Robert McKenna III, a California-based attorney who specializes in professional, general, and product liability defense, recalls he had an early inkling of just how far reaching the ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic would be on the day-to-day realities of the workforce long before the full impact hit home.
Early in February of 2020, when news of COVID-infected travelers reaching American shores first broke, McKenna says a conversation with a buddy at a global biotech trading company tipped him off to the impending calamity. When his friend mentioned that the virologists and immunologists he was dealing with had grave concerns over the virus, McKenna took him seriously enough to send a memo to his partners and office manager at Kjar, McKenna & Stockalper, LLP.
He warned they might need to close down for a short time and needed to come up with a contingency plan. “My mindset was, ‘Well, yeah, we could be gone for two to three weeks. That could be devastating.’ You know, that was the charming part of the email,” McKenna recounts ruefully.
Robert McKenna III Sees the Pandemic Writing On The Wall
While his partners initially considered him something of a Cassandra (the Trojan prophetess whose eerily accurate predictions of doom were unwisely ignored by those around her), thanks to McKenna’s foresight, his firm was prepared to test run operations with a downsized, hybrid office model by mid-March of 2020. When a national emergency was declared not long after, rather than engaging in a dress rehearsal, they were quickly able to transition to a remote environment. However, it soon became apparent that the dynamics of a distributed workforce were going to have inevitable repercussions with regard to work/life balance.
In addition to being a partner at Kjar, McKenna & Stockalper, Robert McKenna III is also a single, full-time dad to his son and daughter. Juggling the demands of family (including parental Boy Scout duties for his son as well as a similar role for his daughter with the Girl Scouts), a high-powered career, and charitable outreach was already a challenge prior to the pandemic, but as work shifted from the office space to home and hybrid environments, McKenna could readily see how the boundaries that once kept the two facets of his life separate were growing less and less distinct.
Using his innate problem-solving skills, McKenna devised strategies to help maintain a healthy balance between his work obligations and his private time. Here are his top tips for creating an environment that will help you get the best out of both.
Robert McKenna III’s Work/Life Balance Rule 1: Good Time Management = Thinking Ahead
According to Robert McKenna III, one of the most critical factors in maintaining a healthy work/life balance is time management. He says the area where even the most organized folk fall often short in this arena is advance planning for family time.
McKenna sets aside two weeks each year to take time off with his kids. “When I plan a family vacation, I plan it over a year in advance because if you don’t, your calendar just fills up with important things that you cannot change,” he says. “It used to drive my kids crazy because I’d be telling them, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do for summer vacation in 2023 and 2024.’”
Now that his kids are heading off to college, McKenna admits some of his parameters have changed, but he says the precepts are still sound: Be sure to block off vacation time well in advance, book travel and schedule activities, and if you can’t eliminate office contact, at least limit it.
And most importantly? Stick to the plan!
“Invariably, it used to be when I’d take those two weeks off, I’d wake up before everybody else and check on my emails to make sure there were no fires to put out, then at the end of the day, I’d check in again, same thing,” he recalls. “I’d put in 20 minutes in the morning, 20 to 40 minutes in the afternoon, and that was all the work I did on those vacation days.” McKenna notes that if he wasn’t mindful of his time, that 40 minutes could easily expand to several hours.
Robert McKenna III’s Work/Life Balance Rule 2: Protect Your Calendar
Robert McKenna believes the second key to keeping your work/life balance on an even keel is “protecting your calendar,” and by that he means not letting job-related communications and demands take over your private time.
McKenna notes that the hybrid work model has given rise to more aggressive expectations. In the post-pandemic landscape, he says the turnaround time for responses to texts and emails has shrunk. “It used to be a 24-hour turnaround time. You know, I’ve got your text, I’ve got 24 hours; I’ve got your email, I’ve got 24 hours to get back to you,” McKenna explains. “Just before the pandemic, that probably got down to 12 hours but now, if you don’t respond within an hour with at least a, ‘Hey, got your text. I’m looking into that,’ people get frustrated. It’s like they need instantaneous reassurance that you’re available to respond at any time.”
Establishing smartphone-free zones is one way to ensure work time and personal time remain separate, but McKenna realizes that’s not always easily accomplished. “I’ll go to the gym and most people have their smartphones with them when they’re working out,” he relays. “There are only three benches, and two of you are on your cell phones chatting with people, taking up a bench rather than working out.”
McKenna says what would have been a six-minute wait for the equipment turns into a 20-minute wait because rather than concentrating on their workout, people feel an overriding need to be available at all times during business hours. However, not only does making yourself imminently available encroach on time better spent focusing on personal fitness and mental health, those who engage in such behavior (whether they realize it or not) often do so at the expense of others.
To dial back these 24/7 expectations, McKenna suggests that you politely but firmly apprise clients and colleagues of the general time frame in which you will respond to queries, and to avoid agita, to always be conscientious about both using and updating the “out of office” mode on your email and smart devices. (Also, make sure to arrange for a backup support contact to field incoming messaging when you know you’re going to be unavailable for prolonged periods.)
Robert McKenna III’s Work/Life Balance Rule 3: Set Boundaries, Say No
Thanks to advances in virtual technology, what was once the exception has now become the norm. Meeting can happen practically anytime and from any location. However, as with the expectation of round-the-clock availability for calls, texts, and emails, maintaining an optimal work/life balance also means learning how not to take a meeting if it’s scheduled during personal time.
Just because we have virtual technology doesn’t mean we must be at its beck and call, McKenna warns. “I’ve had clients say, ‘We can have a virtual conference, can’t we? I know you’re on vacation, but you have internet, right?’” he relates. “Unless you set boundaries, you can end up working a significant amount of time when you’re trying to take time off. It may be hard at first but you have to avoid the temptation to say, ‘Yes’ when you should be saying, ‘No.’”
Robert McKenna III’s Work/Life Balance Rule 4: Prioritize Your Day
While Robert McKenna believes working remotely takes a special skill set, he says the good news is these skills aren’t something you either have or don’t have, they’re something that can be learned. Mapping out goals in terms of weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annual deadlines is standard business practice but when working from home, it’s also critical to create an actionable daily work structure.
“You need to prioritize,” McKenna explains. “Figure out what you want to get done before lunch, what you want to tackle after lunch, and what you need to get done before you sign out for the end of the day.”
By breaking your day into smaller chunks and setting up a series of incremental goals rather than one huge task, you’ll be much more likely to accomplish what you’ve set out to do.
Robert McKenna III’s Work/Life Balance Rule 5: Establish a Separate Work Environment
Learning the ins and outs of Zoom etiquette has had its own set of foibles (with sometimes ridiculous, laughable, and even viral-video-inducing results) but for the most part, after some trial and error, we’ve gotten the hang of it.
“I had this one lawyer on a Zoom conference, Zoom in from bed… I could see the headboard behind him,” McKenna recalls. “I’m thinking, ‘Oh, Bill, thanks for waking up and taking the call. It’s great to see you.’ Note to Bill: You know how they say don’t have a television in your bedroom? Don’t have a disco ball, either.”
The best practice for virtual meetings is to present a discreet, professional-looking space, and if at all possible, one that’s soundproof. Likewise, separate your home office from the rest of the house. “I think it’s important for motivation as well,” McKenna says. “You need to be mindful of creating a space and be thoughtful of your time. If you respect these things in yourself, others will respect them as well.”
Robert McKenna III’s Work/Life Balance Rule 6: Embrace Change and Let Go of What No Longer Serves You
While the hybrid model does have drawbacks, it also boasts some major advantages. Reduced commuting time and simultaneous availability of multiple parties from across diverse geographic locales has made scheduling meetings and conducting business exponentially easier than in days past.
“Trying to get five people from across the country to meet in Chicago on a Thursday or a Friday, it was almost impossible,” says McKenna. “Now, you can line up a meeting like that in a week… Just find a workable time slot for everybody to get on a Zoom and make it happen.”
A willingness to embrace the best of what new technology offers rather than being tied to outmoded work models can be both liberating for employees and effective for the bottom line, more motivated people — that’s a win/win for everyone,” says McKenna. “Commuting used to be the trade-off for living a certain lifestyle. Now, the hours once spent in a car or on a train can be spent with family. If the work still gets done — and by happier.
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