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No More 9 To 5: How CRE Parents Are Working Through The Pandemic

SquareFoot Vice President of Sales Phil Sofia with his son Nico

At any given moment, in the background of his conference call, Phil Sofia’s 3-year-old son may be running through the frame with a spoon, pretending to be a superhero. 

For Sofia, vice president of sales at technology-based office space brokerage company SquareFoot, doing his job from home isn’t such a tall order. SquareFoot’s employees are no strangers to cloud-based remote collaboration tools, and while the company’s work culture may need to adapt to digital happy hours instead of real-life ones, the bigger adjustment is navigating the balance of parenting through school closures and being at work.

On a recent conference call, Sofia said the inextricable acts of work and parenting in the time of COVID-19 were laid bare: "There was one day a week ago where the dam broke and there was literally a child in every window on the screen. It was actually kind of liberating."

Thrust into survival mode, working parents from entry level up to the C-suite are finding ways to stay productive, and in many cases, that means entirely reinventing what was previously known as “the workday.” Perhaps the 9-to-5 has long been an outdated construct: workers were decrying it and future-of-work thought leaders were declaring it dead well before the novel coronavirus ever came into the picture. Regardless of whether it is paused for social distancing or a relic of the past, leadership and workers are playing catch-up trying to figure out how to move forward without it, and what the alternative looks like.

The Asynchronous Workday

In Chelsea, Sofia and his wife, who works for a software company, have figured out how to have child care for at least a part of the week despite the obstacles in a time of social distancing. In London, Greystar Managing Director Michela Hancock is home with her 1-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son. Her young children are getting used to the idea that just because their parents are home, that doesn’t automatically mean playtime.

And in Dallas, NAI Robert Lynn industrial division market director Tyler Tillery, who has twin 17-month-old daughters, has yet a different creative solution: “If they see me, there’s no work,” he said. “I’ve been literally working out of my car in one of my vacant warehouses that has a ramp. I pull in, shut the door, and crank out two to four hours.” 

AQUILA broker and SIOR principal Kristi Svec Simmons said she is trying to push all her calls to later in the day, after her 9- and 11-year-old children's school commitments are taken care of. But for CEO of KZB Real Estate and new dad Blake Haggett, afternoons are a wash. Haggett said he’s most productive from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. and from noon to 2 p.m., and after that, “all hell breaks loose.” 

The hours they can steal are different from one another and from their colleagues and clients. But the work doesn’t stop, and what colleagues and companies are left with is asynchronous productivity.

Managers shouldn’t mistake that for a lack of productivity altogether, according to SquareFoot CEO Jonathan Wasserstrum, an expecting dad and founder of the 65-employee company in which all of his direct reports are balancing work and parenting.

“Right now, as a company, we just need to be flexible and understanding,” Wasserstrum said. “We are extremely lucky that over the past couple years we’ve built out an amazing leadership team with a lot of trust. If someone needs to go for a walk with or feed their kids, we can trust that work doesn’t stop getting done. We focus on real-time reprioritization,” he said.

Michela Hancock and her husband with 1-year-old Anne and 3-year-old George at home in London.

Resetting Expectations

Beyond reconfiguring when (and where) work happens, the amount of work also needs to be reconfigured.

“My wife and I have been attempting to work and parent simultaneously,” Sofia said. “And we’re probably doing about a 50% job on each.”

By some measures, that’s success: As clinical psychologist and child mind institute senior director of national programs Dave Anderson recently put it to Vox, parents in this situation will often need to “take the to-do list you had for today and cut it in half, then cut it in half again.” 

President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s matrix for prioritizing tasks split them into urgent, important, both or neither in order to decide whether you’ll do the task immediately, defer it to later, delegate it to a team member or delete it entirely. 

There’s also the 1-3-5 Rule, where one sets expectations at the outset of a workday with the intention of accomplishing “one big thing, three medium things and five little things.” 

Both are strategies that may add some semblance of structure into a picture that has been rocked by the current circumstances.

Well-Being Before Productivity 

WiredScore Director of North America and dad to a 3-week-old Tom Redmayne said his company had never had to really think much about people who work from home with kids before. But now, it’s front and center.

“We have whole Slack channels to provide documents, information, support and advisory on how these parents are doing it, and we’ve been spending a lot of time as a leadership team figuring out how to make sure these teammates are as comfortable as possible,” he said. 

“Mental health of our employees is the most important thing right now, for them and also for our business, helping people remain productive,” Redmayne said.

"It is challenging trying to work from home as there is always a lot going on — essential deliveries, children crying, home-schooling and virtual classes I can hear through our thin walls," Hancock said. "But we are finding a way to make it work. It's very important to take proper breaks throughout the day and actually go outside for some fresh air and to clear your head," she said.

At WiredScore, SquareFoot, Greystar and other CRE companies around the world, leadership is messaging that health and well-being are critical.

And, Wasserstrum added: “Whatever your work-from-home situation is, whatever you have going on in the background of your Zoom, that’s fine. We get it. This is a time of adapting and adjusting.”