How we survived a pandemic: Part 2 – Music, spice and other things nice

Live on air - CC-BY Maren Deepwell
Image: CC-BY Maren Deepwell

This is a conversational blog post (cross-posted here) between Martin Hawksey (@mhawksey) and Maren Deepwell (@marendeepwell). 

We are using this approach to create some space to think together in ‘unprecedented times’. It’s open leadership in practice and in pandemic times. For regular readers this is a slight departure from our regular ‘Virtual Teams’ posts (you can read those on our Virtual Teams summary page) taking a broader view of work whilst midst global pandemic. 

In this month’s post we share some of the things that have helped us get through the current global situation. As part of this we touch upon some of our senses and stimulants we use in our working lives including caffeine and candles. We also share how music has helped us to make connections and support our wellbeing. We invite you to read and think along and please share your reflections as a result of this month’s post and if you like you can tune in to the ds106 Radio slot with Maren,  Tannis Morgan and Anne-Marie Scott at 7pm (BST) on Sundays at

All the best to you and yours. We hope you are safe and we are grateful that we are, too. 


Martin: Over the years I’ve worked in a number of different offices from a room perched up high in a shipyard that gently rocked when the overhead crane moved, to converted school classrooms, large open plan spaces and until I worked from home I never had an office to myself. Looking back at some of the co-spaces I worked in, it’s interesting how the practicalities of the space influenced the office dynamic and also the role of music played in how we worked and interacted. In the shipyard I was working as a CAD operator, part of a small team producing technical drawings. We were all very young with no senior management in the same room and just left to get on with it. One of the areas of tension was what music was played on the CD player. There were only a couple of albums and after The Seahorse was played for the umteenth time in one day each time a little louder I was ready to break (I once hid the remote control with the volume down button stuck on in all the paper drawings for some peace and quiet… this did not go down well). In the converted school classroom the job was very administrative, production focused and we were mixed in age and backgrounds but often we would listen to BBC 6music. If anyone had their own Seahorses moment they never let on and having a mixture of music and a DJ to listen to often create conversation points which helped get through some of the repetitive monotony of the job. And then there are spaces like the big open plan office where if you were going to listen to music headphones were obligatory. This often led to moments when our little desk cluster would all individually have our heads down, bopping away focused on our work in our own little space. The influence of music in the workplace to aid factory production and placate the workforce is well documented, but it was only recently whilst out running I realised just how much music had a physical effect on my performance. When that banging track kicked in, my body was so ready to kick on through those last 3 miles of a 13 mile run. Music also has helped me get through some deep lows. Whilst many criticise bands like Radiohead and Elbow as producing ‘depressing’ tracks, when I’m low myself this is exactly the music I listen to given the uplifting effect it has on the chemicals whooshing around my brain. Has music played a role in your work?     

Maren: Music has definitely played a role in my working life… particularly when I was working in a cafe at Ray’s Jazz at Foyles Bookshop in London. I bought many albums in that job, as I was fortunate to work alongside folk who had an encyclopedic knowledge and I discovered a lot of music that year. When I worked in a university setting, a lot of my work was based around teaching or student support, so there wasn’t a lot of scope for listening to music and in my early years at ALT, when we still had a physical office, music wasn’t often part of the daily routine – although we had music hours when we each got to make a request. In recent years, since I started working from home full-time, I find I listen to music most when I travel. I have a lot of meetings each day, so the few quiet hours I can carve out each week are precious for concentration and I don’t listen to music when I have that time. I do listen to music to wind down at the end of a day, or when I am out running, or on the train or plane. That said, I find the right scent really helps my working environment. I have a scented candle next to my desk and I like having a familiar smell that I associate with work. I also have plants in my work space, and as much natural light as possible. One work environment factor that I have recently thought a lot about is the number of different screens I use. Since I moved house during the pandemic, I don’t currently have my largest monitor to work on – but even when I do, I don’t use a lot of different screens. I know you do! I prefer to have one screen for meetings and one screen to work on, but I rarely flip between screens. I don’t check social media during the day unless I am participating at an online event or managing an announcement and I prefer to work on one document at a time. I guess overall, I value a calm workspace when I can create it. 

Martin: Like you I’m in between house moves so it means I don’t have my usual office setup. Whilst a pandemic lockdown situation wasn’t foreseen I had taken a number of pieces of equipment with me but my screen space has been reduced to two 13” displays. Overall it feels like I’ve adapted but something I’m aware of is with smaller screens there is a risk of eyestrain. Given most of our systems are cloud based with web interfaces it means I’ve made more use of zooming/scaling, I am however looking forward to surrounding myself again with larger displays. 

I’ve never considered sense of smell and how it can be used to support your working environment. Thinking about other senses and stimulations coffee has become a bigger part of my life. Historically I’m a tea drinker and for the last couple of years have drunk caffeine free Rooibos tea, but over the last 4 months coffee has increasingly featured, now usually starting the day with a cup of joe. I’ll also turn to caffeine and some banging tunes when I have some data processing tasks to get through. When I’ve worked in offices in the past there have been various provisions provided from bring your own to employers supplying refreshments, the best was one employer who kept a fridge stocked with various refreshments (mostly caffeine based … as HR news reports in writing about the benefits of providing workplace coffee machines as a stimulant caffeine can boost productivity)  

Writing this exchange during mental health week has also been useful to listen to some of the advice and support that has been shared. On Wednesday 20 May on Lauren Laverne BBC 6Music show fellow DJ Nemone, who is also a practicing psychotherapist, highlighted some of the research around the benefits of music including how it can be used to help manage stress levels as well as ‘music being a way of communicating, a conversation between people, the making and listens results in increased feeling of connection’. You can listen to Nemone speak about this in the show recording which is available until 18 June 2020 at the 1:11:17 timestamp. I know that in your spare time you’ve also been involved in a weekly radio show on ds106 Radio and you might want to talk more about that? 

Maren: yes, that’s true! I have been joining some friends on the crisis radio airwaves. For the last couple of months, we have been playing tunes and sending hugs on Sundays, and more recently also requests from listeners. I have blogged about that, writing about kindness, mental health and radio full of rainbows. My particular favourites include soul soundtrack songs and old singles from The Cure. Listening to the radio, often manned by colleagues in different parts of the world whom I know is a great way of keeping connected in this time of isolation. Even though for many of us the more local measures are gradually being relaxed, my professional life has changed completely from travelling every week and going abroad several times a year to basically no travel at all in the foreseeable future. So it’s especially important for me to keep connected to people whom I might have otherwise met up with at an event or a meeting. And of course, there is the music as well. One recent show featured requests from listeners and closed with a beautiful song called “Weeping” requested by Laura Czerniewicz which resonated with many. If you’d like to listen for yourself to the whole playlist you can find it here.