Living, Leading and Communicating in a Pandemic: What Endures When the Race Returns?

In my “normal” life, I race. I race to get out of bed so I can miss the crush of humanity commuting into New York City. I race from meeting to meeting, making sure I use my time in the office to connect with my team and clients. I race to get home to see my kids. (And if I am traveling, which happens a lot, that race feels very long.) When I’m home, I race my boys through our time together as I get back pretty close to bedtime and sleep is king in our house. Then, I race through my remaining work so I can get enough rest to start it all over again. On typical weekends, our family shuttles between sporting events and social events and activities and errands. COVID-19 has changed all that. And I have to say, I like it.

Let’s be clear: it is a privilege to be able to reflect on slowing down. I have a job, and while the stress of running a business and managing childcare during this pandemic is challenging, so many people are racing faster than ever, whether it’s to provide essential healthcare, make enough money to feed their families, or take care of sick loved ones. But for many of us who aren’t on the frontlines of essential work, our normal level of busyness feels far away.

Much has been written about our culture of busyness: It was our default, our status symbol, the state we felt we had to occupy to be seen as productive or successful. Work hasn’t necessarily slowed down, but all of the other “stuff” — commutes, activities, events — has been removed. The past weeks have been distressing, overwhelming and full of tragedy. Yet, from what I’ve seen, the changes that come with slowing down have brought out the best of us — as family members, colleagues, partners and communicators. 

A crisis has the uncanny ability to force us to distill what is most important. I’ve noticed that it has supercharged three tenets of my personal and professional communities: focus, grit and empathy. 

On a personal level, there aren’t as many distractions or options, so our culture of busyness has been replaced with slowing down and asking ourselves what we prioritize when “I’m too busy” is not one of the choices. For me, focus means better connecting with family and friends. I am taking the time to do the things my kids want to do — even if it is sitting in the grass watching them jump off a swing, doing a messy science experiment together or building a Harry Potter village with legos. Focus also means self-care: cooking healthy food, enjoying meals with family, regular exercise and getting outside.

By taking travel out of my daily routine, I’ve been able to spend more time connecting with clients and my teams, which allows me to be better in tune with their needs and priorities. I’ve also seen this crisis bring about a renewed focus on the essence of client service. As the economy has come to a screeching halt, our team has brought an incredible level of creativity and strategic thinking to our work, making sure we are driving measurable business value for our clients and making a broader industry impact. The team has had to be nimble as client resources and business priorities shift, all while adjusting to a media landscape impacted by staff reductions and COVID-19-related beat changes. We’ve seen our colleagues dig in with empathy and tenacity; their all-in attitude is exemplified by scrappy media strategies and creative content and social ideas that amplify our work.

In our work and in our personal lives, we are being asked to do more with less and to manage a complicated and often stressful new reality. Like many, I am inspired by the grit of healthcare professionals, essential workers and teachers who are digging in even as their roles in this pandemic have taken a completely different turn. I am also inspired by parents who are juggling remote school and/or caring for small children while working full-time. They are finding solutions to seemingly insurmountable challenges, working late nights and getting through it. 

I am also seeing companies make significant pivots as their primary business is on hold due to supply chain or distribution issues, using their existing assets to manufacture face masks or hand sanitizer. Our team has thrown itself into fortifying our business and our brand for when we emerge from this crisis, developing resources, products and systems that will serve us and our clients.  It’s easy to throw your hands up in the face of chaos, but I’m fueled by these displays of grit and drive.

A beautiful byproduct of crisis is often a heightened sense of empathy and an increased gentleness with how we engage. Everyone right now is “fighting a battle you know nothing about,” whether it’s the illness of a loved one, the challenges of homeschooling, the struggle of isolation, the loss of work or the stress of a dangerous job. This crisis mirrors a loss in many ways — and for many, that loss is very real. One of the most impactful things I read after a close friend died was how to talk to their surviving spouse. Rather than asking “how are you?” you ask “how are you today?” I’ve found that taking things day by day allows people to feel seen and share something a bit more real.

More than ever, it is important to be kind and human. I am reminded of this when I see the stress on the faces of colleagues and clients during our conference calls with a little one stumbling around in the background or are holding a baby who feels that today is just not a day for a nap. And I am reminded when I am on a video call and my seven-year-old storms in to ask me “Where is the saw?” It is impossible for this experience to not break down walls, and I hope that we can carry this through to the other side.

Empathy must extend beyond our personal networks and influence how we engage with clients, colleagues, and any audience we’re speaking to as individuals or as businesses. We are advising the companies we work with at Mission North to even more diligently consider their audiences right now. It is important to acknowledge the moment and clearly understand who you are in their eyes. That means asking if what you are putting out is useful and reflects what is likely going on in their world. 

This will pass, but the experience will fundamentally change many aspects of our lives and work. What stays? In the midst of crisis and tragedy, I am trying to focus on the positives: How can we keep this focus, grit and empathy when things return? Will we go back to our busy lifestyles and forget? It depends on how long this lasts, but I believe that awareness is the first step to change, and slowing down has allowed us to feel just how heavy the weight of the race has been on many of us.