Balancing the demands of work with family responsibilities remains one of the most talked-about issues for parents today. Add to that a pandemic requiring professionals to work from home, and you have a whole new set of challenges. Of course, for professional meeting and event planners who constantly need to display a sense of professionalism throughout client and vendor interactions, working from home in this age of COVID-19 brings about its own unique set of challenges.
Finding Your Groove
For Heather Pilcher, CMP, CSEP, CEO and executive producer at Blue Spark Event Design in Orlando, Florida, when Florida’s governor announced the state’s stay at home order, all of Blue Spark’s employees relocated their workstations to their homes. “I moved my workstation to my dining room table next to my kids’ home-schooling area. I have three children, ages 3, 6 and 8. The older two had online course work to complete for the rest of the school year, so my office mates quickly changed from adults to my children,” Pilcher says.
In addition to homeschooling and keeping the 3-year-old entertained, maintaining a professional environment while on the phone or a Zoom call is challenging. Pilcher says, “My favorite moment was when I was on a conference call with a hotelier and my 3-year-old walked up to me and announced ‘I just peed.’ He’s almost 100% potty trained, but all of these changes have caused some regression. Luckily, the ladies on the call understood, but it was not my most professional moment!”
As a Type A personality, Allie Magyar, CMP, CEO and founder of Vancouver, Washington-based Hubb and former president and CEO of Dynamic Events, needs routine and consistency. However, amidst a pandemic that has turned the business world on its proverbial head, consistency has totally gone out the window. “My work environment can include screaming kids, my dog trying to attack the delivery person and satellite internet that is spotty at best,” Magyar says. “Gone are the days of having my own space.” Balance to Magyar is all about choice. Meeting planners should prioritize based on what is needed in the moment. “Some days are more about the kids when they really need you, and some days are more about work when you have a tight deadline,” Magyar says. “Being home can cause a lot of conflict as you see your kids throughout the day and can be pulled in or even feel guilty for not being more involved. But, I also look at that and know my hours are longer at work. I start early or work late, and know that there is a give and take.”
Linda Newlin, master certified coach, work from home expert and author of “WFH: Working From Home: A Thrival Guide for Challenging Times and Beyond” says COVID-19 has brought about an instantaneous global experiment in working from home. This pandemic has caused more than a billion people to be forced to work from home, many of whom had never ever tried it before. As Newlin explains, up until this spring, there were only an estimated 50% to 60% of companies that had been allowing certain employees in their company to work from home either full time or part time. “Typically, it was sales reps and/or tech programmers who could do their work remotely,” Newlin says. “The debate continued for the previous three decades as to whether working from home was truly effective.”
As a result of the pandemic, many companies have learned that it can be done, and may even bring an end to the brick-and-mortar mentality that real work only gets done in the office building where managers can see what people are doing. Debi Tracy, CMP, CH, E-RYT, master event strategist at Event Yogi, has been a certified meeting planner since 1997 and has been working from home since 1994. Tracy says that, although it may be more challenging with younger children in the household during this work-from-home COVID-19 situation, it is definitely doable. “When my children were in elementary and middle school, I often had to tend to clients in different time zones. Often, I was on a Skype call at 7 a.m. with staff in Holland, then I had to get the kids on their buses. On the other end, after putting them to bed, I was up at 1 a.m. with a client in Hong Kong. Working off my iPad gave me the flexibility to take my work wherever I needed to be, and often I could enjoy being in my backyard as the kids were either at school, or in the house making noise and just being kids.”
Establishing a Strategy
Founded in 2019, Clutch is a certified women-owned consulting, event management and professional contract holding business, run by founder Anne Descalzo and her business partner and co-founder, Rachel Zillner. Prior to COVID-19, event and meeting management made up 85% of Descalzo’s company’s business. As the landscape of business has changed due to COVID-19 and working from home is the new normal, business professionals can maintain what Descalzo lovingly refers to as “counterbalance between work and parenthood.”
Authors of the book, “The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results”, Gary Keller and Jay Papasan, describe it like this, “Counterbalance is the process of focusing exclusively on the important task at hand, whether it’s work, teaching our kids something or working out. We have to choose what’s critical and give it as much time as it needs before switching to the next most important thing.”
So how does Descalzo recommend making counterbalancing successful? “Time blocking between activities is extremely important, comparing calendars for the day, if it’s a two-adult household, and assigning one person as the adult in charge during meetings to minimize child distractions,” Descalzo says. “I often will warn my colleagues, via conference call chats, that my children are ‘extra fussy’ or that I won’t be able to close out the meeting. When the opportunity presents itself, I appreciate having a co-pilot in meetings that will allow for me to ‘tag’ them and take over if my children are being too disruptive during a conference call.”
And just because a working professional has children, that does not detract from their skills nor their professionalism. If anything, Descalzo says, it makes them more human and more relatable to their colleagues and team members. There won’t be one right answer to striking the perfect balance. “For example, on a Zoom call this past week, I didn’t hit mute like I thought, and I announced into my headset a question poised for my 2-year-old daughter to 10 of my consultant colleagues. They quickly, and with humor, let me know I hadn’t muted myself. It didn’t make me any less professional. I’m human; we all are,” Descalzo says.
Newlin points out that balancing work and family can be done, but it takes much of the following to be successful: Flexibility, resilience, processes and partnership, and a ton of compassion for self and others during this difficult time. For those meeting planners with children younger than 5, you may have to use the times of day they are napping, or still sleeping in the morning or evening, to do your focused work. When you have team conference calls or virtual client meetings, you may have to find activities or tasks the children can do quietly while you complete your meetings. “One great idea is to have your children’s grandparents or relatives do a Zoom call with them while you are working. They can read to them over Zoom, play a game, practice a language, color or make a craft project, or just talk together,” Newlin says. “When children are a little older, it’s easier to work with them to create expectations and processes like practicing not interrupting when the sign says, ‘In Meeting, Emergencies Only.’ Build scenario plans with them. If you need mommy and my sign is on the door, what should they do first?”
Tracy also stresses the importance of a schedule to help meeting planners maintain their professionalism amidst juggling parental duties. “Just like we say in the industry, ‘Proper planning prevents poor performance.’ Proper planning also prevents, or at the least minimizes, poor parenting,” Tracy says. “The adage, ‘If you fail to plan, you plan to fail’ also seems to be a no-brainer in our industry when we apply it to our work, but then we forget about it when it comes to our home life. Just like we prep a client, a VIP or a speaker, we need to do the same with our kids and listen to their input while keeping our focus on the goals at hand.”
When Pilcher started Blue Spark more than eight years ago, she worked out of a home office she had set up in a guest room. “I think parenthood and professionalism can be balanced by establishing a routine for your kids and, hopefully, creating an official office space in your home — preferably with a door,” Pilcher says. One of Blue Spark’s event associates works remotely 100% of the time in her basement during business hours and is assisted by a nanny who tends to her children upstairs. “The balance is possible, but it depends on how adaptable you can be to the situation,” Pilcher says. “I think having a workstation that is consistent from day to day helps as well. You will be less productive, for example, if you work from your bed one day, then from your couch, then from your kitchen table.”
Pilcher says the key strategy for this should start with your kids’ routines and how they are going to manage while you’re working at home. When Pilcher’s kids were infants, she had her mother come over and watch them while she worked for a few solid hours; then, she took a break to be with them and then went back to work until the end of the day. “If you start with your work strategy first and then try to fit your kids into it, it’s much harder,” Pilcher says. “Kids have their own needs and being respectful of that will help you create a better balance so that you can focus on work for a specific amount of time during the day when the kids are otherwise occupied.”
Indeed, establishing a routine is extremely important for both parents and children. Children thrive in a scheduled environment. And a routine also allows the parent to schedule important business calls or to focus on work when they know they’ll have quiet time. From a productivity standpoint, it’s important to remember that some days you will be in the flow and able to work well from home. Some days you will be struggling to find time without interruptions and juggle all that has to happen. “One important truth is that when people are in the office, they are really only productive four to five hours per day, due to interruptions, meetings, breaks, talking with people, etc.,” Newlin says. “So, when you’re home, do not beat yourself up if you feel like you are only in your home office focused for four to five hours per day.”
While working with a baby — or a child of any age for that matter — is replete with interruptions, meeting planners must find what works best for them and their child in that situation. “As a working parent, you learn to maximize your time, prioritize the top three things you need to accomplish in the day, leave space in your calendar for catching up or getting ahead on work and lower your expectations — especially in a pandemic,” Descalzo says.
Kelli Anderson, Mindset & Career Coach, and founder of Mindset Mamas, used to struggle to find that work/life balance. But in an attempt to “balance” and limit stress, she actually turned to a more integrated approach. “If I was working when I was supposed to be hanging out with my kids, I felt guilty. If I was focused on my kids during work, I felt guilty,” Anderson says. In her opinion, it’s better to strive for integration when it comes to parenthood and professionalism. That means focusing less on working a strict 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. schedule and more on finding time slots for true productivity. If parents can adopt this new mindset around work and life, they will feel less pressure and stress.
“Parents can absolutely be professional when working from home with kids, but there’s give and take,” Anderson says. “It might require playing a game for 20 minutes with your kids — and being fully present — and then having them watch a show while you jump into a virtual meeting for 45 minutes.” Anderson recommends setting timers throughout the day. Read a book, play restaurant or draw with sidewalk chalk with the kids for 20 minutes, and be clear that when the timer goes off, it’s work time. Have an independent play or screen-time activity ready for them when you go back into work mode. Set your timer again and, once it goes off, it’s time for another short “kid” session. “One note — if the kids are perfectly happy and not nagging you, by all means, continue working,” Anderson says.
Future Management Techniques
As the world continues to struggle through the global pandemic, meeting and event industry professionals need to recognize that future workspace options will continue to evolve. As Pilcher explains, COVID-19 is forcing many companies to review variations of a permanent, remote workforce. However, what effects that ultimately has on other factors such as work/life balance, engagement and productivity remain to be seen. “Several years ago, the open-plan office layout was very trendy,” Pilcher says. “It was later discovered that it promoted a less collaborative work environment. I suspect we will soon begin to see some of the benefits and challenges of working remotely.”
Magyar adds that one of the beautiful things about the pandemic situation is the emphasis that it has put back on family. And, as we continue to evolve, we will find ways of living life to the fullest — taking advantage of extra time in our day from limited commutes or being comfortable taking breaks mid-day to work longer into the evening on some days. These experiences give both personal and professional fulfillment. And it is Newlin’s hope that companies will finally see through this global experiment and realize that it’s not how much someone works that matters; it’s what they produce. “For many meeting planners, this time working from home will help you focus and get more done in less time because you have to,” Newlin says. “And this actually brings benefits to you, your company and your family.”
Tracy believes that the ever-evolving workplace experience will continue to present new challenges. She also believes more planners will request to remain working from home for better life/work balance. Likewise, more companies may offer the option as they recognize the cost effectiveness of a virtual staff. “At the end of the day, the best meetings planners are like cats,” Tracy says. “We always land on our feet.” C&IT