by Zach Bergeron and Erin Miller
John was poised, his detailed talking points were by his side and he was ready to speak. His school age daughter was occupied with an assignment for her virtual learning and his toddler was playing very nicely with some building blocks on the floor. His wife was on a conference call of her own in another part of the house. The facilitator served up a softball-sized question right in John’s wheelhouse. And that’s when it happened. At the very moment John went to speak with industry partners and stakeholders regarding his firm’s best practices for navigating the at-home work environment of COVID-19, his toddler son decided it was time to play Godzilla and destroy his block village. John took a deep breath to gather his composure and spoke above the primal screaming in the background.
For parents working from home during this time, this depicts the current reality. Social media would have you convinced there is a surplus amount of time that people have available with a reduction or elimination of your previous commute time. But for many of our contemporaries, that is simply not the case. We are not busy with the daily business of trying to fill time. We are trying to survive across a myriad of tasks that compete for our attention and energy. Tasks that, in this new world order, must all now happen simultaneously. In any given workday, productive worktime can be interrupted by questions about school assignments, fixing up a passable lunch for the kids or printing out instructions for homemade play-doh to be used as an afternoon activity. Even more time can be spent being sidetracked when separating bickering siblings arguing what to stream on Netflix or soothing a younger child amidst a tantrum. For full-time workers at home with caregiver obligations, “working from home,” is not an accurate description of our current state. People are at home, trying to work while caring for the wellbeing and safety of their family. For many, the surplus of time is non-existent. They’re burning the candle at both ends, as the new workday now stretches well into late night.
To borrow terminology recently used by the organizational psychologist, Adam Grant, the workforce generally falls into two categories: 1. integrators – those who can integrate work and life and 2. segmentors – those who work best when separating their worlds. For the latter group, which tends to be majority of the workforce, the struggle is real. The elusive goal of finding work-life balance in a normal work environment is challenging enough. For those trying to work a full day and assist in teaching grade school, providing care for an aging loved one and stand in line physically or virtually just to get into a grocery store, burnout is near inevitable.
Collectively, the nation is approaching the COVID-19 curve. When will we go back to “normal” and experience what that “normal” looks like? It’s uncertain. However, there is hope and there are strategies to improve our circumstances. Here are a few of our favorites:
It’s statistically likely that prior to the at-home work orders being put in place across the country you had some sort of commute. Your day may have only been bookended by a five-minute walk to the office, but there was a transition period nonetheless. And while we may not currently have a commute in bumper-to-bumper traffic, it’s still important to separate your two worlds. Plan to work set hours and have a clear divide so that expectations are known by your clients, your family and, perhaps most importantly, you. Be honest, yet professional in communicating what you’re experiencing and create space for others to do the same. Empathy should always be a fundamental part of how we approach our business partners. But now, it’s more important than ever. Your home office might be your kitchen table but be sure to power down your laptop and shift gears at the end of every workday.
It’s important to also make smart choices to support how we can be our best working from home, even if that means challenging the current status quo. Zoom is a wonderful tool and is the technology of choice right now for primary and secondary schools. But ponderously, Zoom also seems to have become the new communication tool for organizations in our professional community who previously worked quite successfully with Webex, Go-To-Meeting or other well-established business platforms. “Zoom Fatigue” is a very real phenomenon. We are spending anywhere from 6-8 hours on Zoom, to replace 10 minute in-person catch-ups. This is one factor that contributes to the extended workday as we struggle to produce work and the end of a long day of back-to-back calls. Let’s take a minute to rethink best practices for this temporary situation:
- Don’t Assume – When you reach out to a client, partner or colleague to connect, ask them what format they prefer. If it’s just a one-on-one call, pick up the good ‘ole phone and have a simple call.
- Brevity is Appreciated – If you do schedule a Zoom or other call, make it 45 or 50 minutes. Help your collaborators build in time for a snack, a bio break, a deep breath, or a moment to check on the kids.
- Be Patient – It’s important to maintain our networks, to reach out with genuine care and inquire after the well-being of our community. But many people are on the front lines right now, trying to work through this pandemic. Sometimes, waiting a few months for an in-person meeting is better than taxing their precious time right now.
Take Time for You
Now, more than ever, you need take time for your mental and physical well-being. Truthfully, many books have been written on the subject and we could easily dedicate an entire article to it. The reality is though that it doesn’t have to be all that complex or time-consuming. Here are a just a few ideas:
- Express Gratitude – keep a journal of two to three things you’re thankful for each day
- Meditate – journalist and author, Dan Harris, has helped popularize one-minute meditations
- Exercise – studies show that even just 7-minutes of intense exercise a day can have the same benefits of hitting the weights and going for a long run. It doesn’t need to be an insurmountable goal: Let your kids pick three songs they like and take a dance party break.
- Start a New Habit – read, write, dance, play trumpet, learn chess for 15 minutes a day
- Reach Out – If you are struggling to find a balance for yourself, call a trusted friend, work colleague, mentor or family member to talk about it. There is solace in shared experiences. Get an outside perspective to help you turn complaints into positive practices.
- Change your Mindset – Taking time to recharge is productive, too.
Be Present with Your Family
While your workday may have a few more pauses in it than it used to, look at this time at home as a blessing. This is a challenging situation for everyone in your household and so being present for your loved ones is critically important. Much like the very virus we’re all trying to avoid, the stress and the worry that you have can be passed along to others as well. Take a deep breath and simply be there with your child, spouse, parent, etc. Our children are watching. The tone we set for ourselves is one that they will follow.
Control What You Can Control
Hall of Fame basketball coach John Wooden once said, “Things turns out the best for those who make the best of the way things turn out.” That is, much of what is happening in the larger economy and with the COVID-19 virus is beyond our control; control what you can. Another way to look at it, is that your attitude and your effort are really the only two things you have any ability to manage. At the end of each day, if you’ve put your best foot forward with both of those with respect to work and home life, that’s the best we can. The ability to prioritize is a mental muscle. Like anything else, it takes practice and constant work to get stronger. Give yourself permission to think differently about what needs to get done right now, either for an immediate deadline or for your own future peace of mind, versus what work can wait until tomorrow- it may indeed benefit from a good night’s sleep.
We realize these are scary times with so much of our future in limbo. But we may never get another opportunity to get to know ourselves or our loved ones like this again. At some point in the future, “the lights” of the economy will be turned back on (in what capacity it’s still very difficult to predict); use this time to set the stage for how you will conduct your work-life when it does.
We’ve been reminded by teachers and administrators that reducing your child’s anxiety is priority number one. Taking time to get to know your family with game night, family walks and eating dinner together are a great way to not only support your loved ones, but also yourself.
In No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering, Thích Nhất Hạnh writes: “Both suffering and happiness are of an organic nature, which means they are both transitory; they are always changing. … Happiness is also organic and impermanent by nature. It can become suffering and suffering can become happiness again.” To repeat one of the most powerful mantras of this moment in history: We are all in this together, apart.
Zach Bergeron is associate, construction economist at Vermeulens and Erin Miller is director of business development at SmithGroup.