Last week, I pulled up to my makeshift living room desk for the umpteenth Zoom video conference of the day. But as the smiling faces of nearly two dozen women popped into my gallery view—one cross-legged with a child in lap, another at a bespoke standing desk, a third decked head to hip (that’s where the camera cut off) in workout gear—this one felt different.
It was the start of an inaugural “Let’s Talk,” a virtual event born out of a conversation with my friend Mita Mallick, head of diversity and cross-cultural marketing at Unilever. She has a great blog out right now on how COVID-19 brings up working parents’ worst insecurities. We were chatting about loneliness, and the idea emerged to get a group of executive moms on a call to just talk. No programming, no panel—just an old-fashioned conversation with friends.
Although the “Let’s Talk” pioneers span industries, roles, and locations, we have one important thing in common. We’re all negotiating a new reality of sharing workspace and time with unlikely colleagues—children, spouses, pets, or some combination.
Our conversation opened with watercooler chatter about these strange new associates. Complaints ranged from unprofessionalism (“I have this one coworker who went to bed crying because we wouldn’t stay up late to make banana bread,” said Nandi Welch, partner and head of business strategy at Rupture Studios) to entitlement (“My coworkers are really high maintenance,” griped Ali Levitan, head of global strategic business development and innovation at General Assembly, who has been subjected to spontaneous dance parties and excessive rounds of animal charades).
There were also quite a few cameos by the offenders themselves. “I try to lock door to get stuff done, but someone has a key and likes to open the door,” said Robyn Twomey, owner of Twomey Photography. Her daughter sauntered into view, copping smugly to this intrusion.
Despite the knowing laughs we shared, it’s not all fun, games, and playful exasperation in this gnarly new normal. In a quick pulse check, I asked my fellow executive moms to put their thumbs up, down, or somewhere in between to indicate how they’re faring on several fronts. While most feel at least somewhat supported at home and work, thumbs shot downward when I asked about outlook on the near future. Plus, about two thirds admitted to being lonely, and a similar share needed a hug. We obliged by sweeping our arms across our screens, taking care not to dislodge our glasses of wine (or pink lemonade, in my case).
In an hour and a half, we covered tremendous ground, from staying optimistic while living with a financial doomsayer (Mita’s husband is an investment banker) to batting back feelings of inadequacy to suddenly embracing video games to keep teens occupied. “I’ve never had this conversation with other executives,” I admitted at one point, after singing the praises of disposable bed wetting pads.
But all threads circled back to a single concept: support. How can we best support ourselves and those who depend on us, both personally and professionally, during this changeable era? Below, some nuggets from our chat.
How are you braving the remote work world as a parent? What resources do you wish you had to get through? Share in the comments.
While many parents—especially mothers—tend to put their needs on the backburner, it’s critical to don your oxygen mask first to ensure you’re able to support others who depend on you.
That means carving out time for activities that refuel and sustain you, said Lindsey Kintner, vice president of sales at Fortune. The group offered a wealth of ideas for wedging moments of self-care into jam-packed calendars:
Ramp up your beauty regime: Mita gave the group an impromptu demo of her jade roller, while Archana Gilravi, vice president of partnerships at the Sheryl Sandberg & Dave Goldberg Family Foundation, shared that she’s introduced mom facials to her kids’ bath-time routine. “I’m working through all the beauty samples I’ve collected over the years,” she laughed.
Meditate: I was shocked to learn that only a handful of my high-powered peers meditate. For me, it’s a daily staple that offers some stillness amid the chaos. Sumindi Peiris, global chief marketing officer at Timeout, is another proponent. She cited increased presence and self-awareness from her practice. If you’re interested in giving it a go, download an app like Calm or Headspace, and start small—commit to a minute or two a day, and work your way up.
Indulge that guilty pleasure: Don’t overlook the therapeutic power of some trash TV. (Mita’s pick is “Keeping up with the Kardashians.”)
For gig workers and others whose careers have taken a direct hit, the concept of “supporting yourself” also has immediate financial implications. But adversity can breed creativity, said Betty Ng, founder and CEO of Inspiring Diversity. Although one of her primary income sources—speaking engagements—has been put on ice, she’s taking this opportunity to think strategically about how she can add value for clients in the current climate. To start, she’s published an article on LinkedIn about how to ignite innovation during crisis through diversity and inclusion initiatives.
Keeping quarantined kids occupied is an artform. Although the specific strategies my executive mom friends shared varied by child age group, the throughline was to give yourself grace as you grapple with new roles like coworker and educator.
Challenges aside, working with kids at home also presents a unique opportunity to model aspirational career paths, which can be especially powerful for young girls. During our chat, I recalled a poignant car ride with my five-year-old daughter, Morgan. Out of the blue, she asked, “Mom, who’s your boss?” When I named Alan Murray, Fortune’s CEO, Morgan replied, “Your boss is a man.”
“Yes,” I confirmed. Then, after a quick beat, “You know, mommy is a boss, too.” My revelation was met with an incredulous, and very proud, “Wwwhattt? I can be a girl boss?" Yes, Morgan, you can be a girl boss.
For more tips on empowering daughters, Ali recommended the book, Brave, Not Perfect, by Reshma Saujani, founder and CEO of Girls Who Code. In it, Saujani shares how we teach boys to be brave and girls to be perfect, and urges women to scrap that playbook to “live a bolder, more authentic life.”
Conversation was brimming with strategies for supporting colleagues and direct reports during this turbulent time.
Set reasonable expectations: This is important for staff and senior leaders alike. Just because your company has set employees up to work remotely—a victory in itself—don’t assume that everyone can operate like it’s business as usual, said Karen Redfern, vice president of brand marketing at RVIA. Although her kids have “grown and flown,” many of her direct reports have young children who are now stuck at home all day. The second shift has taken on a whole new meaning for these working parents, many of whom are now attempting to facilitate a full day of virtual education on top of their fulltime job. “You’re going to get burnout,” Karen cautioned. “That’s what I worry about the most.” Acknowledge that productivity may be down, said Ciara Dilley, vice president of Transform brands & portfolio innovations at PepsiCo, and use the opportunity to simplify.
Prioritize: When deciding where to pare, ask yourself, “What are critical drivers of business that we must focus on?” Sumindi advised. Here again, let go of perfectionism and zero in on the essentials so your team can follow suit. At the same time, recognize that priorities will be fluid for the foreseeable future “because the world keeps changing very massively every week,” Archana said.
Encourage candor: Ensure everyone is on the same page—and able to mobilize most effectively under trying new circumstances—by fostering open dialogue. “Have honest conversations about people’s capacity right now,” Mita said. Some professionals may be reluctant to reveal perceived vulnerabilities in their new work environment, so help staff understand that your interest comes from a place of good will, not a desire to intrude or penalize. For example, if a child is floating in and out of frame during a video conference, introduce them to the group. If said drop-in is restless or disruptive, let the parent know it’s okay to sign off and regroup on action items later. In a time when personal and professional lines are especially blurred, being available to listen and trouble shoot—within appropriate bounds—is critical.
Be flexible: Now more than ever, flexible schedules are key. With schools, daycare, and other childcare options shuttered for the foreseeable future, the phenomenon of working from home with kids “isn’t course correcting itself in two weeks,” said Mita. Suspend core company operating hours, and work with team members to institute core personal operating hours that better suit current circumstances.
Connect: Beyond shaping realistic work schedules, individual check-ins can inform broader internal communication strategy. After meeting with each of her team members separately to understand their needs and mindset, Pranjal Shah, founder and CEO of Jupiter, a baby gear rental startup, circulated a companywide message of strength and solidarity: “It’s not about whether Jupiter is going to survive or not; it’s about how we’re going to reemerge.”
…but rethink that virtual happy hour: Many leaders have put new teambuilding or status meetings on the calendar to keep comradery and accountability alive in our brave new virtual world. Although well-intentioned, a daily huddle or weekly themed happy hour might be a bit of an overcorrection, according to executive moms. Overcommunication can hamper productivity. Plus, at the end of a hectic day juggling professional and parental duties, Mita would rather “collapse on the couch with her husband” than clink glasses virtually with colleagues she’s been emailing and conferencing for hours. For their part, junior staff may be overwhelmed by a flareup of virtual functions but feel uncomfortable speaking out if senior leaders are hosting, so think twice before commandeering calendar time for that crazy hat day. I'm embarrassed to say I was one of those managers. The next day, I asked my team if the daily calls were a tad too much. They all raised their hands!
Be compassionate: It’s important to extend grace to all colleagues, regardless of their parental status, the executive moms stressed. “This is my journey as a working parent,” said Mita. “There are so many people at different parts of their journeys.” Some team members may be struggling to disconnect from work, caring for an aging relative, feeling isolated as they quarantine alone, experiencing increased anxiety or depression, or contending with newfound economic strain.
Along with refreshing honesty about uncertainties and stressors, our get-together was marked by refrains of encouragement and support for each other and those who depend on us.
“My one hope from all of this is that there will be a resetting of values,” said Ciara, who’s counting her blessings—food on the table, a roof overhead—and holding her family extra close.
Reminding the group that progress can be a byproduct of hardship, Debbie DiVito, director at Citi, said, “I’ll be thinking of you and hoping some really beautiful and positive things come from this.”
I am so grateful for this group of amazing woman. Some I have known for over a decade and others I recently met. These past two weeks have been challenging for many of us. For those reading this, just know that you are not alone. We will be doing these calls bi-weekly. If you're interested in joining, please comment below or ping me!