Written by Amy Lopez
During Week 3 of sheltering in place, I volunteered for a CEO-commissioned task force on issues people at my company are facing as we work from home while caring for others. The eight task force members shared around the virtual table about our respective circumstances, how we are getting through the week and the day, and the workplace challenges that are especially acute in the current context.
After presenting a firm-wide presentation of our discussion, I couldn’t stop thinking about my colleagues: parent-professionals, some of whom told me they felt validation from the presentation, and hearing they aren’t alone in the struggle to get through the day, let alone the week.
Last week I virtually met with ten colleagues across the company for 15 minutes each, and asked them three questions:
- What is your “caring for others” situation?
- What solutions are you trying for yourself?
- What are the top 2 things you want other people to do (or not do) that would give you some relief or a little more stability?
Here is what I learned from people I know.
While nuances make our situations unique, there are similar struggles cutting across our situations.
Parents cannot be everywhere, in body or mind, at the same time, even if we are superheroes in our kids’ minds. For example, you’re focused for 12 solid minutes, crafting a response to your team on that subject that is a sensitive spot for a few and for another is a tired topic that should have been settled last quarter. Then a science experiment quietly being carried out next to you by your son takes a surprising turn and sprays yeasty sugar-water all over your monitor, keyboard, and neck. While your body was present for that experiment, your mind was on a work issue, and now there is beige splatter beautifully illustrating your current normal.
Children persistently seek attention and stability. Infants, toddlers, and preschoolers pay no mind to meetings or matters of international pandemic. Their days have been disrupted with changes to routine and parents’ responsiveness. While they may not have the words to articulate their experience, the situation is not lost on them, and they want someone to attend to their needs immediately.
Calendar coordination is real people! For those who have partners also working and children doing online learning, be it day-to-day or at times hour-by-hour. Scheduling meetings across teams just became more complex as people now must take into consideration their partner’s work calendar, kid’s sharing computers and devices and broadband for online learning, and the little one’s nap time. “So what you’re telling me is you’ll have 60 uninterrupted minutes at your computer next Tuesday. Okay. Let’s hold that hour.” For now, so much for ad hoc conversations that quickly move us toward a solution.
We are creative as we pivot, and a few strategies rise as key to making possible what seems unimaginable.
Get honest with yourself and colleagues about what is probable. For example, the baby will take a nap in the afternoon, for 30 minutes to two hours, hopefully. Admit that you can’t count on babies, and then block off some specific times in the afternoon as unavailable for meetings. You’ll address emails, review that proposal, and cross-check the numbers on your own terms. But clarify, first for yourself and then for others, when during the day you are most likely able to engage your mind for meetings. And provide an authentic auto-reply that shows what people can expect from you. Here is mine as an example:
Thank you for your email.
My son’s school is closed through the end of the school year. In support of him, I am working non-traditional hours on weekdays. You will hear back from me as soon as I am able to respond.
Please note, although working remotely in response to COVID-19, [my company] is fully operational. Visit our website for more information.
Have a family schedule: both a weekly look-ahead and a daily schedule of activities at specific times or intervals. To the extent possible, partners can coordinate their work calendars and the kids schedules ahead of time.
Keep pre-COVID-19 routines to provide stability and normalcy. Parents who presented as having a pretty good handle on the situation consistently were maintaining many family routines as usual, like getting ready in the morning (clean clothes included), having outdoor time (for parents’ fitness routines and kids recess), following through with activities currently offered via group video sessions, and treating the weekends and other special times with the same no-school/no-work practices they’ve always had.
Teach kids that now there are casual times and school/work times at home. “Brain focus time” is the tactic I’m using in our home to establish the times of day when we aren’t supposed to just walk up to someone and start talking to them. We are learning that our home environment that typically would be very casual now also is a place where, during certain periods, you no longer assume someone can immediately switch their thoughts or activities on a whim. And around here, “brain focus time” comes with a brain superhero, red cape and all, that I tape on the wall as a reminder during our work sessions.
Be flexible. Some people adjusted their fitness routines, rather than pausing them, since the gym is off limits. Some parents have relaxed the electronics rules a little bit, but not too much. Others are shifting non-meetings work to early mornings or late evenings to make daytime hours flexible for kids’ and teams’ needs.
Professionalism is critical in times of stress. So are grace and awareness of how others are processing this new circumstance.
Have efficient meetings that have a clear agenda, are spent on-topic (Actually, I don’t want to chat for the sixth time today about how cute my temperamental 2-year-old is), and end on time.
Feel empowered, and empower others, to problem-solve on one’s own. As one colleague said, “It would be refreshing to get emails like, ‘I had this problem. Here’s how I addressed it. Just letting you know.’” Instead of all the additional instances of, “Well, let me just bring this to Raquel, too.”
Be intentional to make most of every communication touch. Write concise emails. Summarize decisions and action items at a meeting’s close. Call someone sooner rather than later to clarify things. And drop any inessential meetings—people really don’t have time for those now.
Keep track of “high risk” staff. Don’t let more than a few days go by without verbal contact (visual is even better), and don’t hesitate to address a percolating issue. These might be younger people who just relocated, and now they’re stuck alone in an apartment, or they’re stuck with roommates they didn’t really mean to be around 24/7. Constant contact with a partner in the home 24/7 may cause personal issues between them to be elevated and that causes great stress as well. These might be people experiencing especially heightened stress levels because a partner has been furloughed or a relative currently is fighting COVID-19. These might be leaders who are aversive to engaging in conflict, and now strains are fracturing the team.
Assume good is intended. People have varying degrees of resilience and resourcefulness. With all the added stressors and discomfort people are feeling, choose to assume that good is intended. Choose to assume that people are aiming for their best. And assume the same about yourself, too. Because you are doing your best with what you have where you are today.
Written by Amy Lopez, Senior Planner
Since the sudden passing of my husband 4 years ago, I have been a single parent to our son and the executive producer of this whole performance with energy, struggle, wit, and many a mile in my running shoes. When my son’s school announced recently it would be closed for in-person classes, and 72 hours later our Bay Area county announced everyone was to shelter in place, I promptly called on my resolve and resilience to produce this latest performance. You can connect with Amy here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/amy-lopez-at-kittelson/
Connect with Victoria here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/victoriatrabosh/