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Life as a single dad prepared me for running a business during COVID-19

8 Mins

Jez Proctor, UK managing director of global full service digital consultancy  Appnovation, became a single parent two years ago and is now the primary carer for two children, one of whom has Down’s Syndrome. He shares how his family life has helped him deal with the threat of coronavirus in his business role… 

Nothing can truly prepare a company for the scale of issues that coronavirus has unleashed, but my own personal circumstances have, at least, enabled me to develop some life hacks that have been hugely helpful in the current crisis.

I’ve had to find ways of working flexibly and collaboratively, but this hasn’t always been easy and it requires support from colleagues, clients (and sometimes even the children). But the end result is that I’ve found a way to provide a stable home life for my kids without impacting on business growth.

Set realistic expectations

At my office, we have a flexible work culture which allows people to regularly work remotely if needed. One of the first things the senior team recognised is that the current crisis does not represent ‘working from home’ as normal: children, pets, partners are home too, and some employees are home alone. Parents, grandparents or loved ones might get ill, tech infrastructure is not always great, and personal and professional anxiety is going to be high.

We understand and communicate regularly with the team that productivity will not be at the same levels as normal – and this is okay. We trust our team to do the best they can in the circumstances and it’s clear from how everyone is performing that the trust is well placed.

Lockdown has reinforced that my children and I need to work as a team too. While not being at school is a definite upside from my kids’ point of view, they also find the situation scary and surreal. They are unable to go out as normal and see their friends and have to step up and help more around the house so that I can work. In parallel with my approach to teams at work, I’m learning to trust them to do the best they can.

Draw up boundaries

Many of us enjoyed an empathetic giggle at the clip of Professor Robert Kelly, the Korea expert being interrupted by his young children during a BBC interview. As the parent of slightly older kids, one of the key take-outs from that episode is the importance of establishing boundaries. And also communicating when it’s okay for those boundaries to be breached.

Sometimes, your kids can be in the room while you work, other times you need to lock the door or put a note on it. If it’s the latter, you need to be clear about when it’s okay for them to ignore the note on the door (e.g. emergencies).

This flexibility within a framework continues to be relevant during COVID-19, when life patterns have been turned upside down – school, hobbies, friends, everything.

My family has learned the importance of relaxing some of the rules that we used to abide by especially around screen time.

Applying this thinking to the business context, it’s about recognising that if people are permitted to work on their own terms, they still need to adhere to the group ethos.

If they are unavailable for a group video call and they weren’t ill, did they interact and engage in the way you’d expect them to? Did they just disappear for 12 hours or did they suggest a solution to their manager and team? I believe that flexibility can improve productivity. But the quid pro quo for trust-based relationships is increased personal responsibility.

Respect peoples’ anxieties

Given the twin challenges of single parenting and running a business, it can be tempting to pull rank both at home and work by using that immortal expression “because I said so”.

The current COVID-19 is a great leveller, we really are all in this together and both at home and at work we need to work as a team to get through it. What this means in practice is that no-one’s problems or anxieties are more important than anyone else’s.

At home when tensions are running high, I’ve found taking 10 minutes for a group therapy session with my kids much more effective than shutting them down.

We all take turns to express what’s bothering us and during that time my kids’ concerns about whose turn it is on the PS4 are not less important than my worries about a deadline.

Meanwhile, at work, our regional teams have regular bi-weekly ‘Happy Hours’ where we share not just work updates but what’s going on in other areas of our lives, including how our families are doing.

While in quarantine, this rare window into our colleagues’ personal worlds allows us to check that everyone is safe and help keep each other’s spirits up. Beyond Covid-19, it’s a way of making sure everyone is aware of the pressure points in people’s lives that might require flexibility or consideration.

Be prepared to ‘tag team’ on work

Many executives struggle with delegation. Some worry that their colleagues aren’t up to the challenge. Others fear that they’ll be too good, and end up replacing them.

My circumstances have demanded that I learn how to share responsibilities, and I quickly realised there is a powerful business advantage in people learning about my role. In the midst of COVID-19, it’s clearer to me than ever that the ability to tag-team provides a failsafe mechanism, making sure there is no interruption in the service provided to clients.

The benefits of delegation stretch beyond my particular situation or the current crisis. It means that when people get promoted, they immediately understand the implications of their new role.

Offering latitude and autonomy can also lead to better retention rates among talented staff. I also think there is a benefit in terms of managing client expectations. Instead of the client only ever wanting to deal with one person, having delegation in your company’s DNA means that it is the company that is indispensable to them – not a specific individual.

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