On April 30th, author and New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote about “weavers” and “rippers”: those who actively seek to find the ties that bind us together through good and bad times, and those who look for—and enlarge—divisions that separate us from each other and our common humanity. He cites multiple polls that show Americans from both ends of the political spectrum united in the desire to do whatever it takes to deal with the current crisis. He talks about acts of selflessness and heroism that bring tears as I type.

Brooks also points out that we Americans are more united now than we have been in the almost twenty years since 9/11. I remember back then former-NY Governor, Mario Cuomo, asking what it would take for us to be selfless, kind, and united on a regular day, not just in a life-threatening emergency; and Brooks asks that question now.

It’s a good one, and one each of us can ask as we live and work together in times that push boundaries and challenge norms. Not just because we live in the midst of COVID 19, but because we and our world are changing in formerly unimaginable ways, right before our eyes, socially, technologically, and ecologically.

“Everywhere I hear the same refrain:” writes Brooks, “We’re standing at a portal to the future: we’re not going back to how it used to be.”

But where are we going; and how are we going to get there? United as weavers, or divided as rippers? What is a future we all can get behind, and how might we all participate in actively creating that future, beginning now?

Here are some questions to share with your colleagues, partners, family, and friends to support you in thinking about creating the future now:

  1. What are the changes happening in the world (social, economic, technological, environmental) that are having a big effect on the way you live and work? Think about multiple generations in the workplace, gender preferences, virtual workplaces, social and political perspectives, climate change, etc.
  2. What effects are these changes having on you and the people around you and how is everyone responding: are you “weaving” or “ripping”, or a combination of both?
  3. What does a future look like that everyone in your organization or community would be excited about creating?
  4. What if you knew it could happen? What specific actions could you take now to find commonality and take action?
  5. What would be the positive impact on you and your organization when you have accomplished this?
  6. What will you commit to doing now, and with whom?

The world as we knew it has changed. We are navigating an unprecedented global health crisis. We are also navigating  fear, fatigue and disruption. Fear can run amok in the midst of chaos.

We ask you to pause for a minute. Stop! Breathe! Inhale! Exhale! You have weathered the storm so far. Sometimes you felt overwhelmed, but you are still here. And you are thriving in the midst of enormous uncertainty.

Amidst the current COVID-19 global pandemic, workers from across sectors and industries are finding themselves telecommuting from their homes. While “working from home (WFH)” has been a rising trend among “knowledge workers” and self-employed “gig workers” in tech-centered industries, for many this is a first in their career. Organizations large and small are trying to grasp the new challenges this creates as we are all forced to disperse and hunker down.

Below are a few essentials to keep in mind as we all try to navigate WFM during this moment:

Keep (or build) a routine. With everyone’s fears and anxieties rising about unknowns in the present and future, it’s more important than ever to keep consistency as a way of finding comfort and familiarity in ever changing circumstances. WFH may feel liberating at first. For many it means saving time from that long commute or space away from difficult colleagues or a flurry of distractions in the office. However, if we do not stick to and master the basics, we can quickly begin to feel like everything is spinning out of control.

That extra time that you find in your morning from not having to commute does not have to be dedicated to sleeping in. Just because this newfound freedom and flexibility allows you to “roll” from your bed to the first conference call of the day, does not mean it is sustainable for your mental wellness or performance. Also, no one wants to see you in your pajamas on the Zoom meeting.

If you were a hard-charging, early riser with a solid exercise regimen and personal development rituals, then stick to it and refine it for new circumstances! If you have struggled to build a consistent routine, now is the perfect time to use that savings in the morning and afternoons to invest in yourself. Start with small, achievable goals and incrementally build your way towards them. Use this time to build long-lasting habits.

Create a space for success! Part of keeping a sense of normalcy is ensuring that you have a workspace at home that enables you to succeed. You do not want to find yourself slinking down on the couch every morning with your smartphone while your spouse or roommate streams Netflix in front of you.

If you do not already have a functional home office or library, try to find another space in your home that is private, quiet, well-lit, and allows you to stay organized. Try to avoid (if possible) places like the dining room table or bedroom that are dedicated for relaxation. You do not want your unfinished work staring at you over dinner or wake-up first thing to it! Ideally, you want a space that at the end of the workday you can shut down, unplug, and close the door to.

If your living quarters are limited in space or if you have multiple persons competing for quiet space to work, get creative. Invest in noise-cancelling headphones or earplugs or create temporary dividers. Anything that enables you to focus and separates your work from your personal life.

Communication. Right now, everyone is feeling the pressure. Many homes have more than one adult and possibly school-aged children under one roof, all trying to get things done. It’s very important that everyone is open and honest about their needs are and aware that there are competing priorities all around us. Members of the same household should try regular meetings to deconflict schedules and priorities. Through this dialogue, a couple might decide that one spouse should watch the children, while the other works for a set period of time and then trade off. Whatever you work out, prepare to be flexible as circumstances rapidly shift.

As a member of a team at your place of employment, you should also be regularly communicating the challenges you are facing from home and your proposed solutions. This could mean everyone working on a staggered schedule or taking a longer lunch break to go for a walk with family. In order for that to work, everyone needs to be clear what the goals and priorities are for the organization as a whole.

If you are a leader in the organization, be conscious of everyone’s collective anxiety, especially with an uncertain public health and economic forecast. Be prepared to constantly communicate and reinforce your intent to others. Try to set reasonable goals for the team to meet. Old metrics for productivity may not be possible to measure right now. Instead of looking at things from a “9 to 5” hours-worked perspective, take a 360 view of the organization and what needs to happen to weather this storm. Try to measure success by tasks complete, not time in chairs or constant emailing. Instead of routine assignments, use this time to invest in professional development or long-term projects that are often deprioritized during regular periods such as finding new markets and product lines or implementing new technology for process improvement.

A few great reads for learning how to lead teams through complex circumstances is Team of Teams by Stanley McCrystal and One Mission by Chris Fussell. Emphasized in both books is the importance of leaders communicating their intent throughout their organization including to geographically dispersed teams. Both provide excellent case studies and tested tools to implement within your organization.

All leaders, from the executive down to the team level, should view themselves as stewards of their organization’s most valuable resource: their people. As the person in the lead, others will be looking at how you set the tone and pace of the organization.

In too many organizations today, extra hours and days worked are seen as badges of honor. We often get dragged into competition with colleagues over who stayed the latest or showed up on the weekend. Mobile and remote technology can add fuel to the competition as emails zing back and forth long after most have officially ended their workday. All of this supposedly signals who is most dedicated or should be promoted within the organization.

We all want to be passionate about our work and feel valued within our organizations. Sometimes this does mean contributing extra hours for a special event, new initiative, or emergency situation but the grinding 24/7 “always-on” work culture cannot be sustained, not without diminishing returns for the organization as a whole. And it’s not just our place of work that suffers but also our health, our families, and our communities.

Few people alive today have as impressive of a resume as Robert M. Gates. His multidecade career in public service took him to the top of the Central Intelligence Agency and Department of Defense. In addition, he also served as president of Texas A&M University, national president of the Boy Scouts of America, and on numerous corporate boards… to keep it brief.

In Gates’ book A Passion for Leadership, he discusses a practice he established for himself and others as both Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Secretary of the Department of Defense. These cabinet-level positions were demanding and answerable directly to the President. Gates explained that, absent a meeting at the White House or national crisis, he would try to leave the office by 6:00 P.M. every night. Quite often, as head of these expansive agencies, he would have additional work to finish at home. However, by leaving the office he signaled to staff that it was okay for them to leave as well, to spend much needed time with families and to rest. He knew that as long as he stayed in his office, others would too and work late into the night. Over time, this would lead to worn out staff making “bad decisions and giving bad advice.”

For these same reasons, Gates said he always used vacation time: three weeks in August as CIA director, two weeks in the summer and one at Christmas as defense secretary, and four weeks as president of Texas A&M. As Gates said about his time-off:

“I always returned from vacation with a yellow tablet full of ideas and initiatives for further change and reform.” It’s about recharging so we can use our creative energy and talents most effectively.”

Mobile technology and remote working options have created new challenges for escaping this “always-on” frenzied work culture. Perhaps the biggest challenge is the bleeding between work and home life.  How many of us still respond to phone calls, text messages, and emails after leaving the office or “logging off” for the day? How many of us go to bed and wake up checking work messages? Has your weekend ever started off on the wrong foot because a colleague fired off a heated email at 7:00 PM on a Friday night? Ever take a quick “peak” at your work email or “check-in” from a family vacation? Our modern working lives do not have to be like this!

While there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to setting boundaries and expectations in the workplace, as a leader you set the tone and pace for your organization. Make sure your expectations are clear to everyone and lead by example.

In the spirit of Gates’ 6:00 PM Rule, below are a few ideas to consider when setting expectations and guidelines for use of mobile technology and remote working within your organization:

  1. Avoid checking work communications outside of set hours
    • Turn-off work devices at home
    • Uninstall work email apps over long weekends and vacations
    • Ask: do I really need work email and related apps installed on my personal phone?
  2. Be mindful of colleagues’ personal time by not sending message outside of set hours. This can create a ripple effect and breed unhealthy competition where everyone is engaging in work at all hours
  3. If working later than other members of team, use your DRAFT folder and schedule send times for the next business day
  4. If “on-call” or working to meet deadline, the team should set a clear start and end time/date
    • Set clear expectations for what needs to happen in these special circumstances
    • Use leave time immediately following any extra demanding periods

Most importantly, as leaders, be the champions of cultural change in your organization. Set the example. Go home, unplug, and rest up. Then encourage others to join you so we can all give 100% when it matters most.

This article is the part of a series on how to most effectively manage our time and attention for the work that matters most. Subsequent articles will continue to look at technology and how we interact together in organizations. Check back later for more!

The challenge in today’s workplace is to be increasingly more efficient, effective, and above all creative in our work. To rise to this challenge, we must be able to focus our attention and devote our time to the tasks that matter most, whether that be preparing for a sales presentation or writing a report for stakeholders.

In our hyper-connected world, this means not only escaping from interruptions in the physical world, but the endless barrage of alerts coming from our computers and mobile devices. Setting up boundaries, both physical and digital, leaves open the necessary mental bandwidth and the freedom to pursue our creative endeavors.

Below are a few tips for setting boundaries in the workplace and creating the space to focus on the most important tasks in front of you:

  1. Make it known when you need to focus with no distractions:
    • Announce it at a staff meeting in advance
    • Block out time on your public calendar (“unavailable”)
    • Use a “do not disturb” sign on your office door or cubicle
    • Ask colleagues to hold phone calls and visitors
    • Turn-off alerts and mute all devices
  1. If a colleague or visitor “drops in” for an unexpected, off-topic conversation, greet them politely, as you do not want to discourage “face-to-face” interactions, “open door” policies, or the free flow and exchange of ideas. However, it is imperative that you are direct and upfront that in the moment, you must focus your energy on something else. Invite them to return or schedule time on the calendar for that chat.
  2. The office can be a never-ending flurry of activity. Collective anxiety can rise in periods of tight deadlines, budgeting periods, or tumultuous current events. Our colleagues, both peers and supervisors, will find ample opportunity to infringe on our time and attention. All of this can take away our focus and drain our creative energy.
    If you find this describes your workplace, you may want to find an alternative space, that provides you a needed escape and relief from the daily “busy-ness” around the office. This could include:
    • Unused meeting, conference, or breakout room
    • Library
    • Cafeteria or offsite coffee shop
    • Work from home

Whatever space you use should conform to established organization polices and be most conducive to how you work. Some people like absolute silence, while others thrive in a busy space full of white noise. Working from home has its own set of benefits and challenges for getting things done. Be thoughtful with whatever you chose.

  1. Be strategic and intentional with your calendar. It is said that “time is a finite resource that we will never get back.”
    Do not overbook yourself and make sure that your calendar is being used most effectively to support your goals. This includes how you spend your lunch time, scheduled breaks, or those precious free moments. Sometimes the most “efficient” or expedient ways to spend our time are not the most fruitful. Quite often, we fail to leave critical space for reflection or informal engagements with others.Former Secretary of Defense and Marine Corps General, Jim Mattis, in his new book Call Sign Chaos, offers a kernel of wisdom on this subject from his 40 plus year career in national defense:

    … lack of time to reflect is the single biggest deficiency in senior decision-makers. If there was one area where I consistently fell short, that was it. Try as I would, I failed to put aside hours for sequestering myself outside the daily routine to think more broadly: What weren’t we doing that needed to be done? Where was our strategy lacking? What lay over the horizon? … a leader must try to see the overarching pattern, fitting details into the larger situation.

  2. Find a personal “battle rhythm” that allows you to get things done creatively, separate from the needs and priorities of others and away from endless distractions.
    Some of us work best in the early morning hours, while others prefer to work late into the night. Sometimes arriving just 15 minutes early, before everyone else filters in, can help us set our priorities and jump into a creative flow. Whatever it is that works best for you, find and stick to it!
    Knowing that we all work differently, managers and leaders in organizations may want to examine workplace policies to make allowances for flexible working hours and locations, even if just temporary to help a team get through a project or trying period.

This article is the first in a series on how to most effectively manage our time and attention for the work that matters most. Subsequent articles will look at technology and how we interact together in organizations. Check back next week for more!