I caught a cold back in early March, right after returning home from a week long bootcamp retreat. I’m not usually one to get sick and I’d only just realised that Covid was a very real threat, so rather than power through, I took a couple of days to work at home and shake off the cold which thankfully was just that, a cold. Little did I know that I would not return to the office for another five months at that point, so my headphones, my notebook and my poor plant Bono (eventually rescued by a friend) will still be waiting for me when I go back in for the first time this week.
I work in comms and my whole work life (and my actual life come to think of it!) is based on the premise that I will always be around people and I’m constantly planning events and parties and book tours… so when all of that very suddenly got put on hold, it was much harder for me to wrap my head around than I expected. I’m a people person – this isn’t the first job where I’ve worked from home but it’s not something I enjoy. I get my energy from being around friends and colleagues and running into someone in the kitchen when I just popped in to make a cup of tea.
While I do really miss my beautiful office building and going out for lunches and meetings, the thing I miss the most is just being around people who care about me. A month after working from home, I got put onto furlough. I’m not ashamed to say that I was devastated. My job makes up a large part of who I am and I genuinely care about all my authors and their books, so when I wasn’t able to work, what did that make me? I spent a lot of time trying to get into my own non-work routine, and I did a number of online courses (The Science of Wellbeing at Yale was brilliant!) and I actually started writing my own novel – something I didn’t know I even had in me.
I also had Ramadan to get through and being able to be on my own schedule for a change really meant that I could appreciate fasting rather than just feeling constantly exhausted and getting on a tube without any water. It was the most peaceful month I have ever had in my whole life and I am extremely grateful that I could enjoy it in this way, almost like my own gift from God in this mess of 2020.
The day I returned from furlough was an absolutely awful day – while I was of course excited to be back to it (and terrified at the 2000 emails sitting in my inbox!) – news of George Floyd had just broken and there was quite rightly tension and anger in the atmosphere. I am part of Elevate, an employee-founded network for BAME staff members at HarperCollins, and we have been working closely with our c.e.o. and other groups to ensure that we’re doing our utmost to encourage a safe space for staff - as well as doing what we can to change publishing from the inside, to make a more welcoming and diverse industry. We have a long way to go but all the right steps are being taken and I am so grateful to Elevate for allowing me to have a space where I can fully be myself. Getting to know this group of incredible and powerful individuals has frankly made lockdown much more bearable – I know that they will always be there to support me if I need it and a group of us experienced furlough together, starting our own Whatsapp group and having our own meetings, which meant I was never really alone.
I’ve been ‘back at work’ for two months now and I’m finally back in the swing of things. I’ve just had a great publishing week working on The Love Square by Laura Jane Williams – securing over ten brilliant reviews and conducting a series of online events on my return from furlough, something I am extremely proud of managing to turn around. The PR remit will forever be changed by this pandemic and although it’s hard to say how much right now, we all know something will be different in 2021. I’ve come back to a team who have been so supportive while I was away and more so now I’m back. Watching the British Book Awards over our screens and celebrating our victory felt like exactly what we needed to hear at this time, validation that our hard work doesn’t go unnoticed.
Sabah Khan is head of PR at Avon, and was a Bookseller Rising Star in 2018.