Whole People, Complex Lives, and What Culture Eats for Breakfast: Tributaries February 2022
In mid-January I received an email from one of my staff members. I read and re-read one sentence that stuck out to me: “I feel vulnerable sharing this with you, but I am doing it because I am not doing well.” The sender went on to tell me about the impact that COVID-19 was having on her family life, on her as the mother, and in her role as a leader at Headwaters. Her experience as the parent of a young child reflected the experiences of some of our other coworkers. The latest Omicron surge was having a detrimental toll on parents—causing schools to shift to distance learning, day care centers to close, and leaving parents to scramble together new household plans.
On our team of 16, nearly one third of us are parents, some of us with children under three years old.
In my case, the week my children’s schools shifted to distance learning in January, my entire family tested positive for COVID-19. While our children were well enough to attend school online, my wife and I were quite sick. At one point, I spent nearly 24 hours straight in bed, utterly exhausted. I felt guilty for having to reduce my parenting to merely serving as my kids’ timekeeper, reminding them to log on to class, eat meals, and go to bed. Thankfully, Manny and Alejandra are teenagers with the basic life skills necessary to feed, bathe, and clothe themselves. I don’t know what my wife and I would have done if our children were toddlers.
My coworker noted that the rest of the winter would “be a challenging time for all parents, and particularly parents like me who feel abandoned and very alone.” Her words were not hyperbole. In response to my coworker’s email, I pulled together our leadership team to talk about the wellbeing of our organization as a whole. Our team was feeling the strain of nearly two years of the pandemic and social unrest.
Over the past two years, Headwaters implemented several benefits and other COVID-19 related policies to better support our staff. We observe two weeklong breaks—one in the summer and one in the winter—to help team members slow down after busy times of our year. We also started observing a four-day workweek during the summer. During the pandemic, we have been providing staff with unlimited sick time to care for themselves and loved ones as needed.
My colleagues and I worked together to brainstorm potential solutions. We discussed the pros and cons of shutting down the office for a few weeks, among other options. With each idea, we discussed the pros and cons for our team’s work and sustainability. We finally landed on permanently shifting to a four-day, 32-hour workweek immediately, rather than waiting until the summer.
There was no doubt that the staff would feel the impact of this change. So, we talked with department leaders to get their input and to hear their concerns. I checked in with HFJ’s board co-chairs. What we heard was resounding support for reducing our work hours. Leaders across the Foundation agreed that for us to have the kind of impact we want in our communities, HFJ must care for the people doing the work: our staff. This change in our workweek is about acknowledging our team members as whole people with complex lives.
The decision to move to a 32-hour workweek is also rooted in our values, particularly our lens towards gender justice. All the parents on HFJ’s staff are women. Historically, women have been responsible for unpaid caregiving and household duties. COVID-19 has significantly impacted women across the country who have shouldered an outsized share of working outside the home (or from the home) while caring for vulnerable children in uncertain and changing times. We want to do our part to ensure that parents have the flexibility and support to care for their families and do the meaningful work that drew them to HFJ in the first place.
In addition to addressing the needs of parents, we believe that a shortened workweek supports other staff who face challenges. Working remotely can be incredibly isolating, especially for people who live alone. Some people are also responsible for eldercare, which is often undervalued and invisible to society. An extra day of rest opens possibilities for self-care, safe social activities, or simply catching up on household chores and errands.
Since announcing our new workweek to our community, we have received several questions about how we’ll make the change work for our organization and staff. One of the biggest concerns is whether we would reduce salaries and benefits for our staff. The answer is no—staff continue to earn their full salaries and receive their full benefits, such as accruing vacation time. HFJ values employees’ impact, not just the hours they work.
Another question is about how people were going to get their work done in less time. No doubt that in the short-term moving from 40 hours to 32 hours of work time feels like a crunch. Our staff work with donors, volunteers, philanthropic colleagues, and grantees, and we place a high value on relationship- and trust-building. Additionally, our core work—moving more money to movements—is supported by systems and processes that require time and attention to detail.
Rather than take a top-down approach to dictating the work, we offer spaciousness for teams to work together to check in on their priorities, to re-align project management, and to find more efficient ways of collaborating. For some people this means using email and our project management system Asana more often to share information. For others it means making meetings shorter and more focused.
Communication has been incredibly important in resetting expectations with external partners. For example, I sent an email to close colleagues at other institutions to let them know that my availability was changing. Additionally, I asked some people who I work with often if we could set up a regular recurring meeting. That way we would not have to scramble when we needed to find time to talk.
There is an old saying that has anchored my leadership style: culture eats strategy for breakfast. My board and staff have heard me say over and over that achieving the goals in our strategic plan won’t matter if our culture and our people are not healthy. HFJ’s work is about people and community, and that includes our employees.
What made it possible for my staff member to tell me she wasn’t doing well was that she trusted I would listen. I listened because I see her as a complex human being with valid needs and desires. Because I value her as a person and an employee, I worked with my team to find a way to meet her needs while also benefiting the rest of the organization.
We are about a month into our shift into a four-day workweek. People are finding new ways of collaborating. We are giving each other grace as we negotiate assignments and timelines. We are focused on our shared goals and mission, which enables us to say no when we need to—and an enthusiastic yes when it matters most. The team at Headwaters is in this together, learning and adapting as we go.