I remember sitting in a January staff meeting, which now seems like 30 years ago. Our executive team was discussing the merits of allowing one, yes one staff member, to work from home one day a week.
Times have certainly changed for our society and especially the working-age population formerly so reliant on face-to-face interaction. Some industries made the transition years ago to a web-based workforce, but higher education lacked the capacity for change until this past spring. Now, with no time for preparation, employees and, more reluctantly, managers were forced to adapt to a new lifestyle.
The difficulties in managing from afar are great: accountability, performance measures, scheduling, internet lag, aging devices, families, etc. But one shines above the rest: work-life happiness. This concept, although like work-life balance, is different. It is your willingness to stay satisfactorily engaged in your workplace every day.
Does your work fulfill your needs outside of the home to engage with others, provide intellectual stimulation and challenge you to grow? You very well could have answered yes to all these questions in January, but I bet sometime this spring or summer something just was not quite there anymore. You may have noticed a lack of motivation, engagement or satisfaction in yourself or in your direct reports. In early May I noticed there was a lack of smiles during video chats, and overall malaise whenever we brought up summer planning or thoughts of new virtual programs for the fall. Something had to change.
I decided as a supervisor I needed to “switch the script” for my staff from a traditional 40-hour work week in the office to a “get-the-job-done” work week at home. Meetings moved from all day to a 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. window with encouraged breaks for yard work, family time and, most importantly, afternoon tee times at one of our North Carolina COVID-safe golf courses. My new philosophy focused on five important tenants for supervising the fairway.
Most of our staff returned to campus in mid-July with some trepidation and an uncomfortable balance between a physical and virtual presence. Long gone were the early morning swimmers or late-night intramural games. It was empty courts, vacant machines and masks worn in the hallways. The uneasiness at work was transparent and the need to assuage fears with safety precautions and flexibility at work was essential.
The adjustment needed in management style was immediate as I realized leaving at 3 p.m. or taking meetings on video chat was no longer a privilege, it was a necessity. It seemed higher education had finally got the proverbial kick in the pants it needed to move into the 21st century. The best work is completed when the employee wants to get it done, not only during traditional business hours.
People work in recreation because they love what they do and want to do what they love. In the past six months the ability to get outside and recreate has never been more important as the worries over job security, personal and family health, and society weigh heavily on staff.
The encouragement from supervisors to take an early afternoon tee time, take their dog on a walk, or spend the afternoon working on a home improvement project is sorely needed. The challenge of engaging our staff in meaningful activity will only grow as the days turn colder and we are forced inside. Now is the time to encourage midday excursions to the beach or mountains and realize work can be completed any time of day.
At the beginning of the pandemic, my family moved to a new home. What a great choice when every store immediately shut down except Lowe’s. I’ve never seen a line so long just to buy a paint brush and some painter’s tape. My supervisor understood the trials and tribulations of moving a family across town, from unpacking boxes to painting walls and having carpets installed.
I never missed a video chat, and always completed assignments on time, but was never asked what I worked on after 1 p.m. on a Friday. I took this flexibility to heart and changed my mentality on supervising to reflect the lives of my staff members. A personal appointment, a car repair or taking care of a sick child all require attention, and if work is completed on time, understanding is indispensable from managers.
The idea for this article came from a virtual meeting we hosted on a Thursday afternoon in May. A couple of my staff members had an early afternoon tee time, with prior approval of course, but had not blocked out their calendars. The meeting started and there they were on a smart phone from the cart path near the seventh fairway.
Part of me wanted to be upset, but the other part of me said, “Wow, we don’t need to connect in a conference room, a classroom or in an office.” As supervisors, the new normal is video chatting from the comfort of your couch while your employees sit on the beach, their back porch or phone in from a walk around the block. Work is not confined to a cubicle; it is confined to the limits of wifi or a cellphone signal.
COVID-19 and the resulting changes in society have truly altered what was once an absolute for supervisors: seeing their staff every day. We have finally agreed, or so I hope, that work can be done from anywhere, and we can serve our students from the fairway. Taking an afternoon tee time is no longer taboo, it is an expectation.
The challenge this pandemic has placed on our mental well-being must be dealt with immediately, and by allowing for work-life happiness we will ultimately have more successful teams. I realize every supervisor will not share these same beliefs, but for the sake of our employees we need to start thinking about their full 168 hours a week and not just the 40 we knew them nine months ago.
As a final thought on COVID-19 in the workplace, we don’t know what we don’t know. Everyone is literally making it up on the fly, and as a supervisor, you need to remain as flexible as possible. If you think back to early March, did you think we would be here today? No way. The next 12 months in higher education will certainly be transformative, so make sure they are at least a little easier on your staff members. Let them take the afternoon to play golf — I am sure it will keep your team’s work-life happiness up and their tee shots right down the fairway.