A Delicate Balance: Unblurring the Boundaries between Personal and Professional Needs during COVID
As we all know, COVID is still part of our lives, disrupting our balance and blurring the lines between one’s work life and personal life. It may sound like a broken record, but it is even more essential today for leaders to set the tone on self-care as a strategy for success. It is up to each of us to unblur those boundaries so that we can thrive personally and professionally — and inspire others to do the same, even during this challenging time.
As an executive at the global company Novo Nordisk, I’ve seen how the personal and the professional can actually empower one another. There is a synergy between the two, but in our work-dominant culture, it’s easy for the professional to take over to the detriment of both. What to do? There are a few approaches that I’ve personally used and that my company has employed — especially in the last eight months. Each of these strategies had one main component: planning and prioritizing health and well-being as a bottom-line value.
First, as a single mom and a business leader, I’ve had to learn how to (as flight attendants say) “put my oxygen mask on first before helping others.” I do believe that if I’m taking care of myself and feeling grounded and energized, then I can take care of my daughter and be an energized and effective leader who can help navigate other people’s stress (and as we all know, stress is trending right now).
Planning (and protecting) your personal life is just as important as planning your work life. I schedule time on my calendar with my daughter and with my personal exercise trainer. I purposefully plan time off and work hard to keep those times off-limits as much as possible with the help of my executive assistant, Connie. I also make sure my team, my peers, and my leader know that those are “sacred” times. I’m acknowledging what is a priority to me and leading by example. It is this deliberate ownership of the calendar that prioritizes self-care that has allowed me to lead my teams during this challenging time and be there for my daughter as well. You shouldn’t have to choose between the two, but it takes deliberate planning, empowerment, and discipline.
Speaking of parenting, many of us are working parents who, in addition to managing teams and a demanding workload, now find ourselves having to manage our child’s remote learning — or, in some cases, navigate a child’s return to school. When my daughter’s school opened back up, it was, honestly, a relief for me. For her, it was a stress. “Why do I have to go, and you get to stay?” she asked with tears in her eyes. I’m sure many of you know how I felt at that moment. She was scared; it felt unsafe to her. I needed to take the time to be there and explain why school was safer than me traveling on planes or being in close contact with colleagues. These are important moments that take a presence of mind to address. Now, of course, she is excited to go to school and dreads when we must revert to virtual schooling when faced with a COVID risk.
Balancing the demands of working from home — or not — is different for everyone. One thing I realized is that we are all living in the same context (the pandemic), but our individual circumstances vary. In my work life, I enjoy connecting and engaging with our customers and my team members and flying places to meet them. But if I did that now, I’d often have to quarantine for 14 days, or like many do today, I’d have to put careful protocols in place to limit exposing my daughter when coming back home. So, I am grateful most of my work can be done remotely while many of our field-based teams who live and breathe customer interaction don’t necessarily have — or want — the same option as me. And it is, at times, hard to reconcile for me personally.
As a company, we have always prioritized the safety of our people. Early on in the pandemic, my company spent time and resources providing the skills and training so that our teams could engage with customers in alternative ways. We invested in empowering our teams with a variety of virtual tools and set them to succeed in a rapidly changing landscape.
Our Crisis Response Team was able to employ our existing big data infrastructure so that we could have real-time insight on COVID local situations across the country. We were able to get granular with the data and break it down to each territory. From there, we could assess when it was deemed “safe” to engage face-to-face and when to resort to virtual. Then, if the decision were made to go face-to-face, we could make sure that our teams had the information and resources they needed to do so safely.
Open communication and clear expectations are crucial in a time like this. Everyone reacts differently to the world and circumstances around them. Their personal circumstances also influence their needs. Listening deeply, proactively seeking to understand, and being flexible are the keys. For example, some people on our team are not wired to work remotely or their circumstances prevent them from it. They cannot wait to get back to work in the field or in the office. Taking care of our team, whether they want to work remotely or not, benefits them personally and benefits us as a company. We offered a variety of flexible work options so that it didn’t have to be a black-and-white choice between working or not. There were many options but one underlying value, which is key to me: people first, business second. That’s how a team and a business thrive, in my opinion.
So, as you read this, take a moment to evaluate your position both personally and professionally. What are your circumstances, stressors, and needs? What is important to you? What matters most to you? And then be clear, activate your support network, set boundaries, and focus on what matters most to you — which I know can be easier said than done. Surround yourself with the right people: the right team, the right leaders, the right loved ones. And when it’s hard, try to focus on putting your oxygen mask on first. All things will flow from there.