‘If you remain mostly upright, you are doing it well enough’

Office of Work/Life director talks about keeping things in balance while under self-quarantine

long read
Illustration of work-life balance.

Illustration by Valero Doval

As COVID-19 spread across the world, many businesses and organizations, including Harvard, moved their work online. In Massachusetts, the number of people working from home rose even higher on March 23, when Gov. Charlie Baker ordered nonessential businesses to close for two weeks.

For many, the transition to virtual work has been one filled with new stressors and challenges, particularly when viewed against the backdrop of a growing pandemic. The Gazette spoke with Nancy Costikyan, director of the Office of Work/Life at Harvard, to learn some strategies for being productive, adjusting expectations, and staying healthy in mind and body while honoring the call to self-quarantine.


Nancy Costikyan

GAZETTE:  How can individuals strive for work/life balance as more and more of us find ourselves working in our homes, alongside all of the responsibilities of our home lives?

COSTIKYAN: Most work/life practitioners dislike “work/life balance” as a term and a concept. Work/life scholars lack a common definition, and few people seem to think that they have achieved anything like it. The concept seems static to me, and one that sets an impossible standard for, say, working parents, or people with adult-care responsibilities, or leaders facing an ever-increasing set of demands … or for any employee anywhere who skipped lunch or lost sleep or missed their kid’s game, all because there is no rule book on how to have it all and be balanced. As far as I have been able to tell, the only “all” we get is all the guilt over what feels like impossible trade-offs. But maybe we can shift our expectations and think of balance as a verb, not a noun.

Try standing on one foot for a minute or so. As long as you remain standing you are not balanced so much as you are “balancing” — you will feel micro-adjustments being made automatically by the bones, tendons, muscles in your foot, ankle, and other parts of the body that keep you upright. That’s happening even when you are standing on both feet. You aren’t conscious of it, the body just does it for you. Every moment in everyday life is like that. Tiny, unconscious adjustments are taking place as you reconsider that testy email you just wrote, smile at a neighbor, call a colleague for support, reach for a child in distress. All this is balancing. And if you remain mostly upright, you are doing it well enough.

GAZETTE: Should organizations adjust their expectations during these difficult times?

COSTIKYAN: I think most of us are standing on one foot right now. And feeling shaky. But it’s stunning how quickly we have come to accept each other’s sometimes-wobbly practices as we get up to speed on telework.

Two weeks ago, Harvard’s flexwork guidelines said that people couldn’t provide dependent care while teleworking. Now, some are beginning Zoom meetings by noting that at any minute a 4-year-old might come crashing through the room. President Larry Bacow commented that children are making our Zoom meetings some of the most entertaining in University history.

We’re also encouraging managers to skip the guidelines’ recommendation of a 30-day trial period at the beginning of a new flex arrangement. Telework at such a large scale is new for all of us, and we’ll be making adjustments from the micro to the macro every day as we go along. In effect, every day is a trial period.

Nancy Costikyan
“Tools and rules help. Rules like regular schedules, regular meals, regular exercise, and regular sleep patterns are essential,” says Nancy Costikyan. Photo by Nan Littleton

GAZETTE: How should individuals communicate their own unique challenges to colleagues and managers?

COSTIKYAN: For several years we’ve been instructing managers never to ask someone why they are proposing a flexwork arrangement; no one should have to disclose personal information of any kind — especially health-related information. That principle still holds and extends to those who may have personal reasons that make work from home impossible. They don’t need to explain that to their manager. But they may need to talk with HR about alternatives, which could include taking advantage of our temporarily enhanced leave policies.

GAZETTE: Do you have any recommendations for how teams can best adapt shared expectations collaboratively, so that everyone is on the same page?

COSTIKYAN: Everyone is improvising all over the place, and that is both where we shine and where we stumble. We’ve just posted a new Telework Continuity Tool Kit on the HR coronavirus site. We’ve called out practices that were previously restricted in our flexwork guidelines but are encouraged now. Between those two documents we’ve identified steps to define communication goals, protocols for using formal and informal communication tools and methods, and shared expectations around behavior in terms of deadlines, accountability, and even conflict. We also stress the importance of maintaining the social connections of the workplace in a time of stress. Teams should agree to try to simulate the environment of the workplace. Maybe that means saying hi each morning in some way, interrupting each other, chatting with a work buddy by phone over lunch.

Teams should agree up front that they are all learning new ways of working in a challenging time and that people will make mistakes. Technology won’t work as planned. A spirit of goodwill and generosity during shaky, one-footed missteps will be essential as we all learn together.

GAZETTE: How do you suggest managing taking care of young children with working?

COSTIKYAN: If you have other adults or older teens in the home, start by mapping out a strategy and enlist their support. How will you set boundaries? Try working with young kids on making friendly “do not disturb” signs that you then use very judiciously. Give them their own special “work” assignments to do — paid or unpaid, goofy or challenging. Some kids will benefit from regular, brief check-ins with lots of praise for having let you do your work assignments while they did theirs. Others will do better without interruption from you. You’ll figure it out.

You’ll likely need to talk with your manager about your strategy. For example, with very young kids, you may need to alternate between providing child care and doing Harvard work. That might extend your day, so you’ll need work-arounds for the impact on communication and collaboration with colleagues. And every meeting might need to begin with a disclaimer that there is a little one in the home and you might be interrupted.

But it’s not just about kids. Sometimes the incursion will be caused by a four-footed furry little one. Or it might be a two-footed older one. Harvard provides subsidized and vetted in-home back-up child and adult care for staff and faculty. Right now, though, some may feel more comfortable using the self-directed, local caregiver search on the digital platform through Care@Work with the support of new, detailed guidance on caregiving in the context of coronavirus. Others will choose to rely on a person in their natural network — perhaps a family member. Harvard has associated but lesser-known programs as well, such as the WATCH Portal.

“I personally feel that paradigm shifts are being hurled at me by the world on a daily basis. It’s increasingly hard to keep balancing on one fatigued foot. But every day I begin again.”

GAZETTE: What are some tips for managing stress at home?

COSTIKYAN: This is a time when many people will feel isolated or trapped, liberated from their commute or held hostage by their digital devices, grateful for the solitude or mourning the social matrix of the workplace. I’ve been hearing about keeping a 6-foot distance from other household members who may be particularly at risk for complications from COVID-19. That can be startling to hear, since there is a sense of greater security when hunkering down at home, and it is easier to contemplate a 6-foot distance from strangers than it is from loved ones. I personally feel that paradigm shifts are being hurled at me by the world on a daily basis. It’s increasingly hard to keep balancing on one fatigued foot. But every day I begin again.

Tools and rules help. Rules like regular schedules, regular meals, regular exercise, and regular sleep patterns are essential. I’m struggling with all of these at the moment, but another rule is simply to begin again each day. I rely on mindfulness tools; these are increasingly available for free, like Harvard’s own Mindfulness at Work series of classes — now on Zoom — which are now being expanded to address our current crisis.

It can also be helpful to provide creature comforts in your new home office. If you program your thermostat to turn down the heat during the day, reprogram it. Not only do we all deserve comfort at time like this, but a Cornell study found that warm workers actually work better. Establish break times for a cup of tea, some stretching, reading poetry, or playing Angry Birds. Whatever works for you. Make sure your new set-up is ergonomically correct. Find an object or photo that has deep meaning for you, something that represents hope, resilience, comfort, and place it near your work station for a visual reminder not to spin off into places of despair.

GAZETTE: What are some additional strategies for self-care?

COSTIKYAN: Don’t forget to make time for the things many of us skip. Make a chart and timetable for self-care and safety tasks: wiping down surfaces, taking stretch breaks, washing your hands, or eating a proper meal at a proper time. Share it with others — maybe establish a buddy system for mutual time checks and reminders. We all need to find ways to exercise even as we social-distance; why not use your usual commute time to go for a vigorous walk when the sun is just right?

Look to your community — either known to you or not. Seek ways to foster and maintain connection. Find something larger than yourself. Find something larger in yourself. Practice compassion for others. Washing your hands for 20 seconds is a great way to center yourself and cultivate goodwill to others. So is simply leaving a “thank you” sign out to your postal worker or delivery person, to let them know how much you appreciate the work they are doing.

It can be hard to do, especially as we sit at our computers with so much information at our fingertips, but it’s really important to limit your intake of frightening information in terms of time and sources, even information from reputable sources. Limiting intake doesn’t mean shutting it out, though; we need to stay informed. The Harvard Coronavirus website is one of my top go-to sources. We also need to be aware of the feelings these inputs trigger, and choose positive inputs as well — from colleagues and friends, movies, art, poetry — that can also be in the mind’s eye along with whatever images of doom we might carry.

GAZETTE:  Anything else you’d want to share with the Harvard community?

COSTIKYAN: Know that there are resources out there if you need someone to talk to. Contact Harvard’s Employee Assistance Program for both practical and emotional support. The EAP is now offering access via chat and telehealth functions. It’s free and confidential, local, 24/7, and with a dedicated Harvard phone line: 877.327.4278. We all deserve help right now in our collective efforts to take a breath, and rebalance, and begin again. When we feel a little shaky, the EAP can provide some of that help.

Interview has been lightly edited.