How can you create a healthy workplace in remote settings?
How can your organization prioritize wellness and productivity? Farra Trompeter, co-director, talks with Meico Marquette Whitlock, founder and CEO of Mindful Techie, in this episode packed with ways to add a more mindful approach to your work-life and tech-life balance.
Farra Trompeter: Welcome to the Smart Communications Podcast. I am your host, Farra Trompeter, co-director of Big Duck, and I am honored to be joined today by Meico Marquette Whitlock. We are going to talk all about how to create a healthy workplace in remote settings. Very interesting topic; I’m really looking forward to getting into it with Meico. I have known Meico – we’ve been trying to figure out – for around 10 years or so. We met through NTEN. I saw Meico speak several times doing what’s called Ignite Talks at the Nonprofit Technology Conference, and then we had a moment where we both got to be on the board of NTEN, and I’ve really admired him and his work as I’ve gotten to know him, both personally and professionally.
Farra Trompeter: Let me tell you some of the reasons why he’s great and who he is. Meico is a Certified Mindfulness Teacher. He helps change-makers find work-life and tech-life balance in today’s digital world. His company, Mindful Techie, is all about taking an intentional, mindful, and trauma-informed approach to enhancing wellbeing and productivity by improving peoples’ relationships with work- life, and technology. You can imagine how busy he has been during the pandemic with everything going on in this world of work- life and technology. Meico, welcome to the show.
Meico Marquette Whitlock: Awesome, thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to reconnect and to talk about a topic that’s near and dear to my heart, but also to connect with you. It’s been awhile, so I’m happy to connect and catch up.
Farra Trompeter : Yes, a hundred percent. And one of the things I didn’t mention in your bio is that you’ve also worked in-house in nonprofit organizations, you’ve worked with government agencies; so you have a really interesting and diverse background that brought you to this work. So Meico, you know, a lot of people talk about balance and developing a healthy culture. I know you work a lot with Beth Kanter who co-wrote the book, The Happy, Healthy Nonprofit. And as people think about, “How do we create these cultures where the whole person is seen, where people do have balance?” technology is not always mentioned, and you focus specifically on technology. Why is that?
Meico Marquette Whitlock: Well, as you mentioned, I’ve worked across sectors, primarily in the government and nonprofit sectors. Most of my professional career, my background, and interests in that area have been in communications and technology, technical project management. And one of the things that I noticed, particularly in my last role, I was working for an international organization focused on ending HIV and hepatitis. I was communications director for that organization, and one of the things that I noticed is that I was director at a time where the way in which we were using social platforms and a lot of the other tools like podcasts, et cetera, that really began to explode. And that was a positive development in terms of being able to reach more people, being able to help programs and health departments on the ground, actually, you know, reach folks and engage people in a more effective way. But for folks like me, on the other side of it, it also meant that personally, professionally, our relationship to technology was evolving and changing.
Meico Marquette Whitlock: And I started to run into my own issue with that with there are so many different platforms, and as a communications director, just putting that hat on for a second, you have to make a decision about, “Okay, well, how much time do I have? How many people do I have? How many resources do I have? And, how do I determine, based on that, which platforms do I need to be on?” right? One of the pieces of advice that you probably hear from folks all the time working in this space is, “Oh, you should be on all the platforms, and definitely, you should be on the newest and latest big, red, shiny thing,” right? And that can be stressful and overwhelming; I don’t recommend that approach. And I was in that space where I was dealing with that personally and professionally, and I hit a brick wall of sorts, where I realized that that wasn’t working for me, and I was literally burned out.
Meico Marquette Whitlock: And that was a turning point where I realized that number one, when it came to the technology, when it came to the work-life piece, that I didn’t want to drop dead from overwork and overstimulation and have my legacy be that I was really good at responding to emails and sending out tweets for an organization, right? That I wanted something deeper and more meaningful for that. And, you know, in the words of Wayne Dyer, “I didn’t want to die with my music still inside of me.” And so it was at that point that I had a wake-up call and realized that “Okay, well, there has to be a different way to approach this.” And as someone, as you mentioned, I’m a Certified Mindfulness Teacher – I’ve been on a spiritual and professional development journey since I was, really, a teenager – and I realized that in some ways I felt that I had to divorce that from who I was when I showed up in the nonprofit space. And I realized that that wasn’t working for me, and I had to figure out a way to reconcile those things. And so for those reasons, my focus has been on technology, but it really, if we just broaden this conversation out, it’s really about a mindful approach to work-life and technology, all integrated, in my view.
Farra Trompeter: Yeah, and I was going to say, one of the things that I’ve loved in the time that we did overlap, I think it was maybe two years on the NTEN board, you and Ananda Leeke, both bring that mindfulness and that we began and ended board meetings with mindful exercises, which, honestly, I’m not used to doing. I loved that, there were many reasons why I loved serving on the board with you, but that was one of the things that I always appreciated.
Meico Marquette Whitlock: Well, awesome, I’m happy to hear that.
Farra Trompeter: And I have to say, you know, I am one of those people who keep saying, “I’m going to change this,” but my phone is my alarm clock, and that means that when I wake up in the morning, I pick my phone up to either hit snooze or turn my alarm off, and then I’m getting on Instagram… I’m getting on Facebook… before I even set one foot out of the bed, I am checking, and I know that is a habit I need to change and maybe this conversation will finally inspire me to do that.
Meico Marquette Whitlock: Yes, I’m happy to help you with that. So let’s go ahead and get going.
Farra Trompeter: Alright, we’re going to book a personal session later. You were just saying, yes, we’re talking about technology and we’re talking about the workplace, but also really it comes back to sort of individual mindfulness. And I’m curious, what does it look like when a workplace, an actual organizational entity, not an individual, practices and prioritizes mindfulness and wellness and productivity? Can you share an example of, actually, when you’ve seen that in practice at a workplace?
Meico Marquette Whitlock: Yeah, I’ll start by sharing the opposite, right? So what does a mind-less workplace look like, right? And so many of us are familiar with what we might describe as the Fire Drill Culture, where it’s just fire after fire after fire. From the moment you log in to work or you go into the office, you’re checking emails and it’s simply one chain reaction after another. You feel like you barely have time to catch your breath. Maybe you barely have time to get a meal. Everything is rushed, everything is urgent, everything is on fire, and you have all these things that you’re juggling at one time. That is a recipe for disaster over the long term. If we were to shift, the opposite of that is what I would describe as a more mindful approach to our work and our life.
Meico Marquette Whitlock: And what does that actually mean? It means that we are being fully present. The work that we do in the sector, lots of folks are depending on us, perhaps more than ever, especially because of the pandemic, for the services that we provide. And when we talk about this, one of the examples I like to think of is the example of an EMT or a paramedic. You know, I don’t know if anyone has ever noticed this, but I always wondered when they arrive on a scene of an accident, why is it that they always seem to be taking their time? Like I always wonder, “Why aren’t they rushing to the person that actually needs the help?” But one of the things I learned is that there’s a methodology behind it. They’re taught to specifically walk as opposed to run, and one of those reasons has to do with the fact that when you’re running or rushing, your cortisol and stress levels are rising, and you’re less likely to be fully present to everything that’s happening in your surroundings.
Meico Marquette Whitlock: So, as a paramedic, if you’re running, you trip and fall and cut yourself on the glass on the road cause you’re responding to a car accident; you notice one person that needs help, but you missed the fact that there are two other people on the other side of the car. So when we talk about applying this approach to our work in the sector, what would it mean for us to actually take an opportunity to recognize that, yes, we have lots of things that are going on. We provide critical, essential services, but what would it mean to actually slow down and to pause and to fully assess what is truly important and to attend to those things first as opposed to trying to do all the things at the same time? So, in practical terms, what this means is, number one, acknowledging the context and the season in which we’re operating, right? The last year, year and a half or so, it’s been the pandemic.
Meico Marquette Whitlock: Even in organizations that have low resources, not a lot of folks, the power of acknowledgment is very powerful, and that can be a form of mindfulness – to simply say the way we work and the way we live has changed. We know you’re having a tough time. That, in and of itself, is vulnerable leadership or mindful leadership, in and of itself. The other is recognizing that it’s going to change from season to season, right? You know, for fundraisers we’re heading into end of the year. Your life and work are going to look different from what it is in other seasons. So, in practical terms, how does this look? It means not overwhelming your staff and your colleagues with emails after hours, even if you don’t expect their response. Because one of the things we know about the psychology is simply that the email with the ping or the ding coming in, people still feel the need to respond, for some of us, even on a subconscious level, even if you say don’t respond. So that sometimes that can be more stressful than asking people to actually just wait until the next day.
Meico Marquette Whitlock: Starting and ending meetings on time, something that is very simple, right? Starting and ending meetings on time, having a focused agenda, and showing that you actually value people’s time. In the hybrid workplace, being mindful of time zones, for example. Are you constantly having one part of the organization having to wake up at 6:00 AM or stay late, beyond 7:00 PM their time, to accommodate everyone? Is there an opportunity to be flexible and maybe switch off and to rotate those things? Thinking about how we are actually starting meetings and ending meetings and how we are actually building in breaks for folks.
Meico Marquette Whitlock: You mentioned our time on the board and how we started and ended with mindfulness practices. Now, I’m a big fan of mindfulness, but it doesn’t have to be mindfulness.It can be anything. It can be a cheesy icebreaker – whatever floats your boat- figure out what works for your team, your organization. There is the one-size-fits-all approach to this. And the last thing I’ll say is that it’s an ongoing practice that’s going to evolve as you and your organization evolve, and there’s nothing wrong with taking vacation or taking a sabbatical, but those are short-term solutions. Those don’t actually get at what it means to embed wellness into the core of how you’re actually working as an organization. Ultimately, we want to be able to do good work better, and in order to do that, we have to take care of ourselves so that we’re in a place where we can actually do that good work better over a sustained period of time.
Farra Trompeter: Yeah, I love everything you just said, and one of the things you said in the beginning about the mind-less culture is one that the fire drill, where you talked about urgency. You know, we’ve been talking about urgency in communications, particularly, as we examine the culture of white supremacy, and why is everything urgent, and how to approach that. We have talked about that on the podcast and on the blog. We’ll link to that in the show notes, but I think urgency has lots of harm it can create on an emotional level, but there’s a lot, also, as we are working toward – organizations are working toward – racial justice in questioning these practices, too. So this is not just, you know, for those of you who are trying to push your culture and evolve it to something that is holistic and really seeing a person for who they are, it also, it should be part of your work if you are really working to become antiracist, too. So I just wanted to kind of speak to that briefly.
Meico Marquette Whitlock: Yeah, I would add to this one more thing. For many of us, the type of work that we’re doing, the thing that you think is urgent is not really urgent in my view, if it’s not life or death. So if this press release doesn’t go out today, it might be less than ideal, but it’s not the end of the day. Like, no one’s going to die.
Farra Trompeter: Especially, if it’s that press release.
Meico Marquette Whitlock: If you don’t get that tweet out today, like, I promise you, you’re going to be fine.
Farra Trompeter: Yes, a hundred percent. In 2019, many organizations were already remote or considering being hybrid. Then in 2020, things obviously changed. Here we are now, we are recording this in late 2021. We’ll likely be airing this later this year or early in 2022. Many organizations have opted to stay fully remote. In fact, Big Duck made that decision. We are a remote-forward organization, so everyone is working remote now. We’ve gotten rid of our physical office to allow people to be working in the places where they work best and to be with the family or wherever they want to be; as long as we have some overlapping time zones, to your earlier point. I know a lot of companies have gone hybrid, and then there are some that have said, “Look, we need you back in the office.” Maybe it’s because of your job, you do need to see people, it’s because they are committed to these 10-year leases and they feel like they need staff in the office, maybe even full-time. And so I want to just talk, though, about the first two situations, where either a company has gone fully remote or maybe hybrid. Can you share maybe two or three actionable steps that people can take to foster a healthy workplace, a mindful workplace, in remote or hybrid settings?
Meico Marquette Whitlock: Absolutely, so the three things come to mind – the first is tied to the fact that the volume of meetings and the volume of work has actually increased for lots of us that are doing remote work, right? There have been studies that have shown that. We tend to think that when people are working from home, there’s this perception that people are slacking off; they’re not getting a lot done. First of all, we know that’s not true, objectively, just in general speaking, and we know that as a result of the pandemic, folks are actually working longer, and the number of the meetings has actually increased for folks. People are scrambling to figure out how they do the work because they’re spending so much time in meetings. Like, when do you actually do the work?
Meico Marquette Whitlock: So, the first concept I want to introduce folks to is called the Zoom number, which is knowing your Zoom number. Many of you have probably seen or heard the advertising for the Sleep Number bed.You’ve seen the radio ads, you’ve seen the social media ads. You have your sleep number, right, and that’s your level of firmness, and then your partner has their level of firmness, and you can both have a different sleep number. What I’m encouraging folks to do is to think about, as teams and as an organization, what might it mean to have a Zoom number for this particular season in your work? And again, this number might change based on the season of your life and work that you’re in, but what might that mean? And, specifically, the Zoom number is your cap on the number of meetings that you might have as a standard in a particular day or a particular week, and also the length of those meetings. So by default, many of us default to hour-long meetings or half-hour long meetings, but what would it mean if we actually shaved a little bit off of those and really thought mindfully about whether we actually need to have a meeting? Do we need to have a meeting, do we need to have all of that time, and what is our magical Zoom number for this particular point in our life and in our work? So that’s the first, know your Zoom number.
Meico Marquette Whitlock: The second is addressing one of the big challenges that we have when it comes to the uncertainty. One of the things that the pandemic has done is it has created a prolonged uncertainty that has made it challenging for us to focus. And what we know from the human experience is, short-term uncertainty we can deal with; long-term uncertainty, over time, it begins to affect us mentally, emotionally, and even physically, in our bodies. And so one of the things that we can do around this is to actually control what we can control. We can’t control everything, but there are certain things we can control, and that includes an explicit conversation about something I call our Rules of Engagement. And this is particularly important in a hybrid workplace where you’re not able to always see everyone face-to-face. So what do I mean? I mean having an explicit conversation about when you actually expect people to be available for work, or as an individual or as a team, having a conversation about when works best for you in terms of being available for work.
Meico Marquette Whitlock: And that means that if folks are having an explicit conversation about this, it’s not a my-way-or-the-highway approach, we’re simply having a conversation to come to some sort of understanding, knowing that that might change based on the season that we’re in, in our life and in the work. That means you can go to the grocery store during the midday, you can take your midday shower, you can go walk the dog and not feel guilty that you’re letting someone down because you’re taking 20 minutes or 30 minutes to go walk the dog in the middle of the day. Your colleagues know, “Okay, well, Farra takes lunch around this time,” or whatever.
Farra Trompeter: I want to take my cats out for a walk.
Meico Marquette Whitlock: Exactly, exactly. Farra is that, you know, that quirky person that takes the cats out for the walk. So thinking about, when are you going to be available for your work? When are you going to be available for the focus time for the work you need to get done outside of all those meetings that you’re in?
Meico Marquette Whitlock: And then also having an explicit conversation about urgency: What constitutes something that’s urgent, and if something is truly urgent, what is the best way to reach you? Should I send you a Slack message? Should I text message you? If something is non-urgent, should I send you an email? What are expectations in terms of response times? Should I expect that you’re going to get a response to me if I send you an email, or should I expect that it’s going to be 24 to 48 hours? Meico Marquette Whitlock: One of the things that I do when I work with consulting clients now is actually write my Rules of Engagement into my consulting contract. So we have a conversation on the front end, and it’s something like this; I’m available, generally speaking, Monday through Friday from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM Eastern Time, and you can expect that I’m going to be working on your project during those hours. If something is non-urgent, send me an email; I’ll get back to you within 24 to 48 hours. If something is super urgent, and here are some things that might qualify as super urgent, I give you permission to call me or to text me, and you can know that I am going to respond to you within our applicable timeframe based on what we have agreed to. And so having that conversation upfront allows us to control what we can control and to put some certainty around the uncertainty.
Meico Marquette Whitlock: And then the last thing here, I’ll say, is with the pandemic, somehow we’ve switched to this default of having everything be a video interaction. You know, video can be great. It’s not a substitute for in-person interaction, but I understand the desire to see people’s faces and to pick up on some of those social cues that we can’t easily pick up on when we’re in person. So it’s like a close substitute for that if we’re trying to do that. However, now we’re defaulting to every interaction being a video-mediated interaction, and the challenge with that is that too many of those calls back-to-back, too many of those video interactions back-to-back. The research is showing us that it actually weighs on us. It’s more taxing mentally and emotionally, and it drains our energy in a way that actually makes us less fully available for our work and our colleagues. It makes us less engaged. And so, consider if you don’t need to have video on for your meetings, can it just be an old school call, conference call? Phones still exist. Some of you probably still have the rotary phones, maybe, I don’t know. Audio-only Zoom calls for folks that may be doing it internationally. They need to call into the number. Think about that, and if it’s optional, consider putting it in a meeting invite – you know, this is a cameras-optional meeting. People don’t have to feel pressure to have a nice backdrop, put on clothes and put on makeup, and all those things. They can sort of show up as themselves, and they can reserve some of their energy for actually, believe it or not, be more engaged in an audio-only context. Research shows people are sometimes more engaged if they don’t have to be on video.
Farra Trompeter: You know, it’s funny, when we do our annual Words to Avoid posts, in 2020, of course, one of the top words to avoid, and one of the most common words during the pandemic, was “pivot”, but I actually, upon reflection, think one of the most common words I heard, especially throughout 2020 and still, is “Zoom fatigue”, which is exactly what you’re talking about – just having to be on camera. I’m afraid to calculate my Zoom number. It’s probably, like, 50 or something for a given week. I can’t say how much time I spend on Zoom so I’m definitely – you’ve given me many things that I need to change and start talking to my colleagues about.
Farra Trompeter: I enjoy positional power, I am the co-director of this company, I can hold a meeting and suggest a conversation like this, but I know that there are people listening to this who may not be a manager, who may be working in places where things have to come from the top, and folks at the top may be used to those mind-less cultures you spoke about, may be used to everything being urgent, may be thinking everyone has to answer that email at 11:00 PM or 6:00 AM. And I’m just curious, what do you recommend to folks? Where do they start? What can they do if they don’t have that positional power to create a healthy workplace?
Meico Marquette Whitlock: I love this question, and one of the first places I go with this – so the first thing is, if you’re listening to this podcast, you can use me and Farra as an excuse, and you can say, “Hey, I was listening to this podcast, and these folks recommended these strategies. I’m wondering if we could have a conversation about this at our next meeting or a check-in,” and you can just blame it on us.
Farra Trompeter: Yes, please.
Meico Marquette Whitlock: Don’t say it’s your idea, just say, “I heard this interesting idea, and now I’m wondering – I’m just going to pass you to transcript and the video and the recording, and you take a look and we can talk about it at our next check-in or meeting. So that’s the first place to start.
Meico Marquette Whitlock: In terms of moving beyond that, some things that you can do to control certainty in your own environment. If you’re working in a hybrid setting, I think there’s nothing more powerful that you can do for yourself than actually creating a start and a stop ritual for your day. If you’re like Farra, when you dive in first thing in the morning, you’re hitting snooze, you’re using your phone as your alarm clock, and you’re diving into Instagram and work emails from your bed. I’m going to encourage you to actually create a start routine that doesn’t involve that. You know, it can be something as simple as five minutes, if that feels overwhelming to start with. Five minutes, five minutes for yourself, you can time it. You can put it on your calendar. Five minutes to have coffee, five minutes to have tea, to sit with the dog, to sit in silence, to meditate, to pray – whatever it is that works for you – before you jump into your day. We need to fill ourselves up before we can pour into others. And so, thinking about what does that actually look like for you.
Meico Marquette Whitlock: And then at the end of your day – Farra, you and I were having a conversation about closing all the tabs, right? Closing the laptop. I’m really big on that. Making a physical shift in your space, even if you’re in a small workspace, you know, putting your laptop in the drawer, for example. Closing your office door, if you actually have a home office, closing your laptop lid, using a different device. I have a tablet primarily for that reason, cause I use my tablet primarily for my non-work things, and so my computer tends to be what I use for work-related activities. So I’m able to create a bit of a separation from that. So, if you’re fortunate to be able to have that kind of setup, you could maybe think about how you use your different devices differently to create that separation.
Meico Marquette Whitlock: I’m also really big on creating a plan for your day and for your week. Yes, we have lots of things on our plates. Yes, we don’t always check everything off our to-do lists. You know, perhaps for some of us, that’s very rare to do. That’s perfectly fine, but one of the things we can do is create certainty by actually having a daily and a weekly ritual where we actually are mapping out what our intention is. What is your vision for success? And what are the key things that you want to accomplish that are going to help you achieve whatever that vision is? Even if you don’t check everything off, the fact that you’ve taken the time to figure out what’s on your plate and what do you want to focus on first is going to be very healing for you as you try to create a sense of certainty in what has felt like uncertainty for many of us, especially over the last 18 months.
Meico Marquette Whitlock: And the last thing I would say here is to build your strength and your courage to actually have courageous conversations. A lot of us suffer in silence and a lot of us are responding to assumptions about what we think is expected of us. And we are responding to assumptions about what we think is expected cause we haven’t had the courage to have an explicit conversation to actually ask, “Hey, Farra, do you actually need me to respond to this email you sent me at 11:00 PM? Is it okay if I got back to you tomorrow? Would that be okay?” How many of us actually have the courage to ask for that clarity? And even if the response isn’t what you expect, the fact that you’ve gotten a response is going to provide some certainty for you as opposed to the stress of the uncertainty and you responding and moving about your day and your work in sort of an unwritten way, right? You’re sort of responding in a way that you’re not clear about what direction you’re going. I call that IDD, or Intention Deficit Disorder, right? We’re not clear about where we’re going. We’re busy. We’re exhausted, but are we actually focusing on the right things? And so those would be the three things I would recommend for folks that are not, the way that you described it, in positional power, to make some of the higher-level changes.
Farra Trompeter: Thank you. Those were some great ideas. This was an incredible conversation. I hope folks took at least one thing away that they can do for themselves. Maybe things that they can change in the culture where they work. If you would like to connect with Meico, you can find more about him. In fact, he has some planners, I know, available as a tool for those of you who want to hop on the weekly or daily planning ritual. You can visit his website at mindfultechie.com. He’s also on LinkedIn, and in fact, I love your Instagram, @amindfultechie, and I love your posts there. There’s always inspiration; good questions you ask folks. So definitely follow him on Instagram. Meico, thank you so much for being here and for sharing all of these great ideas.
Meico Marquette Whitlock: Thank you for having me. I really enjoyed it.