The Caregiver Sandwich

Leading, and caring, in the midst of a crisis

By Lori Schmidt (Prairie Manufacturer Magazine welcomes Lori Schmidt as guest columnist for this edition of Women in Manufacturing.)

As we work to get the COVID-19 pandemic under control and get our economies moving, we see almost every aspect of our lives has been impacted; from how we work and communicate, to how and what we buy, to how we live, and even how we manage our roles as leaders and caregivers.

In this extraordinary new reality, the massive changes in behaviour have put leaders, especially women leaders, in challenging positions. Suddenly they find themselves trying to manage their own stress levels and support others, adapting to daily changes to what was “normal” routine, and helping others navigate similar stressors and changes.

For the woman leader suddenly managing a remote workforce, new plant safety adjustments, and supply chain structure changes – and who, in the past, had time to adjust and build rhythm into work and home practices as her career progressed – the new pressures have been intense.

Women, especially, have had to simultaneously focus on what matters most and execute multiple initiatives well. This means, first and foremost, they must lead with purpose by taking care of their people, their customers, their families, their parents, and their communities. At the same time, they must focus on three horizons to shape the way forward: navigate the now, plan for recovery, and lead in the next normal – or what I call our ‘restart.’

Great change requires great leadership

The shift to working from home, or remote work, added to the complexity. Strong leadership in all areas of life is suddenly in even higher demand.

To not just cope, but to thrive and continue maintaining a healthy life balance in the many demanding roles as leader, teacher, parent, partner, and elder supporter – just to name a few – there are a few approaches and strategies that can help us get through this time.

Years ago, I decided to start my own business. I was excited to be able to lead my own venture and have the flexibility to start a family. My husband had very unpredictable hours with his own business. We needed to learn some skills to plan and manage accordingly, so we could both be successful business owners and parents and care givers to our parents. The difference is we had time to plan, communicate, adjust, and prepare.

But this past March, we didn’t have this luxury when many of us were suddenly shifted to remote work, schooling our children at home, and caring for others in our lives under daily changing dynamics and stress. 

Frequent, thorough communication

One of the most important things I learned – and continue to apply – is to take time to communicate clearly what you know, the areas you are working to address, and things you have not yet addressed. People will appreciate hearing clear communication. It’s important to control your fear as much as possible, as others are watching you. This doesn’t mean that you don’t feel what you feel, but you work through and share your feelings with your partner or someone close that you trust – not those looking to you for calm and direction.

At work, take time to communicate frequently, allowing others to ask questions and express their concerns. Work through the issues you can address and keep a parking lot of those you cannot yet answer but need to monitor. Ensure you communicate the standards for safety and health within which you’re working based on your province’s guidelines.

At home, take time to communicate clearly with your partner, your children, and those you are caring for – the same goes for them. Listen to their concerns, be specific about what the challenges are and what you and they can do to stay safe. Allow them to help with problem solving and be part of the solution. Things like – as you might at work – putting up instructions near sinks on hand washing and at your doors to outside to remind of the wearing of masks. Designing these signs can be a great activity for your children or grandchildren.

Help encourage your children and those you are caring for identify creative ways to connect with others. Beyond phone calls and video chats, sending a letter or scanning a picture and sending to friends and relatives can be a meaningful experience for all.

Try to limit social media during this time, or at least limit the information you are consuming to validated and fact-based information sources.

Organize and plan

Always important to me, and a mainstay of any leader, is to organize and have a clear plan. Even with things changing day to day, daily plans that eventually extend into weekly routines will help you manage through and keep moving the business and home forward. These plans include work-from-home resources, new processes and procedures for those working within business operations, as well as routines for long-term human resource adjustments.

For work, there are components of the situation that COVID-19 has put us in that we actually can control. Map out goals for the day and week with your team; help them set and meet theirs. This will provide stability through some structure, some control around what is controllable, and build team support. 

For home, set clear time allocations with your family for activities and a clear understanding of the purpose of each time block. A starting point is figuring out work schedules with your partner if you have one. Alternate work blocks, so that one of you can work and one can take on care giving, household management, or online schooling oversight.

Once you work through the schedule with your partner, work through the schedule with your children and/or those you are caring for. Help them understand the activities. They, too, will appreciate routine and feel more secure knowing that they have availability they can count on. Availability times will need to be reinforced, and you may need to make adjustments as you see what demands you need to meet each day. This is a great time to teach your kids about work and project management. There are many apps available that you can introduce to your work and home environment that can make this educational and fun.

Create rituals, brainstorm and build daily activity lists with your family and those you are caring for. Set timers – don’t rely on calendar blocks. Timers are more definitive. Consider walking calls. It’s great exercise, and you think differently and more creatively when you have a change of scenery and oxygen intake.

Time for yourself

The most important of the suggested approaches to leading through this time, and probably one that I learned latest in my career, is taking time to breathe and renew. The intensity of the demands that work and home bring at this time is not sustainable unless you’re able to take a break.

Perhaps wake up early for some “me” time. Do something that switches gears during your day, that gives your brain and body a change. In your scheduling both for work and home activities, build in time to stretch, go for a walk, play a game, read something different, give a family member a hug. There are some great online tools from meditation moments and motivational talks to online yoga and exercise programs. The key is to block the time for you.

When your working day is done, shut down the computer, turn off your phone, and mentally check out. Building in boundaries around your schedule of work and outside life is imperative.

You’re not alone

If you are one of the millions of women leaders who have traded the corner office for the home office due to the COVID-19 outbreak, you are probably finding it challenging to navigate the changes to your daily routine and workflow.

Working from home has its benefits: you save on your daily commute, you get more flexibility to take care of your kids and others and to do certain tasks around the home and run errands, but it also offers its own set of challenges. Minimizing distractions, taking care of children who are now at home all day, providing care for parents and others, running your business and managing your employees’ expectations, and creating a ‘wall’ between workspace and living space are all challenges that people across the world are facing right now.

While this new reality is overwhelming, especially for working women leaders, remember, you are not alone, and we’re re-writing the rules as we go. Take it a day at a time and find what works for you. 

Lori Schmidt is President of Loral Management Group, an Edmonton-based competitiveness and executive advisory firm. Prior to this she was CEO of GO Productivity, a not-for-profit productivity and innovation service provider. Her career has included work in manufacturing, economic development, and strategic planning and innovation implementation for SMEs and non-profit organizations.