Rachel, a senior-ranking employee at a consulting firm, considers herself lucky. She has a job, and her industry is still standing. In fact, because Rachel specializes in supply chain, her business is booming. Her clients are desperate for her team’s expertise while trying to pivot and adapt to a pandemic-wracked economy.
Unfortunately, a professional boom is leading toward a personal bust.
“I’m working more hours and getting less done. I can’t keep this up,” says Rachel.
Rachel’s weekdays start at 6 a.m., with meetings with clients in Asia. During her new “normal day,” nine hours of back-to-back Zoom meetings is par for the course. Rachel says it’s common to not have time to even go to the bathroom or grab some lunch. After all the meetings comes the attempt to triage the flood of emails in her inbox.
Then, around 7 p.m., Rachel gets a sense of relief since, she says, “I can start to get my real work done.”
Despite the simmering down of constant interruptions, Rachel finds it difficult to put in the deep focus for her job’s more complex demands. Undeterred, she grinds on until 11 p.m. Then, she heads off to bed to prepare to take another crack at it tomorrow.
Before the pandemic, Rachel did a pretty good job of self-care. Now, she’s shocked at how her ability to carve out a balance between work and life has evaporated. In the blink of an eye, Rachel’s whole life has become work. She says, “I’m having a hard-enough time, and I don’t have anyone else depending on me at home.”
Rachel’s situation is not unique; working from home while sheltering in place is harder than it looks. It seemed possible to muscle our way through this odd period until it was over—but as of now, there is still no end in sight.
Clearly, the normal routines have vanished, but less obvious is the disappearance of social structures that propped up the status quo.
What can you do to sustain resilience for the long-term? Here are three things you can do to reclaim your personal space and your professional sanity.
When written out, daily agendas and project goals appear to fit nicely together: Your 9 a.m. meeting ends at 10 a.m., and your 10 a.m. meeting magically begins. However, these plans don’t account for the basics of being human—biological needs, intermittent breaks to stand up and stretch, and mental pauses to switch gears.
Technology and automatic schedulers make it a friction-less process to fill up your daily dance card, top to bottom. Nevertheless, just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. When working from home, there are no default buffers in our schedules. You need to insert them intentionally.
Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn, once wrote, “There is no faster way to feel as though your day is not your own, and that you are no longer in control, than scheduling meetings back to back from the minute you arrive at the office until the moment you leave. I’ve felt the effects of this and seen it with colleagues. Not only is it not fun to feel this way, it’s not sustainable.”
Now that our home is our office and our office is our home, buffers are more important than ever. Some things to consider include scheduling your meetings shorter than normal half-hour intervals; try for 25 or 50 minutes instead.
Build some space into your schedule to catch your breath, get some exercise, or engage in some other activity that will help you renew your energy.
Beware of treating substitutions as breaks. Remember that if you’re jumping from a work call right into chores—this is not a buffer but just added work.
There’s a reason that flight attendants tell you to put on your own oxygen mask first. Creating a buffer will not only benefit you, it’ll help the various stakeholders who depend on you.
Build in rituals
The first cup of coffee. Putting on work clothes. The walk into the office. These are all basic rituals—customs that serve a purpose and get repeated. Rituals give us a sense of control over the transitions in our lives. They can be simple and daily (the morning commute), or complex and infrequent (weddings and funerals).
Sheltering in place has abolished so many our daily personal and professional rituals. Without rituals, it’s easy to feel adrift, reacting to the needs and noise of the people and things around us. This can be a huge energy drain, and we can lose sight of our goals and our purpose.
To restore your focus and vigor, consider creating new rituals of renewal. These could include:
- An email-free morning
- A daily check-in with the team
- A lunchtime walk
- A daily email of appreciation
- A powering-down-the-laptop ceremony
- A one-minute break to close your eyes and breathe
- A weekly happy hour
- A meditation or headspace app
The only limit to a ritual is your own creativity. If you include others, you’ll know your ritual is working when they tell you, “Hey, can we do this again next Thursday, too?”
Pre-pandemic, work was work, and home was home. There were some built-in limits. Now, with everyone working from home, those lines are easily blurred.
If your company had a penchant for pushing the workflow envelope before this crisis (like Rachel’s firm), that tendency may be magnified now.
Amid the current uncertainty, one thing is clear: Continuous overwork during a global pandemic is a recipe for burnout.
IBM recently created a pledge for working from home during the coronavirus. As strong as the IBM culture was before, the shift to a fully work-from-home workforce means starting anew and setting clear limits. Rock-solid cultures don’t arise fully formed. They grow out of behaviors that harden into norms.
Lousy leaders create culture by default, while great leaders create culture by design. This is a time to be intentional and make your explicit assumptions explicit.
Using IBM’s pledge as a model, consider these questions to start making and keeping positive culture changes:
- What useful limits do you want to put in place?
- What behaviors will sustain people?
- What behaviors will drain them?
- Which behaviors don’t translate from the office to home?
For today’s crisis, we need leaders who proactively equip themselves and their teams with tools to sustain this period of remote work. Only then will your valuable employees have a fighting chance to succeed after the world emerges from the pandemic.
Alain Hunkins, author of Cracking the Leadership Code: Three Secrets to Building Strong Leaders, is a sought-after speaker, consultant, trainer, and coach. Over his career, Alain has facilitated leadership seminars around such topics as team-building, communication, and change.