Monday, April 19, 2021

I Get By With a Little Help From My Coworkers

No one has  ever described me as the strong, silent type.  For a baby boomer male, I’m rather quick to share my feelings.  But it would probably surprise some people to know that, having been raised amidst cultural expectations of male stoicism, I still suppress quite a bit.  When things were tough, I have more often than not simply said, “Fine thanks, how are you?” – especially at work, in the name of professionalism.

But then came 2020.

There was the pandemic, of course, and the consequent economic and racial inequities, and the terrible incivility of a toxic election.  And while my wife Trina and I own an Airbnb that was hard hit, all of that was just a sideshow for us.

To summarize quickly: In February we went to Chicago to help care for our granddaughters (8-11) while our daughter Lea had esophageal surgery.  During her recovery, her husband Mike had a recurrence of his brain cancer, so we stayed for another surgery.  Then COVID hit and we became a "pod" with our daughter Miriam and her family, all camping out at Lea's house for nearly ten months.  Then our daughter Shana died suddenly.  Then we spent the rest of the year caring for the girls and nursing Mike through two surgeries until his ultimate slow demise January 10.  Along the way I had heart surgery.  Lea had several minor surgeries.  Miriam miscarried. Several other close relatives battled life-threatening illnesses.  And through all this, Trina was delaying much-needed back surgery to care for others despite tremendous pain.  She finally had successful surgery in March, which we hope will prove to be the final echo of a horrendous year. 

I decided, fairly early on, that “Fine, thanks” was not going to cut it for me in 2020.  When anyone asked, I tried to answer succinctly but factually, to the predictable horror of a friendly coworker, or even stranger.  I was surprised to  find that speaking about these horrors, even to people I barely knew, was helpful, simply because I no longer had to work to hold it all inside.  I was most hesitant about unburdening myself at work, but that’s where I got the biggest surprise.

I’m fortunate to work for a company, Mimecast, whose CEO has established from the top a culture of caring for one another.  With this encouragement, my colleagues faced no inhibitions to their natural empathy.  They didn’t just put up with the difficulties my personal life was causing, but went out of the way to offer help and comfort.

When I missed all or part of a meeting because I was needed to help Mike, or to help with the grandchildren’s virtual schooling – I was de facto tech support for the household – my co-workers didn’t just put up with me.  They urged me not to worry about it, briefed me on what I missed or met with me separately, or even offered to cover some of my work.  

As the year went on, it felt like nearly every meeting of my work group began with questions about how I and my family were doing, and whether there was anything anyone in the company could do to help.  And on the few occasions there were, it was forthcoming in an instant. My memory of the first dark weeks after my daughter died is a blur, and I honestly have no idea how many of my work duties I might have missed, because no one troubled me with it.  My manager stepped in and covered for some of my most urgent tasks, and throughout the year my colleagues picked up the pieces I was struggling with, small and large.

None of the many kindnesses, of course, could make a real dent in the overwhelming sorrow that was my life in 2020.  But the help and, yes, the love of my coworkers minimized my sense of guilt at work, made me more effective with the time I had, and reminded me of the world of goodness and joy that seemed temporarily out of reach.

I know that Mimecast is special in this regard.  I don’t know of any other companies whose CEO responded to the pandemic by starting a weekly podcast he called his “Shower of Love,” in which he dealt with the concerns of the company and the needs of the employees as equally important parts of our mission.  But I suspect that even in the most toxic of workplaces, employees sincerely care about each other, if not the corporate mission.

During the pandemic, many of us worked from home and experienced profound isolation from our colleagues and the world.  When we said we missed going to work, it was usually our coworkers we were missing, not the coffee machine.  The idea that at work we are cogs in a corporate machine began to break down, to reveal the underlying truth that we, as human beings, are shaped by our relationships with others.  Our satisfaction at work has far less to do with the code or spreadsheets we produce than with the way the person at the front desk smiles when we walk in the door, or the moment the person in the next cubicle invites us to share a coffee break.

None of this was a great secret, but I had nonetheless underestimated the importance of my work relationships.  In 2020 I came to realize that many of the people I might have described as “cordial coworkers” were in fact real friends who played by an unwritten code of emotional restraint.   There’s nothing that will bring this home quite like having a room (in this case virtual) full of people delay the “real purpose” of a meeting to find out how you’re doing this week.

Not all companies are so supportive, but they should be.  Far from paying a price for encouraging us to care for one another, Mimecast has prospered through the pandemic and the transition to working from home.  And if the people I know are any indication, our dedication to seeing the company succeed has only deepened with the outpouring of caring that went, not just to me, but to everyone in the company, in a time where one could safely assume that nearly everyone was struggling.

Many years ago, I lived at a great distance from the headquarters of a company I co-founded, and flew in every month or so.  As a founder I was permitted to meddle in just about anything.   So when I heard, one visit, that a new director-level hire wasn’t working out, and was viewed as a cold fish, unwilling to make friends with anyone, I decided to pay her a visit.  As I talked with her, I gently pried out of her the fact that, in between her hiring and her first day of work, her fiance had been killed in a motorcycle accident.  Her desire to act professonal led her to mask the raw new wounds of her grief, which was what made her seem cold.  I persuaded her that this had been a mistake, and that it would be better for all if she didn’t have to hide her tragedy.  She changed her approach, and quickly became a valued, respected, and cared-for member of the team.

For too long, too many of us have divided our lives between work and “real life” – as if we check our humanity at the office door.  That has been a recipe for preoccupied workers struggling to hide their personal troubles, with an inevitable productivity cost.  I’ve come to believe that a company is more likely to prosper, particularly against strong headwinds, if the workers feel that they and the company all have each other’s backs, and care about each other as human beings.

Toxic masculinity, in particular, has played too large a role in shaping what we think of as professional work attitudes for both men and women.  There’s no reason we should all try to be “tough guys” at work.  The ideal should be a team of people who support each other while they strive towards a common goal.  Everyone needs to think about how much of a company's success is caused by the desire of their workers to continue as a team that cares for one another.

John Lennon wrote that he got by "with a little help from my friends.”  But surely those friends included his co-workers Paul, George, and Ringo.  Work demands professionalism, but professionalism doesn't require that we suppress our humanity.  Given how many hours we spend working, we need to start acknowledging that our "work friends" are among the most important ones we have.