“The biggest stress relief will be getting people back to work.” That was the sentence that stopped me from reading the rest of an article in The Toronto Star titled “An impossible dilemma.”
Recently, I wrote about our “everyday” heroes working on construction sites—deemed essential—and the risks construction workers take as they go to work each day to build the new homes our city needs. While it’s stressful for a lot of them; for some, it provides a sense of calm, beyond the certainty of making an income. It allows them to maintain their routine and, in some cases, even their mental well-being.
But that’s not the story that most people like to read about, nor the one media want to write about. So we continue (and will never stop) worrying about the safety of those working on the front lines, particularly in our hospitals, but also in the grocery stores, pharmacies, construction sites, and restaurants offering take-out (yes, we are COVID tired and still have days we opt for short-cuts).
It’s also important to remember the other side of the story. The order to work from home wherever and whenever possible, while described as a privilege, isn’t exactly a free trip to Disneyland. It too, has created significant stress and challenges. For everyone.
The article in the Star reminded me of the other end of the spectrum. It emphasized that for many of us, getting back to a physical office for work may be what saves and restores us, both physically and mentally. As the weeks crawled into a second month and the number of days became too high to count, those of us who are privileged to have jobs that let us to work from home are discovering that like any love-hate relationship, this too can be tough.
There are the simple struggles like how to set up logistics, maintain productivity, and balance competing priorities. But there are also the internal struggles. In another Toronto Star article, reporter, Shawn Micallef explained how to deal with the struggle of forcing yourself to work while at the same time, feeling guilt over time spent not working. He cautioned, “Your production level will not be the same at home. Things will take longer to get done, even simple communication. In normal times you might peak your head above a cubicle or through a door to get a question answered. Now you’ll wait for a message, email or phone call to be returned.” As a colleague of mine mentioned, added to that is fatigue from all the Zoom meetings which require a level of attention and listening we’re not skilled at normally.
I’m finding my days are longer. Sometimes too long. In our home, there’s almost been a role reversal with my kids saying “Mom’s had too much screen time” and telling me to get off the computer. The workday has become fragmented, and boundaries that were created to make distinctions between personal and professional have been all but broken.
I recently chatted on Twitter with some peers in the industry about whether we’re ready to go “back” to work, as we used to know it. We reminisced about “better” days, and I personally attested to the fact that my eyes hurt, and my ears are getting fatigued with earbuds being my new permanent accessory. There’s also the lack of movement—we need to make room for it. And we need to remember the importance of showering and getting dressed every day. Simple things. Some people are fighting the slippery slope to less than healthy habits. It’s a struggle to opt for “better” alternatives like healthy food, exercise and getting fresh air responsibly, all of which have a way of bringing new energy to your workday.
Juggling tasks and the isolation for those who live alone are proving to be more detrimental to our health than anticipated (an important and HUGE topic – read more about it in an upcoming post). Professor Steve Joordens, who studies mental health impacts of isolation during epidemics states that it’s our “daily rituals, from the work we do to the people we interact with, that remind us of who we are and what our purpose in life is.”
In addition to the disruption to most of our routines, there are the challenges from those who serve as leaders in the companies they represent. Most recognized their first priority during this crisis was to safeguard their workers and if possible, to secure their economic well-being. For many of us, this meant shifting to remote and flexible work options where feasible, providing stronger physical protection and PPE for those having to physically remain at work. In our case, it meant creating new processes to heighten levels of safety and cleanliness on construction sites. There is also the escalating pressure of addressing and helping with the psychological stress this is creating for people. At every level.
One of my favourite New York Times columns is “Corner Office” which features the backgrounds and insights of various C-suite executives. It recently offered a peek at the way eight CEOs are managing the struggle to run their companies from a distance. Those positioned at the top are not immune to the same challenges we all face, and then some. In addition to worrying about corporate survival (where the focus is on liquidity, valuations and capital sources) it’s obvious that a significant part of what keeps them up at night is concern for their HUMAN capital. Here are some excerpts which show the strain, and in some cases, the humour that they’ve been using to try and balance that.
CHUCK ROBBINS, Cisco: “The whole teleworking thing – as much as we sell it to our customers, I’m not sure I want to do it 100% of the time.” His employees don’t want that either. During a recent company-wide video conference where mental health professionals took employee questions about how to deal with the stress of working from home, there was a stable connection for most people, but the connection for Robbins was frustratingly poor quality. As he explained, “…none of this technology was designed to support the entire world working from home. The webex teams haven’t slept in days… ” Everyone is working from remote locations to keep their business afloat and manage supply chains upended by travel restrictions and labour shortages, while trying to keep employees healthy and sane.”
SUNDAR PICHAI, Alphabet: Pichai oversees some of the companies that are making this crises more manageable (Google, YouTube etc.) from a home office you might expect a the CEO of a Silicon Valley giant to have. From there, he looks at how his companies are responding to the situation at hand. A primary task is to ensure the validity and expertise of the information shared on each of the Alphabet platforms. He also sees firsthand the usage spike that validates what their video conferencing products such as Hangouts and G-Suite are providing to the world. “It’s a miracle you can run a company this way,” he commented. Yet, despite the aesthetic of a stunning home office, it doesn’t spare Pichai from the struggle of navigating the home front as well as the company. “The day-to-day juggling stretches all of us.”
ADENA FRIEDMAN, Nasdaq: A goal is to maintain a sense of routine, while working from home with her husband and two sons in their 20’s. She wakes up at 5:30 am every day, rides her Peloton, eats breakfast and gets to work. Despite the horror story of watching the markets decline steadily, she’s discovering some joy in being able to peer into the personal lives of her colleagues. “Sometimes a kid will walk into the room. My dog has been barking all day.” While she strives to maintain her routine, there are alterations. The pleasantries of a seated and thoughtful lunch have transitioned to an “eating for survival” model—thriving on peanut butter and honey sandwiches with a quick sprint to the kitchen. She sums it up by saying, “It is a high stress environment right now.”
STEWART BUTTERFIELD, Slack: Dealing with spotty wifi—a familiar challenge for many of these days—meant that his company-wide video conference had to be conducted from the laundry room in his home. We can all relate to the ad-hoc offices we’ve had to create when a connection is poor. While Butterfield realizes an incredible surge in their Slack usage has galvanized his team, he’s aware “The adrenaline rush eventually wears off. We don’t want people to burn out.”
ALBERT BOURLA, Pfizer : As CEO of one of the largest global “cogs” in the health care system, there is additional stress and pressure on Bourla and his company. He is also concerned that for employees “…the novelty of remote working quickly wore thin. After a couple of weeks there was a fatigue of working from home.” About himself, he says, “My mind is spinning a thousand times. It’s not only that I feel responsible for the 90,000 people of Pfizer, I feel a responsibility to bring a solution to this crisis.”
Yet despite forging ahead with increased production of potential treatment medication and aggressive vaccination research, he seems able to find the silver lining. Primarily in the joy of having his reunited family under one roof again, as his daughter returned home from college after schools were ordered to close. Accompanying her return, was the bickering with her mother. It’s a joy to him, he says, as he had missed the dynamic, even the fights. “I’m happy to see it once more. The day starts with a fight and ends with a fight.” Surely, as good an argument as any that COVID isolation has us yearning to once again have some sense of normalcy in our lives and homes.
GREGG RENFREW, Beautycounter: An online retailer of shampoos and makeup, Renfrew struggles with the challenges that all small business owners are facing. Setting priorities, postponing product launches and fortifying their supply chain while ramping up production of essential items. Of primary concern are the 50,000 people whose livelihood depends on her and having to admit that she doesn’t have all the answers. None of us do. We are all making decisions with rapidly changing, imperfect information which is depleting for everyone. Recognizing this, she recently declared an essential day off for all staff to reflect and restore. “We all need to figure out how to manage everything and then come back to get to work.” COVID has taught all of us that it’s okay to hit pause when you need to. In fact, it’s critical. Good leadership means thoughtful, proactive , long-term decision making, not short-term knee-jerk reactions.
MARC BENIOFF, Salesforce: Like his company’s 50,0000 employees, Benioff is juggling personal and professional demands from his home. His challenges sound familiar. Among them is managing an insurmountable level of communication (zero inbox is a relic from the past) and frequently readjusting priorities. Meditation is one of the coping skills he leans on and it is something he’s extending beyond himself, for good reason. An internal survey revealed that 36% of his employees are facing mental health challenges. He knows that number is conservative, as it reflects only those willing to admit this. So every morning begins with a daily mental health call to encourage prayer, meditation and mindfulness.
GIOVANNI CAFORIO, Bristol Myers Squibb: As the leader of a prominent drug maker with family living in Italy, “the hotspot of all hotspots” Caforio began monitoring the virus long before most of us. From his home office in New Jersey, he’s sharing space with his wife his and two children where they’re all “adapting to a new reality.” As for his workforce, he knows it’s a stressful time, “some of our employees working from home were feeling almost guilty. They were struggling about how to balance their personal needs with how to help the company. It’s okay. Right now, we all have to make trade-offs.”
Some of the struggles described above are relatable, others offer perspective on the additional pressures faced by those at the helm. Regardless, I guarantee that each of these CEOs is looking for opportunities amid constraints and sparks of innovation for the future. This may seem impossible, but it will be imperative for the long-term health of their companies and their people. While stabilizing and meeting the crisis at hand, reprioritizing and allocating resources differently, they are well aware that organizations with a greater purpose and stronger connections with their employees, are the ones that will ride out the volatility and regain stability “tomorrow”.
As for what tomorrow will look like. No one knows for certain. But despite the efficiencies we gain through forced adoption of technology in our work-from-home scenarios, it won’t be a world only consumed with Google Hangouts, Zoom and Skype meetings. It will likely be a more balanced hybrid. We now understand how important physical space is for day-to-day work life. It will likely be designed differently, with new parameters in mind and we will all continue to learn as we go, since this is new for all of us.
The good news is that for those of us who are fortunate enough to return to work, we will emerge with a renewed appreciation for the world that we left behind so quickly and perhaps even excitedly as we were curious about what it would be like to have the “luxury” of working-from-home. As Micallef explains, “A good office is an incredibly social place… and a lot more than work happens in it. That’s the stuff that keeps you going.” I hope that at least for now, the vision of that world will renew your optimism until we get there.
Feature Image: Toronto Star