The pandemic, for all that’s been written about it, has done a bang-up job of making the invisible visible. The tenuous state of the American health-care system, the brittleness of supply chains, not to mention the irregularity of men’s hand-washing. It’s also brought to the foreground the shifting cadences and complexities of how we show up at work, often under the guise of navigating “The New Normal”. What’s now visible is the variability in how work and life happens day to day, an acknowledgement of the importance of self-care, and an acceptance that this shit is hard. Whatever your current living situation, companies are adopting compassionate language asking us to take care of ourselves, to do what we need to do, and to allow for the bleeding of “life” into “work”.
But what does this really mean in practice, during a time when businesses are doing everything they can to stay solvent while the economy writhes and unemployment sky rockets? If anything, there is more pressure to drive outcomes, prove value, and deliver results. Layer in a ruthlessly individualistic society and most people are left wondering, “What can I do?” It’s a good starting point, but can leave us feeling stranded and helpless. Which is where Movable Ink’s Product & Design team was a month ago as we all scurried to stock our cabinets and create make-shift home offices. As the shock of the shutdown wore off, we were left wondering how to take care of ourselves and do the things we were hired to do.
“What can I do?” is a beautiful question. But it limits our ability to respond and see possibilities because the framing puts the burden on the individual to both understand the situation and respond with appropriate action. When we reframe the question slightly to ask,“What can we do?” a new set of possibilities open up that we can collectively respond to. This is the question the team started to ask ourselves a few weeks ago and since then we’ve implemented a number of changes across documentation, process, and calendars. But there is one change I want to share as it relates language, naming, and group sense-making.
Every Monday the team meets to talk about what the week ahead will look like. The meeting is structured into a series of rounds, one of which is the “needs” round, where folks can ask for help from teammates. In the past this has worked fairly well, but assumes that you know what you need (per the point above about individualistic framing). And right now, quite honestly, a lot of us aren’t sure what we need. Or even how to label it, or talk about it.
So we changed the structure of these meetings and introduced two new rounds in place of the “needs” round (technically a few others were replaced, but eh, implementation details): the “priorities” round and the “capacities” round. The meeting begins with a color check-in, a standard that’s been in place for years, serving as a starting point to connect with ourselves and ground into the moment. The “priorities” round is where people share the most important things to move forward during the week, followed by the “capacities” round, where we ask folks to augment the color check-in with a reflection on their current capacity. The prompts for the rounds are as follows:
Check-in Round: Authentically answer the question, how are you? Use the color check-in system (red, yellow, green) and share insights into what is behind your current state or something else you’d like to share.
Priorities Round: What are your top priorities for the week that are most critical for you to push forward? What is your one critical goal?
Capacity Round: Reflect on your color check-in and your capacity levels when it comes to energy, focus, and attention. How are you emotionally, physically, mentally? Are you energized and ready to go, or do things feel heavy and slow? How might your capacity impact your priorities and critical goals?
The combination of these rounds has given us language to check-in with ourselves, to share what’s important for us when it comes to moving work forward, and to acknowledge our current capacity. It also makes visible to the rest of the team what is important and where people with more capacity can step-in and support those who are showing up with less. We all have weeks where we’re less productive than others, where our ability communicate is off, or where we just can’t seem to connect the dots. And we all have weeks where everything is just flowing, things are coming together, and everything is working magically. And this is true whether we are in the middle of a pandemic or not. If we can collectively understand the shifting rhythms of the group, we can know where to step-in or step-back, sensing our way not only to more productivity, but the spaciousness that makes it possible to harness and work with the ebbs and flows of a group.
My hope, however we come out of this, is that we build more humanistic perspectives into everything we do. We spend so much time at work and yet something like voicing capacity and accepting the variability of what we can take on week to week isn’t something that’s been part of our team language. We’ve never been automatons, and we certainly aren’t now, but the cadence of 9–5 work tacitly assumes we are (or that we can just stuff the messy bits away long enough to complete an 8 hour work day). The kicker is that by taking a long view, inviting folks to notice and share their own shifting capacities, and to collectively respond, we end up getting a lot more done.