I was staring out at a sea—or should I say a grid—of blank faces. It was the town hall portion of our weekly all-company meeting, and an employee asked me directly how long I thought this work-from-home arrangement would last. I gave my unfiltered opinion: I did not see a return to life as we knew it for a couple of years (if ever). I had made a concerted effort to keep spirits high and energy positive in our weekly all-company Zoom calls, but it felt like despite all the positive momentum generated from previous responses to the crisis, with that one revelation, I had just killed the mood of the entire team.
This was in April, when folks were hopeful that we would be “back to normal” in another few weeks. When that Zoom call ended, I started hearing from people that it was a tough message to hear.
When the pandemic first hit, our team was firing on all cylinders. We were energized by adrenaline and complex, new problems to solve. There was even a novelty to our new virtual work life. As the world seemed to spiral out of control, it felt good to have concrete, controllable problems to work through, and we were actually keeping things on track as a business by swiftly pivoting. By the end of June, we were back to nearly pre-pandemic revenue numbers, a cause for celebration. But to be honest, we did not really celebrate. And it did not feel like we had reached our goal. It felt like another day of waking up, logging onto Zoom calls while juggling childcare responsibilities, and wondering how to best support the team. Even though I saw this coming as early as April, when the calendar flipped to July, it really started to sink in that this crisis was not going anywhere. We had reached a massive milestone, but it was a false peak.
It felt like we had just finished running a sprint, only to be told we had actually signed up for the marathon. We were truly just a few miles in—stable and with record results, but exhausted, beat down by the daily grind of COVID life, and using fuel too quickly. It was time to slow down and recalibrate.
As an entrepreneur, working around the clock with the team to save the company was in my blood. Those long days and weeks in March, April, May, and June came naturally to me and to many of my team members who had self-selected to work at a startup. What’s been more challenging is determining how to navigate the transition to this next phase—where working from home is the norm rather than a novelty. I don’t have all the answers on how to keep the team motivated remotely or how to replace the natural camaraderie that happens at the office. Caring for my employees means something different when we’re all apart.
I started by taking two weeks out of the day-to-day of the business to take stock of everything we had been through. As someone that normally works 70-80 hours a week, this was a hard thing to do, but really helped me recoup and process where we needed to go next. It gave me the space to think through how I want to lead in the coming months, starting with pushing colleagues to slow down and take time off as well. No one is traveling, so it seems counterintuitive to take the day off to hang out at home, but freeing up that brain space is so important, both for mental health and future productivity.
In a world where everyday feels like Groundhog Day, and weekends aren’t much different than weekdays, I’m trying my best to provide as much certainty as I can for the team and placing a renewed emphasis on making sure priorities for my direct reports are clear and manageable, and that we expend energy on solving the right problems. We spent a few months building the plane while we were flying it and now it’s time to go back and write the manual.
I’m also going to make an effort to open up and be honest about how hard things have been.
Encouraging employees to work at a more manageable pace (and dismantling the culture of stress and burnout) starts with just talking about it openly. Farmer’s Fridge has long observed clarity breaks—a few hours every week where no one schedules meetings—but in the first few months of the pandemic, the team fell out of the habit of observing this custom with everything going on. Recently, I’ve made it a priority to ensure we do take that time to help create space for team members to focus in this “always on” environment.
Farmer’s Fridge is a social company. But manufacturing opportunities in the virtual world for those small interactions that take place naturally in the office has been challenging. We launched a service through Slack called #virtual-donut where employees that have opted in get paired up with a colleague each week for nonwork related casual conversation. We are experimenting with socially distanced, small group meet-ups (including a kickball game, with masks and lots of sanitizer, of course) and letting people work from the office on an as-needed basis. We also host virtual social hours and use Slack channels to share new hobbies we’ve picked up (as you can imagine, as a food company, we have some incredible chefs among us).
But I do see the opportunity that presents. We all have a chance to reset the stage and make work better for our teammates—more flexible, accommodating, and accepting of employees’ full selves and personal lives, including crying babies, screaming kids, and barking dogs. I want to be mindful about preserving the best parts to set us up for future success.
Luke Saunders is founder and CEO of Farmer’s Fridge, a network of more than 400 smart fridges stocked with fresh meals and snacks