Asking How to Get Back to Work is the Wrong Question

Jenn Leahy
Jenn Leahy
Published Jun 09, 2021

I’ve been noticing an onslaught of leadership articles around how to lead and coach a team “back” to work as we emerge from lockdown. 

The reality is we never moved away from work. In fact, I would argue that our team couldn’t have worked any harder over the last 15 months. Did we do it somewhere other than the office space where we once gathered to work together in person? Sure. But did the effort, conscientiousness, or collaboration ever wane? Not in the least. If anything, the absence of commutes and regular Google hangout and Zoom sessions pulled our team members into tighter workflows that produced incredible deliverables.

But that’s not really the issue I’m thinking about as I consider what a shift back into in-person work might look like. What I’m considering is how we reset work-life harmony and balance that’s gotten lost in the past year-and-a-half. 

Every week, we invite our Dragons to answer a quick three-question sentiment survey. It always includes two standard questions and one new one. In a recent one, we asked “When was the last time you took a full day off?” I was saddened to see the responses. Our Dragons shared answers like, “2020, Christmas, and I took a Saturday about six months ago.” A shared holiday and a weekend. Those shouldn’t even be considered ‘days off.’ We’re a company that cares for one another, and yet, we’ve fallen into an unhealthy always-on work environment.

(By the way, if you haven’t asked yourself or your own team this question, I highly recommend you do so. The responses are telling.) 

Modeling What We Value

So instead of leading my team “back” to work, I find myself focused on modeling the behavior I want them to embrace most as we emerge from lockdown. As we continue the business of delivering for ourselves and our partners, there are five promises that I’m reiterating to myself and to each of our team members: 

  1. None of my meetings are so important they have to happen outside of normal business hours. 

We all have meetings that seemingly are hard to make happen between 9 am and 5 pm. In the spirit of being an accommodating, good partner and person, I put the pressure on myself to just “make it happen.” But when we allow work to crowd our personal time, we lose the valuable space to take care of ourselves. By being more conscientious about keeping meetings during Monday through Friday business hours, I have time to read something that might make me better at my profession, exercise with my dogs, or connect with the loved one or friend I haven’t made nearly enough time for instead.

  1. Celebrate what I have accomplished versus dwelling on the to-do list. 

Our task lists will always be longer than the day, week, or month in which we think they should be accomplished. So instead of beating myself up about the remaining items untouched, I’m going to celebrate what got completed, delegated, or reprioritized. (See what I did there to reduce my list? 😉)

  1. I control a lot more than I think.  

Hands down, one of the most frequent issues we have as a team is accommodating imposing timelines or deadlines. Of course, there is always the chance that a partner will have a mission-critical, revenue-driving milestone that simply can’t be missed. And meeting these high-priority requirements with timeliness and excellence is part of why they pay us. But in truth, more often than not, those deadlines (and the stress that follows) are self-imposed. Frequently, I just haven’t planned well enough in advance or I haven’t thought more creatively about how I could get the work completed. Maybe I’m burnt out and afraid to burden others by asking for help? Or maybe, I haven’t learned to say no when I’m not prepared to complete the work in front of me. Either way I crack it, I have to start with recognizing a lot of my frustration, stress, and impatience started with me, not anyone else.

  1. The bar always waters down the whiskey. 

This is kinda the counterpoint to point #3. In short, just as likely as it is for me to control more than I think, it’s also likely that some person or force outside of my control is going to change the game on me. I might be worked up about the daunting project ahead of me because I’m smart and I’m thinking about how complex and crazy it could really get. The truth? Considerations including taste, budget, and timing are far more likely to water down or reduce the scope to make it far more palatable and digestible. So all that swirl, drama, and stress I just put upon myself and others is really for naught. I know this metaphor might be a bit roundabout. We can blame it on the fact that I’m Irish and couldn’t resist trying to fit whiskey in my logic somewhere.

  1. I’m really not that important. 

I’ve always loved the Tina Turner line, “We don’t need another hero.” It’s good to be reminded we aren’t that important or critical from time to time. It not only keeps us humble, but it almost always gives someone else the ability and opportunity to shine and develop. And that, my friends, is one of the very best things a leader can do for their people. 

I’m confident the amazing team I work with will always deliver for one another and our partners to the very best of their ability. I’m equally confident telling them to “get back to work” as we emerge from this lockdown is the last thing they need to hear right now. It seems more important to think about how we might get back to life in a way that balances things better, so we all are healthier and more capable of doing our best work — not just more work.

Let me know how you are helping your own team look to the future with hope and confidence. I’d love to hear from you: [email protected].