Facing separation from family during crisis
Last summer, Heather’s parents moved out of their home into an assisted living facility. Her mother has late stage Alzheimer’s, and as the disease worsened, she relocated to a memory care unit, separating her from her husband. On one hand, it was reassuring to know that her mother was receiving the care she needed, but it also meant that her parents didn’t live together for the first time in over 40 years.
Living in another state – about a two hour plane ride away – Heather could easily visit them regularly. However, when COVID-19 hit, she was no longer able to visit her parents, and even her father was not allowed to visit her mother in the other building.
“I just didn't know what to do,” says Heather. “I wasn’t sure if I should storm the gates of the facility and make them let me see my parents, or stay away to protect them. I knew it would be irresponsible to travel and risk spreading the virus, but I didn’t know how to be a good daughter in this case. I obviously still don't have an answer and that weighs heavily on me.”
Heather called the facility to see what they could do and was thrilled to find that they were doing everything in their power to help connect residents with their family members.
“The hospice nurse called me herself and offered to check in regularly. One of the nurses would use her own phone to do a video call with my mom and I so I could see her. I was blown away by how above and beyond they were going to connect me with my mom.”
Making time for self-care while leading others
While navigating her newfound separation from her family, Heather was also working with her leadership team at the Wikimedia Foundation to determine the best way to respond to the growing crisis. After closing the office and moving all employees to remote work, they started thinking about ways to help reduce the new stressors each employee now faced.
“We wanted to be really clear about telling people they can take time for themselves, but just telling them to take care of themselves was a little too vague and we wanted to be really specific in order for people to understand the boundaries.”
Under the circumstances, Wikimedia decided to tell employees that they were only expected to work half time - 20 hours a week.
“We didn’t want anyone to think they were going to get in trouble, for taking time for themselves. It’s not something I would have asked for myself, but it’s definitely something I wanted to give to my team.”
Heather recognized that if she wanted to truly encourage her team to prioritize their wellbeing, she had to lead by example.
“Taking time is not my strong suit. Sometimes I try to push through it, or go to an important meeting anyway, but after the fact I find that it would have been better to take a step back or postpone the meeting.
In general, I’ve tried to reduce the meetings that I agree to attend if I don’t need to be there, which also shows trust in those who do go to the meeting. Doing this helps me carve out more space for myself when I do need to step back.”
For nearly a decade, Heather has made time for mindfulness by attending silent retreats. Like many others, Heather has found herself struggling to adapt her normal self care routines to this new environment. Though she can no longer attend retreats in person, she uses her meditation practice to help her through periods of overwhelm, finding a quiet place to sit in contemplative silence.
“Overwhelm is a moment, even an invitation, to reconsider priorities and put things down that aren’t going to matter in a year. Then I have to be accountable to those decisions, telling people what I decided and how it will affect them.”
Heather has also found relief in a new companion, a great dane puppy (now over 60 pounds at four months old), who she adopted about a week before the shelter in place mandate.
“I’ve found that a lot of people are offering resources for people to connect online. The place I go for my silent retreats has sent out videos that we can watch for free. Experts in puppy training are offering free training online - I’ve never had a puppy before, so that's a big deal. It’s amazing to see organizations offering free resources to help people through this difficult time.”
Creating space for vulnerability at work
As people around the world grapple with tidal waves of emotions, teams are turning to their organization’s leaders for clarity about how to navigate our uncertain future and permission to be more vulnerable and human in their work environment.
Heather found support with other leaders in an advanced leadership training program with Larissa Conte of Wayfinding that she had joined just as the pandemic began. The program brings an intimate cohort of leaders together to deepen their understanding of power in organizations and identify the inner work required to transform our outer work.
Within her leadership group, vulnerability is not just welcomed, it is practiced and celebrated. Heather felt encouraged to share the difficulties she was having in her personal life with the group.
“I’ve found that other people’s stories have helped me identify a healthy line between professionalism and vulnerability. At first, I felt like being vulnerable is not how you should act at work, but I wondered what I was supposed to do if I needed to take off suddenly to be with my family.
Keeping everything to myself didn’t seem like the kind of relationship I wanted to have with my team. That’s why I ultimately decided to share my story.
It’s my job to do some things first. I need to create the space for people to open up and be an example. I may not always do a good job, but I see it as my job whether I do well or not.”
Looking to the future
So much time has been spent adapting to this new norm, but it’s time to start thinking of practices that we can take with us once things begin to normalize.
Like many companies, Heather’s team has become increasingly global over the past year, across continents and time zones. As her team grew and became more specialized, Heather proactively found ways to celebrate wins, bringing the department together for casual video chats, and reinforcing the importance of personal connections. This initiative unexpectedly laid a strong foundation for when the team became fully remote, creating a safe space within the team to share personal challenges and be vulnerable while quarantined at home.
“Growing our team globally has already created this framework for a remote-first workforce.”
“Our entire organization has been trying to build teams that reflect more of the world. Wikimedia projects are inclusive of all people with varying skills, coming together to create solutions, and we want our workforce to reflect this. Growing our team globally has already created this framework for a remote-first workforce.”
Heather’s team has introduced a practice of making time to regularly check in with one another. This simple act invites employees to share a glimpse at their personal challenges, and builds connections that make it easier to work as a team.
Working through it
As we navigate the new challenges and expectations brought on by the crisis, some days it might feel like a big accomplishment to simply get out of bed in the morning. Keep in mind that there's a big difference between working through it and pushing through it.
Most of us have pulled all-nighters or worked ridiculous hours for the sake of progress. As a leader – especially now – it’s crucial to set boundaries for yourself, recognize when you need to take a step back, and encourage your team to do the same. The only way through is to work together.
Do you have a story to share or know someone who does? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.Read less