These are unprecedented times. Two weeks ago, COVID-19 felt very far away. Monday, we all woke up to a new reality. Schools and businesses: closed. Social gatherings: canceled. Ever-increasing travel restrictions. And the term “social distancing” is already feeling like the phrase of 2020.
This is uncharted territory for all of us and we have to be willing to lend each other a hand, albeit from at least six feet away.
I am honored to lead the Military Family Advisory Network (MFAN), a national nonprofit that serves military families and advises on military family issues. Partly out of utility, MFAN is a 100% remote organization. All of our team members are military-connected, and that means we move around a lot. As a military spouse myself, it was important to me that we build an organization that could thrive regardless of where the military sent my family and other team members’ families. As a result, we have learned that an organization can be highly effective without brick and mortar, but many of those lessons were learned through trial and error. In the spirit of helping others, here’s what works for us:
MFAN has been able to achieve a feeling of closeness even though we work across multiple time zones, sometimes even from other continents. When new team members join our organization, they are often reluctant to pick up the phone to call someone and ask a question. Interpersonal relationships and team cohesion are essential, especially when we were dealing with a high-pressure situation. We have to be able to lean on each other without hesitation. A few strategies have helped us overcome reservations.
Schedule video conference calls.
Seeing each other can make a big difference. Set an expectation about attire for these. For MFAN, when it is an internal conversation, we are casual. When we are meeting with partners via video, we do business casual. Setting these clear expectations can help you avoid cringe-worthy moments later on.
Create a virtual water cooler.
Schedule video calls when you aren’t talking about a work agenda. MFAN has been known to host team happy hours at the end of a busy time. This allows us to connect on a personal level. During these happy hours, we talk about life, family, weekend plans, wherever the conversation brings us.
Many of our team members have children and are juggling demands outside of work. It has always been important to us that we acknowledge and accommodate that. Before the schools were closed, the 20 minutes twice per day when I was doing drop off and pick up at my daughter’s school were on the work calendar I shared with our team. When you are working in an office and you aren’t at your desk, your team members can see you. But when you’re working remotely, no one has any idea if you’re at your desk or not, so it’s important to be transparent and let others know your schedule.
Whether you realize it or not, when you’re working in an office, you take intermittent mental breaks. Maybe you stop by a colleague’s desk, refill your coffee mug, grab water, or even just walk from your desk to a conference room. You need those mental breaks when you’re working from home, too. Without them, it’s easy to become burnt out and mentally exhausted. To be honest, this is something I constantly struggle with. I regularly have days when I realize at 2 p.m. that I haven’t eaten. Don’t do what I do! Take breaks, practice self-care. Eat lunch!
Dedicate a space.
This one is especially challenging with schools and childcare facilities closed. Whenever possible, create a space in your home where you will work, and try to keep it consistent. This will allow you to set expectations for yourself and others around you that when you are in that location, you are working. Also, try to practice ergonomics.
Don’t neglect hygiene.
Yes, a perk of working from home is that you don’t necessarily have to get dressed up like you would if you were leaving the house. Having said that, practicing simple hygiene (as if you were leaving the house) can get you in the mindset for work. Shower, change your clothes, brush your teeth. This sounds ridiculous, but those of us who have been on maternity/paternity leave at some point know these habits can be the first to go. Get yourself into as much of a routine as possible — this will help you get closer to achieving normalcy in a completely abnormal time.
This is new for everyone. Be patient with yourself and others. Try to take a step back and look at the big picture. This isn’t permanent; we will come out of this. And, I am confident we will do so having learned quite a bit about ourselves, our colleagues and how we work along the way.
Shannon Razsadin is the executive director of the Military Family Advisory Network, www.militaryfamilyadvisorynetwork.org.