Life-Work Balance in the COVID-19 Era

Aug 31, 2021

I was recently reading a great interview with outgoing Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein (28 July 2020 He talked about, as a pilot, trying to be worthy of the young people (firemen, para rescue airmen, etc.) who might someday risk their lives to save his. He talked about striving to be worthy of other people’s sacrifices on his behalf. And it got me thinking about legacy and life-work balance. It occurred to me that the latter determines the former: What we do (or don’t do) every day demonstrates our life-work balance and that has a direct impact on those around us and, hence, how we will be remembered (our legacy). And notice I call it Life-Work Balance, not the other way around. Life is more important than work.

This God-awful viral disease is horrific. And I don't mean to suggest otherwise. But a third-order result of the COVID-19 pandemic is that many of us are working from home and spending more time with family. Getting to spend more time with my wife, son and daughter-in-law is wonderful. In fact, in the future, I may opt to work from home more than from the office.

But from a work standpoint, it seems I am now always available to colleagues via email and cell phone, so I am working more hours and weekends. Plus, since some of my hard-working colleagues reside in Colorado or California, I find myself talking with them at 7 and 8 PM here (East Coast time). And I have noticed that my work ethic has hard-wired me to take care of work-related issues, whenever they occur, in lieu of doing anything else (exercising, enjoying family meals, helping around the house, etc.). If you are doing these things, I have some advice: strike a new life-work balance and try to live in the moment.  

Here are the five major changes I am making:

1. Don’t let the little rocks get addressed before the big rocks (if this “Big Rocks First” concept is unknown to you, search online for a full explanation). Family should still be first, your own health a close second, and your work third. Your job(s) should not routinely supplant family meals and conversations. Years from now, nobody will remember the work-related chat you had in lieu of a ham sandwich with the spouse. But the family would have remembered the tidbit of wisdom or the encouragement you might have provided had you been with them at the table that day, instead of at the computer or on the phone. So, I am turning the cell phone off during meals now and leaving it in another room, whereas before, I always had this “electronic leash” nearby.

2. In addition to transporting my wonderful wife to medical appointments and out-patient sessions with the physical therapy experts for her recent knee replacement, I am also going to stop whatever I am doing to help her do the mandatory, twice-daily exercise sets here at home. Those home exercises are hard enough without having to always do them alone, without the encouragement of a “coach” who can gently push her to do her very best.

3. Because I answer the cell phone from wherever I am in the house, I have little notes scattered around. It looks like someone dropped a grenade in a 3M sticky-notes warehouse! These notes remind me to do important things, but I never seem to get to those things because I am answering emails and texts, sitting on WebEx’s, and in MS Teams meetings all day. The tyranny of the urgent is replacing the primacy of the important. So now I am checking business emails every 1-2 hours instead of every few minutes. And I’m going to transfer the tasks from all those stickies to a single To Do list that I can prioritize and manage, as I did in my other office before the Wuhan virus hit us and we all hunkered down at home.

4. I am going to use the magic word “no”. For online meetings, when I have been invited mostly as a courtesy, but I have nothing substantial to contribute, and am not likely to learn anything important for my own projects, I’ll decline to attend. That will free up a few hours each week. Yes, it means I won’t be “up” on some issues/topics/situations but I’ll just have to fight my FOMO gene.

5. All of us have this condition known as FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). It is a common human malady and is similar to the business-related mental condition of FONKE or Fear of Not Knowing Everything. OK, I just made up that last one. But you know people like this. They must know everything about everything, all the time. They are insatiable consumers of information in an organization/group/family. And the same epidemiological contact-tracing happening worldwide for COVID-19 would show that FONKE syndrome is also highly contagious and is passed almost exclusively downward, from bosses to their direct-reports.

FONKE-infected people can be identified by their inability to say the phrase "I don't know." They might say “I’m not a hundred percent sure” or something equally weak but they cannot make themselves say "I don't know". And here is my theory (admittedly supported only by anecdotal data, but I have decades of it) as to the uni-directional nature of this contagion: These people usually have similarly-wired bosses who also think they must have an answer ready for any possible question from their bosses. They, too, live in fear their boss might ask a question about some project buried three layers down in the organization, and they might not have an answer! OMG - - - the shame! And this malady propagates vertically, and wildly, in the organization, until the entire culture becomes fear-driven. But I have a preventative measure; a simple, proven, three-word vaccine for FONKE syndrome: Just say “I don’t know”.

When you are asked a question and little to no current information to provide, have the confidence to reply with “I don’t know”. You can then add something helpful, if appropriate, such as “I think Sally [insert person’s name] is working that”. If the question comes from your boss, again start with “I don’t know” but instead follow with “I can find out who is working that and get back to you”. In every situation, the important part of the exchange is the phrase “I don’t know” since it also subtly says “I don’t have the entire planet’s current knowledge base in my brain; we have other people who we pay to be experts (SMEs) on our projects, technologies, schedules, etc.; and we shouldn’t try to look smart/informed/connected by speculating or dabbling in other peoples’ fields of expertise”. It also puts a stop to the office-politics game of “gotcha” where insecure people try to look stronger by finding weaknesses in others, such as exposing them for not knowing something. Disable that tactic early by admitting that you don’t know everything, you are not at all ashamed, and you don’t expect other people to have all the answers, all the time, either.

6. Lastly, I am going to assume that other people are attempting some version of the above five changes as they also wrestle with a new COVID-19 life-work balance. So I will cut them some slack: - I won’t expect people to have the answer to every question I ask

- I won't expect people to answer my emails immediately.

- And I won’t expect colleagues to drop whatever they are doing and pick up their phone the instant it rings (or reply to my text/Teams message within minutes): I didn’t expect 100% first-ring-answering in pre-pandemic times, when I assumed people might be away from their desks and would reply to me in a few hours. So I won’t expect it now. Instead, I will assume they are on a phone call - - - and we are participating in LOTS of conference calls these days, aren’t we? Or maybe they are taking a break with family or simply giving their tired eyes some respite from the laptop and are sitting, phoneless, on the patio, having an iced tea. And I’m going to do the same right now. Me shouting- - - "Honey, I'm on the patio. Quit milking that little knee replacement surgery. The Doc says you need to exercise that knee more. Could you get me an iced tea?"

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