Earlier this summer I was struck by a compelling article in EdSurge about the potential wave of burnout that will hit this fall. In part it read: “Burnout is associated with a range of other problems…. including less creativity, more anxiety and insomnia, more interpersonal conflict, lower job performance, more unexpected resignations, and more sick leave.” This sounded alarms for me due to how critical these roles are, not only for our business, but more importantly for the larger community that relies on the success of higher education for upward mobility, research and advancements that help society, and to drive the local economies.
I then reflected on how we’ve been supporting our staff at TargetX to prevent burnout and to acknowledge the new challenges and realities that staff are dealing with. We closed our office doors on March 13 and everyone began working at home. Personally, I’ve never been very good at working at home. When I had a big project to finish, or just wanted to catch up, I always found my way to the office. My kids have even remarked that it was weird that I’d come home for dinner, and then leave again at 8:30 p.m. to go to the office to work more and only be back when they were asleep. I did this because it’s all too often that one reads about the awful work/life balance modern life has created and I didn’t want to fall into that trap.
As I was going on my own path to finding the right balance, I realized I couldn’t be alone in this. At TargetX nearly ⅓ of our team works at home full time – so I called many of them and asked how they did it. Turns out, had I done that in April life would have been easier! The tactics I discovered were similar to their own, but everyone admitted it takes some time to get it right. I’m closer than I’ve ever been, but it will be a constant evolution. But I also realized that for us at TargetX, and many others of us, we have been working from home for 6 months now. Or have we been living at work?
Over the last few months, my leadership team and I have also thought a lot about what we, as an organization, can do to help encourage healthy behavior within our team. I suspect we started as most people did and just encouraged healthy habits. As we thought more long term about the health of our employees, I focused on three key areas:
Communication: I shared on a weekly basis an end of week e-mail about my own experiences, including daily walks with my kids, and invited everyone to do the same. But as weeks turned to months, it started to feel redundant and almost trite and so I stopped, but I made sure we had monthly town hall meetings with the ability for staff to submit anonymous questions as well as casual monthly emails that continued to assure staff that they were supported.
Transparency and predictability: There have been a lot of changes in the personal lives of our staff, so I wanted to make sure we had a loose framework on how TargetX was going to make decisions about work during the pandemic. My team and I quickly realized that our focus is on safety, predictability and flexibility. So the first thing we did was share this philosophy, so people knew where we were coming from. We originally started with a month to month office closure plan where we told staff we’d provide updates on a monthly basis, but realized this unpredictability also caused anxiety. We made the decision to commit to a longer term closure through the end of the year – so people could plan around fall school for their kids. We also committed that even when we do open our offices again, we’d stay flexible with expectations to come in based on what your local or family situation was. That felt right. But it still didn’t feel like enough, because we all saw late night emails and weekend activity and we knew it was a slippery slope.
Forced relaxation. We’ve always been a company where vacations and time off were encouraged. I know from personal experience that proper time away drives creativity and productivity. So we made a very conscious and deliberate plan to force people to not work. Sounds weird for a company to do doesn’t it? Well my intent in sharing this is to normalize this. We committed that all summer we would have at least one 3-day weekend a month. The 4th of July was natural, but we arbitrarily chose a Friday in May, June and August to not only encourage people to take the day off – but we literally closed the offices. We told our clients we wouldn’t be available. And while at first I was a bit worried about this, I was delighted that the only feedback we got from our amazing customers was support and encouragement about this decision. So we recently decided to keep it going through the new year as well. It turns out that society appreciates sanity, and by creating a forcing function for people to make time for self-care and their family is not only the right thing to do as an organization, but is widely supported by the ecosystem around them.
This is my own journey, and what we’re doing at TargetX. I hope that it gives you a glimpse of what it’s like to be part of this team, and maybe (hopefully?) inspire you to take time for yourself for self-care, and to push your office to do the same. While the pandemic is becoming normalized, I suspect we’re still a ways off from everything being back to the old-normal. So we need to keep this at the front of our minds to continue to excel and serve those that we do as effectively as possible. We’re in this together, and we’ll be ok.