Life-Work Balance and Remote Agility: Courtesy of COVID-19
If you’re like me, you’ve been asking yourself what kind of twilight-zone shit did we step into in 2020? Okay, maybe you wouldn’t curse, but believe me, a well-placed curse word might be the only thing that spared my sanity in the past few weeks. I’ve been consuming a good dose of data from, COVID-19 case numbers that seem to be skyrocketing, to every single How-To document that people have so generously shared. Can anyone say information overload?
This entire pandemic situation has felt overwhelming… and scary. But, at the same time, I sense that we are stepping into a time of global transformation. Maybe this practice of social distancing will create more connectedness, but not in the way we think.
For those of you that don’t know me, I’ve been a coach in the Agile space for a little over a decade. I won’t give you a lesson on Agile (information overload and all), just suffice it to say, it started off in the spirit of working in a new way to bring innovation and creativity to technology and loosen the bondage of workers to feel more empowered to create what the customer actually wanted or better.
I may get a lot of grief for sharing my opinions on The Agile Manifesto. Written 20 years ago with 4 values and 12 principles, it became the guiding way forward for all who chose this path of product development. The spirit in which it was intended was leading-edge.
As amazing as that manifesto is, I’ve had a difficult time watching it go from the leading edge to boxing us in within some organizations, just in a different way. I never could get on board with the way the community latched on to ‘face-to-face interactions being the most effective and efficient means of communication.’ Gasp! I said it.
As a working wife and mother who also pursued other side passions, I felt bound by the idea of commuting to an office every day when there were so many options available to communicate.
For the past few years, I’ve been proclaiming that remote work is THE WAY forward as we welcome Generation Z into the workforce. Agility means flexibility and empowerment. When working with leaders, I often ask: “If the four walls of your company did not exist tomorrow, could you lead your team? Would your vision and leadership light the way forward? Would you inspire them to go in the direction you wanted them to go?”
Many times, I am dismissed with a simple, “That will never happen in this company. We will never be a virtual organization.”
Well, allow me to issue a hearty welcome to ‘NEVER’ as we move into April 2020 with social distancing guidelines that extend until the end of the month, and possibly longer. We are staring into the face of uncertainty as those of us fortunate enough to still be employed begin to operate in a 100% virtual space from our home offices. The story has shifted from work-life balance to life-work balance. Sounds simple, right? But we are now integrating our work into our homes and our lives and that takes a lot of thoughtful planning and reflection.
I felt honored when my boss asked me to create something that would support our agile team regarding the ‘Best Practices of Remote Work.’ Yet as I sat down to type it all up, I felt hypocritical. I realized that for as many times as I have preached the best practices of remote work in my career, telecommuting during COVID-19 is not a typical remote work situation.
Now I know not everyone is walking in my shoes. Maybe you went from working to layoff. Maybe you’re working from home with no kids. Maybe you’re front lines of the pandemic. Maybe you are a teacher adjusting to remote lessons. There are so many variations, I couldn’t possibly list them all or do them justice.
But, maybe you are like me, working from home with school-aged children trying to rapidly adjust to what I am lovingly calling a new reality of “Work-From-Home-Schooling”.
This is a snapshot my mother took just moments after I completed a 50+ person collaborative session on the ups and downs of our new telecommuting reality. If I remember correctly, when this picture was taken, I was answering instant messages with one hand, teaching my 3rd grader common core math in the voice of Kristoff from Frozen II while prancing him around the table to entertain my 3-year-old. THIS is our current reality.
No matter what boat you find yourself in, we are all in the same stomach-turning raging sea of uncertainty… we are ALL trying to adjust to a new way of being.
In the Agile world, we call this a test and learn cycle. Well, I’ve tested, I’ve fallen flat on my face (I blame 3rd-grade math for it all), and I’ve learned a thing or two in these last few weeks.
As we enter another month-long extension of social distancing, I want to share my own 4 value Manifesto from the perspective of a working mom whose kids are home too. This isn’t in any way to make light of the work of those original authors, only to add a perspective of where I am now standing. And I’m speculating here, but I’m almost certain they didn’t write theirs with a toddler running up and down the halls with their pants around their ankles. Although I have been wrong before.
Working Moms Agility Manifesto
Individual Needs over Under-serving Processes
My very favorite ‘best practice’ of remote work is all about new processes and “setting boundaries” which is often followed by the various examples of having a neat office space, airtight doors and windows, and nice little sticky notes that tell others in the house, “I’m busy”. You need a space that is blocked off so no one on those conference calls can hear noises coming from your home.
I’m not entirely certain that this worked perfectly before, but I can ASSURE you that for working parents with children out of school who require homework assistance, free entertainment, and embarrassingly announce their potty habits loudly throughout the house, this well-meaning best practice doesn’t always work well. There is even a fun game going around Facebook for WFH parents to share “what did your co-worker do/say today” to commiserate.
"Boundaries!? What boundaries?"
I don’t believe that we can ignore the fact that people may be feeling anxious and cagey.
What do you do when you are sharing your workspace with others in a wholly different way? Do you try to ignore it and hope everyone on the call does the same? Apologize repeatedly for the distractions? Put yourself on mute and pray to the powers that be that you don’t need to chime in?
Well, for me, this feels like an opportunity to begin truly connecting to others in a more open and honest way. Being vulnerable and open about the situation you find yourself in IS the way forward. We’ve been seeking this type of transparency for years. What better time to face the story of working mom guilt? What better time to CHANGE the story?
Can we now begin changing potentially outdated processes and discussing work-life-balance in a new way? Asking questions such as:
“Does Monday through Friday, 9-5 actually make us more productive?
“Do we find the sweet spot of creative heads downtime and balance it with collaboration with our teammates? Would this propel our businesses into something greater?
“Would we be more productive if we could set our schedules around what works best for us?”
“Would our business not just operationally survive, but would they thrive with innovation?”
"Do our processes, mid-pandemic or otherwise, still serve us?"
How do we start these conversations? I believe we do it through grace and compassion.
Grace & Compassion over Rigid Agreements
Right now, more than ever, a little grace and compassion will go a long way in building honest and transparent relationships in our work teams. And more importantly, a little grace and compassion for ourselves will go even further.
I’m disheartened to say that I’ve had multiple conversations with people in the past week who are suffering in their isolation and fear of the unknown. Questioning their worthiness and their strength to go on.
Do any of these thoughts resonate with you?
“Will I have a job next week?”
“I want to help out, but don’t know how to help.”
“I’m mentally exhausted and I feel like I can’t take a break.”
“I should feel grateful to still be working; how can I feel sorry for myself?”
“I signed up to perform this job. If I can’t add value now, they may let me go.”
So what if we shared those thoughts with one another? What if getting it out would take us inward toward our hearts and the answers we’re seeking?
Brene Brown tells us that “Daring greatly means the courage to be vulnerable. Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.”
She also said, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.”
This is the first time in my lifetime that I feel there is no controlling the outcome of this great change. We can either get overwhelmed or we can get vulnerable and brave. I am saying this to myself as much as I am to you. We can’t control the outcomes, but we can influence them. Staying home, social distancing, and following the advice of medical professionals are great ways of influencing our present, but tapping into ours hearts to focus on wellbeing, life-work balance, and new opportunities that are arising will influence our future.
Balance and Well-Being over Constant Productivity
After hosting that large Telecommute Retrospective, a group of working women came together to talk about our experiences. We noted that a few people felt tethered to their devices and they couldn’t turn off the way they did when they worked in the office. Do you feel being at home requires you to stay "on" at all times? Do you feel more productive being connected to work more than 8 hours a day?
On the other hand, many of us agreed that we don’t miss the commute time to work. A few said that this is the perfect time for a walk, to read a book or to spend in reflection. What if we didn’t have to wait for a pandemic to have those options?
Even though it was a rocky start, many of my colleagues were able to find ways to balance the WFH changes and put that additional time toward things we enjoyed.
We now have the opportunity to explore our passions. After years of being a self-proclaimed workaholic, one colleague was excited by the idea of having time to even THINK about different interests.
From this organic conversation was borne the idea to bring the topic back to the larger workgroup with a few tips and tricks to explore what they might love doing outside of work and to encourage everyone to use this experience for exploration and expansion.
If you had asked me a few years ago if I would have expected to hear this type of conversation in a corporate environment such as this, well… you can imagine how I might have responded. Yet here we are, having open conversations on how to find balance and well-being, and leaving behind the feelings of guilt of not being “productive” in the way we’ve always thought of it. What if there were an opportunity to rise to this challenge in other ways and bring new ideas to the corporate world?
Rising to the Challenge over Reacting to Chaos
I’ve spoken with my colleagues about our ‘return to normal.’ We all agree. There will likely be a new normal.
What do you miss in your old way of working that you can’t wait to get back to? What are you experiencing now that you appreciate and want to take back with you? This is an opportunity to rise to the challenge and use our voices and leadership to take us all forward into a new way of working in the world. Perhaps we can guide Generation Z into the workforce in a way that brings us all together and foster the new leaders of our world in a way that may not have seemed possible before. How will you rise to this challenge?
I am not saying that I would want to work from home every day, but what I am saying is, wouldn’t it be nice to have new options to balance life and work? I can say, with 100% certainty, that I will have a hard time leaving these co-workers behind, potty talk and all.
If you're interested in continuing this conversation or working together on leading remote teams with compassion and heart during COVID-19 and beyond, schedule time at your convenience. I would love to connect with you and hear your stories of life-work balance.