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COVID Made Me Realize I Want to Rethink My Work-life

Rethinking my work-life was the furthest thing from my mind. It was Friday afternoon in March and I had just picked up my toddler from daycare.  We had the car windows down, enjoying the way the wind felt as our hair danced around us.  We were singing loudly to a song on the radio and on our way to pick up my four-month-old from her caregiver, oblivious to the fact that life as we knew it was about to change drastically, probably forever.  

On Monday, both daycares announced that they wouldn’t be reopening their doors.  My peaceful, quiet workspace at home was suddenly invaded by two kids and my husband who were suddenly home ALL THE TIME.  We sheltered together, trying to avoid the disease that was quickly spreading outside.  

All the while, we learned new things about our personalities, what we needed from each other and what we needed from ourselves.  

We were forced into an evaluation to understand our imperative needs and then a very intentional reshuffling to honor those needs.  It wasn’t perfect.  It was messy at times (many times).  But we have managed to find a semblance of a new norm.  And my husband and I learned a lot through the process in rethinking our work-life.  

To help you make sense of what you likely experienced, I’ll share with you the cycle most of us likely went through (or are currently experiencing) during the pandemic, bring the stages alive through a few stories from executives I’ve recently connected with, and help you determine how to make the most of this opportunity by taking the best from both worlds (pre and post pandemic) to create a new norm that allows you to thrive and rethink your work-life.

Understanding the Emotional Pandemic Response 

It’s human nature to be resistant to change.  We are creatures of habit and when something new is introduced, there’s a small minority who quickly adapt and a majority who actively resist until the change is forced upon us.  Case in point- how many people actually fulfill their New Year’s resolutions?  

To say that there were a lot of feelings that came up during the pandemic is probably the understatement of the decade.  It’s completely understandable that the pandemic threw most of us off our game because it was a lot of change introduced with little or no warning.

Many experts likened our emotional response during the pandemic to that of the mourning cycle.  Kubler-Ross outlined what this emotional cycle looks like (I’ve paraphrased the below reactions during each step):

  1. Shock phase- What the hell is happening?
  2. Negative phase- This isn’t a big deal, things will be back to normal soon
  3. Phase of wrath- Why is this happening to me?!?
  4. Phase of negotiation- This can’t be my new norm, there’s got to be a way around this
  5. Phase of depression- I can’t believe this, this really depresses/angers me
  6. Phase of the test- Things aren’t going to change, how can I make this work?
  7. Phase of acceptance- I can make this work

To start with, ask yourself what phase are you currently in?

Once you cycle through the emotion (I’m sorry to tell you that you can’t skip these steps, they’re important inputs that will eventually get you to a place of acceptance), you have a golden opportunity to reinvent the way you want to approach your work-life.

Below are learnings from some of the executives I connected with and the difficulties they’ve experienced since Shelter-in-Place started.

Pandemic Stories from Corporate Leaders

When Everyone Else’s Needs Take Precedence Over Yours

Courtnee manages a team at the corporate Kaiser office. She’s also a mom to two young children, who are still grappling to understand that even though mom is home, that doesn’t mean she’s always available to help.  

Her previous schedule included walks to and from the train station and office meetings.  Although brief, it was daily scheduled time for movement and an opportunity to clear her head and get away from her computer screen.  It also served as an escape from all the responsibilities at home.

As a self-described introvert, it was easier for her to pop her head in people’s offices to do a quick check-in without getting stuck in a long meeting, or feeling like she was interrupting someone.  Those brief check-ins also allowed her to build relationships (which is a cornerstone requirement for networking/career development).   

Now, her day is full of back-to-back video meetings.  

“Exercise” is the walk from the bedroom to the small space she has sectioned off to house her desk. 

It’s hard to get little questions answered because she doesn’t want to feel like she’s intruding on people’s limited time.  

Relationships at work have taken a hit- there’s no more time for the passing “how was your weekend” conversations.  

The virtual happy hours that seem to have become the remote solution to help employees build personal relationships are more awkward than satisfying.

Because of the hits their business has taken as a result of COVID-19, everyone is worried about their job security and scheduling me-time throughout the day doesn’t feel safe.

There’s a palpable sense of concern, anxiety, and the prevailing understanding that every minute counts because there’s little or no free time anymore.

Her company has tried to help, by introducing subscriptions to yoga and parenting apps, giving people leeway to phone into meetings instead of video chatting, and encouraging meetings where people can walk and talk.  

These initiatives help but they don’t get to the core of the problem.

When I asked what she needs, the answer came quickly:

“I need me-time.  Time to recoup and exercise.”

But between the demands of her two young children at home who are there as soon as her office door opens and the concerns at work about whose job will be cut, the idea of “me time” seems like a pipe dream at best.

“I’ll be double booked and have to choose which meeting to take but when someone requests a meeting during a slot I’ve saved for exercise, I’ll always take the meeting.  Otherwise, I feel guilty.”

She knows she needs to find fixes to the above but there’s just no bandwidth to find a creative solution. 

How Do I Keep My Team Motivated When I Struggle with Motivation?

Leslie, VP of marketing at a financial services company, recognizes that the crisis we are in is a golden time to reflect on learnings and integrate them into changes…. But there’s just no time to do it all.

The overnight switch from in-office to work from home quickly led everyone to experience Zoom fatigue.  On top of that, there were layoffs.  

In addition to people managing the stress of all the changes as a result of COVID-19, people also are inevitably worried about whether or not they will be the next ones on the chopping block.

This overnight change in lifestyle in combination with the layoffs at work have the team worried about the security of their future.  And, as previously mentioned in a past blog in reference to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, when you and your team are stuck worrying about security, it’s impossible to have the mental capacity to advance to higher levels to yield maximum productivity.

On the flip side, Leslie recognizes that, imbedded in all the layers of change, there are opportunities that have emerged as a result of this change.

For example, her team is a lot more efficient now.  They have less time so they’re more focused and have cut out the extraneous work.  They make decisions faster without spending so much time analyzing data and running it up the ranks.  Her company has tried to address some of the concerns by introducing concepts such as “walking meetings” (meetings that are notated as ok to talk while walking).

However, at the core, there’s still a question of security, a loss of comfort, and a fair amount of anxiety.

Leslie continues to struggle with the question about how to get a pulse on the company and how to appropriately support and motivate her team during this unprecedented time.  In addition, she wonders how to keep herself motivated when she is also juggling all the change and has no additional bandwidth to research solutions?  

Working From Home Allows Me to Thrive

Nicholas, a senior manager of training at Asurion, was only a couple months into his new role when the pandemic hit.  A 40-minute round trip commute was suddenly replaced by the ability to wake up, answer important emails, leisurely eat breakfast with his family, and walk to his office space in more comfortable clothing.  

For him, work-life balance became a lot easier when he started working from home.

But not everything has been rosy. 

The hallway conversations where real time information could quickly pass has been replaced by Slack, which tends to delay dissemination (and is less reliable than looking someone in the eye and seeing their acknowledgement to an important message). 

There is the challenge of not having a private office so three little girls can bounce into meetings unannounced.  

There was the biological response to feeling the need to respond when he heard kids screaming and managing expectations of, “you’re home, you’re a parent, you should help me.”

Finally, there was the conversation forced on him and his partner about how to manage the newly-needed daily care for the kids. Ultimately, they decided she would quit her job and become a stay-at-home mom.  Not everyone has this luxury.  But Nicholas was lucky that he did.

Perhaps the most challenging issue that arose during this time was this:

The difficulty, on a human and manager level, of managing the grief that comes when people close to his employees got sick or, very sadly, died from COVID-19.

There’s no management training on how to deal with a pandemic and managing rampant sickness and death.  This boils down to tapping into your naked reaction as a human.  And luckily, as a trained coach and a ‘S’ DiSC style, Nicholas is probably one of the best managers one could have to support them when life throws unwelcome curve balls.

Nicholas did the best he could to roll with the challenges to address the communication gaps.

He scheduled more team calls during the week to enhance collaboration and reduce silos.

He started with team happy hours but when he noticed that not everyone was drinking, he moved the social gatherings to a breakfast hour (and sent Starbucks cards to his team to increase morale and try to keep them engaged).

Unlike the other executives I interviewed, he found that the pandemic wiped his calendar clean so there was no more over-scheduling and he could focus on basics to reset and reprioritize.  (This also could be a product of his functional oversight and how new he was to his role as most everyone else I’ve talked to complained about a surplus of meetingsmany superfluous).  

As a self-described introvert, working remote helped him recharge, vs. being in the office 40 hours/week.  And it gave him more flexibility to block off time to step away during the day when personal needs arose.

Nicholas has found that he likes the fact that he sees people’s personal space along with cats, dogs, and kids in the background of meetings.  For him the overlap between personal and business has been refreshing.  

There’s something very humanizing about seeing your CEO’s kid run in to show off their latest Lego creation in the middle of an important planning session.  

It lightens the mood.  And “strips away the façade.”   

He describes a shift to acceptance of tending to personal needs, which hasn’t always been the case in corporate.

How to Take the Best From Both Worlds and Recreate Your Work-Life

Overall, all three corporate leaders that I interviewed had slightly different reactions to the changes brought on by the pandemic.  However, there was one commonality shared by all:

The knowledge that I’ve gained since the pandemic started prevents me from going back to the way things were before.

The question remains- what is the best way to move forward now that we’ve experienced such a juxtaposition between worlds?  How do we take the best of what we had before and combine it with the best of what we have now to envision a new norm that allows us to thrive in a reimagined work-life?

Here’s a simple exercise you can try, both with yourself and with your team, called Start, Stop, Continue, that will help you brainstorm solutions.

A Simple Exercise to Help You Rethink Your Work-Life: Start, Stop, Continue

In this very simple yet effective exercise, you create three columns.  You guessed it, Start, Stop, and Continue.

Go through each column in that order to identify how you want to move deliberately and consciously move forward.

Start

What worked before that has disappeared that you need to find a way to reintroduce?

What do you see other teams doing that you want to introduce?

What do you need that you currently don’t have?

Stop

What are some potential destructive or non-productive practices that you want to terminate?

What are the erroneous tasks that suck up the little time you have that you can eliminate?

What’s getting in your way?

Continue

What have you adopted that has been very effective that you want to consciously continue?

What have you tried that made a positive difference that you want to make more time for?

What are you currently doing that’s working?

Take Advantage of This Opportunity to Rethink Your Work-Life

As a best practice, I always practice what I preach.  When I went through this start, stop, continue exercise, a few things emerged for me that caused me to rethink my work-life:

  • I realized that there was a lot of extra stuff I was previously doing and stressing over pre-pandemic that I couldn’t get to during the pandemic.  And it didn’t matter.
  • No matter what, time to work out had to take precedence in my workday, even if it meant pushing back an important meeting.  My work outs aren’t as long as they used to be (or as hard), but they provide an important break and chance to move my body, which I need to keep myself operating at an optimal level (physically and mentally).
  • Comparing myself to others is never helpful and often, destructive.  You never know what’s happening behind closed doors and bottom line, they are not me, so it’s a pointless exercise.

What changes will you introduce into your work-life after doing your Start, Stop, Continue exercise?  Please shoot me a note to let me know: amy@swim-against.com.

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"After working with Amy, I feel confident that I know what I am meant to do, what my career goals are, and how I am going to achieve them. Read more."

Leslie, VP of Marketing at a Tech Company
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