Wisdom for working during the pandemic

Mar 16, 2021
5 MIN. READ
Mary Schwarz shares 6 strategies to maintain wellness, sustain productivity, and prevent burnout

“It really is hard to believe it’s been a year,” reflects Mary Schwarz, managing partner for ICF Next Government. “Last spring, when we all went home for ‘a couple of weeks,’ I worried deeply about my team and their families, as we started down this uncharted path.”

Mary has faced several business cycle and personal challenges as a leader, but nothing could have prepared her to guide a team through the first global pandemic of her lifetime.

"Not only do I care about my staff and their families, but we provide some of the most critical work to help Americans get through the crisis."

Mary’s team runs the website for teachers and other mandated reporters, especially those working from home, to report concerns on child welfare. They also support programs for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the fight against prescription drug abuse. They’re improving data access and transparency for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. And they’re building digital tools to help people quit smoking for the National Institutes of Health.

Her challenge was clear: “How can I keep my team safe, the work going, and prevent burnout…all at the same time?”

In the early days of the pandemic, she laid out five strategies for her team. After a full year, she’s adjusted them a bit and added a sixth based on her team’s feedback and her own observations as a leader. And these strategies are working—her employee retention rates are high and she’s grown her team by 5% during the pandemic.

  1. Be flexible. You can and should be flexible with your schedule. Not everyone can work a 9-5. It’s critical to communicate when you can and when you can’t. If that means you can’t work 8 hours on a given day, need to adjust your schedule day-to-day, or need to take a break from work, do it. The key to success is over communication. You must talk with your manager and teams—and be open to alternative solutions that you hadn’t considered. While you may feel vulnerable and lacking a sense of control, being open to new ways of working can keep you productive and balanced.
  2. Set boundaries. With our home and work environments converging, “working from home” can easily become “living at work.” We all need time away from our jobs to decompress. If someone sends out an email late at night, that doesn’t mean that you need to reply immediately. That’s their schedule, not yours. It’s important to set boundaries. Use your calendar to block time for breaks (then take them). Set your collaboration tool status to let others know when you’re available. Communicating these practices are important to setting and maintaining expectations. And again, over communicate to set and maintain expectations. As work typically doesn’t stop because we’re unavailable, make it a point to talk with your teams in advance. Decide and share how tasks will be handled in your absence and when to copy in or leave recipients off email exchanges.
  3. Respect established boundaries. As leaders, we should encourage our teams to bring their full selves to work and be sensitive to the increased vulnerability that comes with this. However, we must remain mindful not to equate our work and home selves. In this current climate, we all need to feel supported. We also risk empathy overload. Consider using strategies, such as time boxing, to add structure and set limits.
  4. Manage timelines and deadlines. We all need to be mindful and manage deadlines with considerations. When negotiating deadlines, ask the team on the hook for delivery before committing to a deadline. And try to give extra time to turn things around. Assume that team members have competing work and home priorities and actively communicate to ensure expectations are met.
  5. Be mindful and intentional. Kids will interrupt and dogs will bark. Please don’t apologize. We love hearing your world—it creates a wonderful connection between us all. If you are on the other side of the conversation, be aware and read the “virtual room.” If a team member needs to mute a call due to background noise, be helpful and pick up on what they were saying. If a client needs to jump off a call, close out the meeting early and send a recap email. An hour-long meeting may be hard for those tending to kids at home. Could a read-ahead or tightened agenda help? Intentionality wins the day.
  6. Extend kindness to yourself. If you are feeling frustrated or guilty for not getting as much done as you planned, give yourself the same flexibility and consideration that you give others. You’re taking care of your family, friends, clients, and projects. So, most importantly, don’t forget to take care of yourself.

Mary notes that one of the silver linings is some of the permanent shifts in how her team works. They have the flexibility to work where and how they need to. They’ve regained ownership of their calendars. They block time for non-meeting thinking or daycare drop-offs. And they welcome the presence of kids on laps or dogs barking in the background.

We no longer separate our “work selves” from our “home selves. ”Instead, we have realized that bringing our “whole selves” produces the happiest workers with the highest performance.

And that’s a good thing, Mary notes, because there is much work to be done.

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