The TechGC Women's Collective recently reconvened for its first East Coast event. We were honored to have the support of Gunderson Dettmer as Chelsea Raiten, Of Counsel, led an insightful panel discussion. Our three experienced panelists, Allison Brecher (Vestwell), Justine Lee (25madison), and Erin Abrams (Via), shared their tips, tricks, and considerations for maintaining a work-life balance and how to navigate the impending return to the office.
COVID-19 and the shift to remote work has obliterated any remaining lines between work and non-working time, however that distinction has never been more important for our health and wellbeing. We need to realize that our strongest advocates for our needs are ourselves. No one else knows your situation exactly or what you need to be productive and successful. Everyone has their own emergencies at work that will require your attention. There will always be someone pinging you wanting to see that document you were going to review or asking you to take a task off their plate. While being supportive and helpful to your colleagues is part of being a professional, you also need time for yourself. Working 100% of the time will only decrease your productivity as you (eventually) burnout. Take that time for yourself to care for your family and yourself.
Remaining successful during these changing times will depend heavily on our mindsets. Once we alter our individual and collective mindset to realize that working from home is possible, but only if we have a plan to make it sustainable long-term, then the concept of a work / life balance will be more accepted. You can’t be expected to be available at all times during the day, so take the time to create a long term plan that is healthy for you, your family, and your job. But don’t forget, you’re not alone in this struggle. Everyone is working through some sort of adjustment and the support we offer to ourselves and our peers can only make us stronger.
Part of the onus for creating and maintaining this ever-elusive balance falls on our companies; a successful company is built around successful employees. Our panelists shared a few examples of what their companies are doing to encourage or facilitate employees defining their own work-life boundaries:
- “Sweaty selfies” and partnering with gyms: Set up a program and social channel around exercise and change the culture at work to have the expectation that people take time to care for themselves.
- Book clubs, game nights, etc.: Host social events intentionally during work hours so people know they should take breaks and participate in company activities.
- “University” Courses: Develop a curriculum of volunteer- taught classes on a variety of topics from cooking to contract management to keep employees engaged and build community around shared interests.
- Benchmarking surveys: Send out regular benchmarking surveys to gain employee feedback on their overall wellbeing, then implement sessions for stress management and work / life balance based on the feedback.
In addition to the stresses that come from losing any work-life balance, we’re also living in a particularly stressful moment with anxiety about COVID and how it may affect ourselves and people we care about being compounded by recent issues related to systemic discrimination and racism. Below are some tips and resources that our panelists and their companies are using/providing that have been useful in managing this stress.
Specifically related to systemic discrimination and racism:
- Develop employee resource groups (ERG)
- Host town hall meetings and continuing conversations about racial justice,
- Engage in pro bono projects and making those visible to the company for others to become involved
- Take training from Kapor Capital on unconscious bias, mental health resources for black employees
- Start an Anti-Racism, Diversity and Inclusion (AD&I) Task Force.
- Institute fun Fridays at the office: Some companies are designating half-days on Fridays or every other Friday off to create an expectation that everyone takes time off.
- Participate in team bonding activities: Take advantage of or institute group activities like personal and group yoga / meditation, live cocktail making, fun slack channels around non-work related subjects like cooking or pets/family.
- Initiate mental health outreaches: Identify a few people to check on all employees in the company on a regular basis so people know they have a support system.
- Buddy system: Pair employees with someone from another office/department/ location to check in regularly and keep each other accountable for their own health.
- Have 1:1s with your team: It’s more important than ever to stay connected to those you work with to let them know that you care about their wellbeing and are a resource they can rely on.
Best Practices for Working While Parenting/Caregiving from Home
With the loss of schools and childcare, and for those who have been lucky enough to have not lost their job in the economic crisis, working parents are now also teachers and full-time caregivers. Our panelists shared that their companies are taking strides in accommodations for employees who are working parents or caregivers for others. Here are a few ideas on ways to be accommodating:
- Understand that having a reliable childcare system or stable care for other dependents will be crucial to employees being productive. If there is no care system, the employee can’t be 100% focused on work.
- Listen to employees about their needs. No one knows what will increase their productivity better than the employee him/herself.
- Encourage your employees to not hide their families. Being transparent around why meetings are pushed back or why they have to be “out of office” for an afternoon will encourage others to realize it’s ok to be flexible.
- Keep in mind that everyone has different challenges and situations. Flexibility is the key to success in a WFH world and what works for one employee may not work for another.
Lately, one hot topic of discussion has been how the COVID-crisis is both bringing to light and exacerbating already-existing gender imbalances and stereotypes regarding parenting and household management. Our panelists shared some approaches to maintaining a good home environment.
- Schedule shifts with your partner on who watches the kids and who works. Alternating days or mornings/afternoons can be helpful. One person takes care of the family while the other focuses on being productive at work.
- Consider a more fluid approach. Have daily check-ins with your partner to figure out an approach that works best for your family. This will take a significant amount of communication to work, but the end result will be a custom plan that meets your family’s needs.
- Keep in mind that no family is the same. The plan that works best for your family will likely not work exactly the same way for someone else.
- Eve Rodsky’s book Fair Play is a great resource for helping families identify each member’s responsibilities at home.
- Realize that while work is important, your family is more important. They rely on you for love and support and can provide that same support back to you as you struggle through these uncertain times.
“Caregiver status” is a protected category in New York, “sex stereotyping” is prohibited under Title VII, and of course discrimination based on age and disability or medical condition are also prohibited. One issue that has been raised is the idea of “benign” discrimination against women (and men) who are caregivers, by not affording them the same opportunities at work, or the chance to return to the office, because of assumed unavailability or lack of desire. The same issue arises with assumptions about older employees or employees with disabilities or underlying medical conditions. Another issue is the anticipation of increased requests for leaves of absence once we return to the office either in the event there are additional outbreaks and employees become ill, or because childcare or schools are still unavailable for many employees. These may be leaves requested under sick leave laws, the ADA, FMLA or FFCRA. Our panelists provided some considerations on how to manage these requests and how to guard against unintentional “sex stereotyping” and “benign discrimination.”
- Realize that these issues are real and remain prevalent in today’s society
- In place of layoffs or furloughs for those who can’t return to work, consider a job share agreement with a different employer or reductions in hours and pay. These options are always more appealing than losing a job completely.
- Take stock of your employees and have an up-to-date handbook. Avoid instituting rules that the majority of the workforce disagrees with (e.g. mandatory return to the office full time for all employees) and make sure that the company handbook reflects the adjusted expectations around leave, PTO, or requests for stipends for transportation, childcare, etc.
- Utilize anonymized surveys to garner insight into the general sentiment around significant operational changes. Employees will feel safe answering anonymized features and you will receive higher participation on key metrics that influence operational decisions.
- Provide special training for managers on how to address some of these complicated topics. Let them know that you support them and understand the difficulties around the rapidly changing guidelines and expectations.
Return to Office
As states begin opening back up and employees begin returning to the office, there are many issues around employees’ parenting/caregiving obligations that you should consider. Solving for those issues will not be easy or clear as to what the best course of action is. Our panelists provided some tips around those considerations.
- Every company should be considering what their transportation options are and how to help employees get around safely. Standard transportation methods will not be the same in the post-COVID world. Know the options that employees have and have open and clear communication around how the company will help them commute.
- Be aware and understanding if employees require additional leave due to misaligned school schedules or inadequate childcare. This heightened level of understanding will prevent negative responses to the changes in expectations around returning to the office.
- Maintain flexibility around requiring employees to return to the office full time. Many have proven that they are fully capable of maintaining the expected level of productivity while remaining at home. Consider hybrid work arrangements for those who need the extra flexibility.
For companies that anticipate allowing caregivers to continue to work remotely, the onus is on the company to keep the employees integrated with the in-office team. For those who are part of the remote workforce, the company should adjust the culture around accepting the new normal and should work to keep those who are remote feeling included in company operations. Continue with regular check-ins to see how well employees are functioning. Include remote employees in team meetings by video conferencing with them and all those in the office. The more universally people understand the ways to operate in a hybrid environment, the more flexible and accepting they will be.
The culture around working from home will continue to change as we move closer and closer to the option of returning to our offices. However, it’s unlikely that we will return to the “normal” that we knew before the pandemic. As we are navigating these times, remember:
- Be honest and transparent about your needs;
- Be willing to delegate and outsource your tasks. They may not be done quickly or exactly how you expect, but it will free up your time and energy and build trust between you and your colleagues;
- Check in on those around you. Personal connections are more valuable than ever.
- Recognize that there might be benefits if your company chooses to return to the office full time;
- And keep in mind that you are not alone in your struggle. You have a great community of friends and peers at TechGC that you can lean on for help and support.