a lot more taxing now.
  2. The science keeps evolving. For example, the research I’ve seen is now saying that good ventilation is a lot more important than sanitizing surfaces, and that the vast majority of transmission occurs indoors. That’s led to a lot of conversations in our group about how to accommodate socializing once it gets colder outside.
  3. The level of risk in your specific area will keep changing (and it could shift very quickly with a superspreader event). Harvard has an excellent tool for tracking your area at the county level. It makes sense to take different precautions if your area is Green versus Red.
  4. Keep reminding your group that you’re all in this together—that you’re here to support each other, and that the choices you make directly affect each other. It can be so easy to drift toward thinking, “this isn’t such a big deal,” or, “I’ll just stretch our agreements a bit, and no need to tell anyone.” Meeting regularly for an open conversation can stitch everyone back together.
  5. All of this brings up tender feelings, and it’s a lot more effective to address those quickly rather than leaving them to fester. Like releasing a steam valve, it can be incredibly helpful to simply voice a concern out loud.

How might some of this apply to teams in your workplace? 

  1. One-time team agreements are forgettable. Regular check-ins and adjustments keep them relevant and top-of-mind.
  2. One-on-ones with managers can’t be the only place where feelings are brought up. Regular open conversations with the whole team present are what build trust and cohesion.
  3. Remember that each of us is dealing with a lot of invisible challenges at home and in our communities. Try to offer as much flexibility as possible in how each person chooses to get their work done.

Take feelings seriously, and move slowly—it’s more important to maintain connection than to reach firm agreement

I’ve seen in our house meetings how easy it is for someone to feel like the odd one out—there’s always going to be one person who has the strongest need for safety and another person who has the strongest need for freedom and flexibility. 

Either way, it can be easy to feel like an important value of yours is being trampled on (probably inadvertently).

Conversations around COVID can bring up all sorts of deep feelings around safety, belonging, and trust—core human needs. Allow a lot of time for these conversations, and be intentional about slowing way down when hard feelings come up.

When the group encounters a sticky moment, it’s probably less about the specific content being discussed and more about a feeling under the surface. For example, it’s probably not really about “did you wash your hands enough?” but rather “can I trust you to keep me safe and hold to the boundaries I’ve asked for?”

Remember: We’re not just talking about a disagreement over leaving dirty dishes out. This is about a once-in-a-lifetime global health crisis that has created an immense number of visible and invisible challenges for each person.

So whether you’re having a pandemic-related conversation with your household or a business-related conversation with your team, all of that anxiety is churning through each of us.

Recognize that different personality types see the world very differently, so you can’t assume that what’s obvious to one person will land the same way for someone else

It’s been fascinating to see the variety of perspectives my housemates have brought to these conversations. Our minds work differently, so it’s important to recognize that something might seem obvious or critical to one person but not at all to another.

Some examples:

  • Some people love following checklists. 
    • Other people feel horribly confined by them.
  • Some people are able to commit to a set of fixed agreements for the next year. 
    • Other people need to revisit and adjust those agreements regularly.
  • Some people are convinced through logical, science-based arguments. 
    • Other people are won over when it simply feels right, or when they hear from someone they deeply trust.
  • Some people feel like it’s critical for everyone to promise to uphold specific shared agreements based on clear scenarios.
    • Other people feel offended if other people don’t just trust them to use their best judgment.
  • Some people find it easy to tune into their personal values and name clear boundaries for what will help them feel safe.
    • Other people have trouble knowing their boundaries until they’re crossed.
  • Some people enjoy sitting around talking about all this for two hours.
    • Other people can’t focus for that long—they might find it impossible to stay mentally present and prefer talking while walking or throwing a frisbee at the park.

How does all that apply to your group? Do certain individuals have needs—such as finding it hard to sit still for too long—that you could better accommodate? Is there some way you make a judgment about them being wrong instead of just thinking differently?

If you’re going to have a pandemic bubble, you need to take it seriously—and that’s a lot of work

If you’re not familiar with the concept, a “bubble” or “pod” is a group of people who have agreed to a set of shared agreements around coronavirus precautions. By limiting their exposure to people outside the bubble, they’re able to stay close to their bubble buddies (no masks, hugging, etc.) without fear.

Your bubble only remains intact if everyone follows the agreements, and many epidemiologists are against the concept because it’s so easy to fail. Success requires a huge amount of trust, similar to practicing safer sex. 

Imagine you have a bubble with four other people and two of those decide to hang out with their “good friend who’s very safe” who’s part of their own bubble. If one person in that whole greater group was an asymptomatic carrier—which has been the case with nearly half of infections—suddenly all three bubbles are now at risk.

It’s theoretically possible to connect two bubbles to form a larger bubble (say, two families who live down the street from each other), but the amount of trust required increases exponentially since each person has to trust every single other person to uphold the shared agreements.

Furthermore, for the bubble to actually work, everyone within it has to act as if everyone outside it has COVID. You can’t make exceptions just because someone is a good friend or a family member. According to Harvard, the most viral particles are actually released from a person right before they begin showing symptoms. So, you have to assume that everyone outside your bubble is an asymptomatic carrier.

One of the trickiest issues here is dating. If someone in the bubble wants to be intimate with someone outside the bubble, the only bubble-compatible solution is to invite that new person in, and that means they’d have to be trusted to follow all the agreements.

Bottom line: Loneliness can have profound negative impacts on a person, but building a bubble to combat that must be done with a lot of care.

Remind each other frequently why your agreements are important: because you care about each other

This is a matter of personal safety, and there’s a huge amount of complexity involved. 

It’s important to keep separate the concepts of “I like you” (or “I think you’re a good person”) and “I trust you to uphold my boundaries and keep me safe.” Just because someone is a friend doesn’t mean they’ll make the same choice you would in a given situation.

To make sure everyone is on the same page, talk through a list of specific scenarios and agree on what the group feels is ok and not ok.

But first, you need to set the stage—otherwise, those agreements might go in one ear and out the other.

Before getting to rules and processes, you need to ground the group in feelings of safety and connection. No one is going to be excited about following rules unless they believe in them. It can’t just be “do this or you’ll get in trouble.” Instead, start with a process of reminding each other that you care about each other.

Coming up with agreements and rules isn’t about punishing anyone or taking away their freedom. This is about keeping each other safe.

Here’s how to develop agreements for your group

Get everyone together, and start by giving each person a chance to speak: What are they feeling in that moment? What fears do they have around the pandemic? What specifically can someone do to help them feel safe and loved?

From there, you can work toward figuring out specific agreements that work for everyone. If there’s a disagreement, try to understand the underlying need of each person.

In conflict resolution, there’s the idea of position (what someone thinks they need) versus interest (why they actually need it). The classic example is that two chefs fought over the one remaining orange, so they decided to split it and each take half. But both people ended up unhappy because it turned out that one chef only needed the juice (and was now left with only half of that) while the other chef only needed the zest from the peel (and thus now only had half as well). If they’d been clearer about their interests (“why”) up front instead of their positions (“what”), they both could have fully gotten what they needed.

Now, apply that to pandemic precautions: One person demands that everyone wears gloves all the time. Other people don’t want to do that. Instead of focusing on their position (“we have to wear gloves”), figure out what their interest is (“I want to feel safe that people won’t be picking up viral particles on their hands that could spread to me”). Then, explore other ways that interest could be addressed (“everyone carries hand sanitizer with them and uses it after touching anything outside our home”).

I recommend talking through specific scenarios

Here is the spreadsheet that I made for my house. Feel free to make a copy for your group and then make adjustments that work for all of you. I’m not a medical professional, but the spreadsheet is based on many hours of reading (sources like Harvard, the NIH, the CDC, the Lancet, Nature, etc.).

I also want to name some vulnerability I feel in sharing our spreadsheet. There are a wide variety of opinions on COVID-19 precautions out there in the world. I know that some of you will look at it and think my house is crazy for being this strict, while others will look at it and imagine we’re crazy for allowing so much. 

This is simply what we have agreed works for us, and I encourage you to find what works for your group 🙂

More specific advice on precautions

Finally, I invite you to visit a webpage I created that summarizes my research around the most important specific precautions, how to choose a mask, and a lot more.

Thanks for reading, and stay safe out there!

MICHAEL CALOZ is passionate about explaining complex subjects in an understandable way and supporting groups in connecting with authenticity and inclusivity. He’s spent over a dozen years working with leaders and teams at some of the most famous companies in the world—from nonprofits to the Fortune 100—supporting them in building self-awareness, communication skills, and empathy. In his life coaching and counseling practice, he’s helped software engineers, doctors, retirees, and anyone who wants to fill the void, design their life purpose, and feel more alive. Read more on his website.

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