By Beth Shelton, CEO of Girl Scouts of Greater Iowa
I glanced out the small, square windows, the red flickering lights splashing across the front of my home. I could see the worried faces of my children peeking out our beveled glass door. I was struggling to breathe, my lungs deeply affected by COVID. The air felt thick and warm through my heavy cloth mask; I was praying it worked to protect the brave medic taking my vitals, risking her own life for me, a contagious stranger.
My mind was racing. Not about the physical discomfort or the illness inside me, but about the juggle of life. The leading, the doing, the momming. Lists ran through my head, schedules, groceries, virtual school. Our family was in quarantine — no neighborly drop-ins, no overnights at Grandma’s house, no day care. The incredible fatigue raging through my body and lungs didn’t slow down the demand of caregiving.
In recent years I’ve shared an impassioned message about recognizing the human side of the workplace. I’ve proudly talked about paid parental leave, the Infants at Work benefit and more. Never did that priority feel clearer to me than in the flashing lights of that ambulance ride to the emergency room, the incredible amount of weight we as human beings carry, and the strong support systems we need to operate at our best.
Eventually, I recovered from my battle with COVID. And we did have support, more than I had imagined. Hot meals were sent, warm wishes were given, texts and phone calls lifted our spirits. But the many other demands and intricacies of being a loving, caring, flawed, overwhelmed human being on this earth can’t be easily remedied with a vaccine or antibody.
It seems obvious when we say it aloud. As an employer, I want our entire team to operate at their best. It’s good for the people, and it’s good for the business. Yet debate seems to linger: What should support for people look like at work? Will telecommuting stay here forever? When will things go back to normal?
I’m not here to give the answer; there’s not just one answer. It’s a topic complicated by the infinite variables and cultures found across organizations. As a CEO, I know too well the pressure to balance the financial and operational sustainability of the organization with the responsibility to support people.
From telecommuting to altered work hours, we’ve punted a lot this year. We threw away what we thought we knew about “structure” and have created new systems, often on the fly.
I’ve seen worry lines crease the faces of teammates needing flexibility from our workplace, anxiously knowing that it’s a big ask of the organization. The new mother holding her infant through a Zoom meeting, hearing her doctor’s advice run through her head to keep her child at home for at least the first 12 months. The parent who, with no previous experience, is home-schooling a busy child; the tired spouse who is acting as a caregiver; the employee who lives alone and is missing the buzz of conversation and organic connection with others. I see their worry, their sadness, their anxiety. As a leader in an organization, I can’t erase the hardships of life, but I can continue to ask them, “Do you feel supported right now?” and “What else do you need to thrive — as a person, not just an employee?”
Being fully human — messy, flawed, creative, resilient, compassionate — is not mutually exclusive to being an incredible, productive and positive teammate and contributor at work. In fact, they go hand in hand. It’s real and raw and beautiful and hard all at the same time.
Leaders, we bear the responsibility to be the voice of equality, love and compassion — to recognize the needs people carry with them and seek solutions to support them. Today, for Girl Scouts of Greater Iowa, it’s a priority on telecommuting, altered schedules, paid parental leave, Infants at Work, four weeks paid off for the acute physical or mental care of a loved one or oneself, among many other unique and supportive benefits.
With more than a dozen babies who have participated in Infants at Work, the program continues to be a huge success, giving parents additional options on balancing work and home. Employee engagement and retention are at an all-time high in the organization, with record revenue and membership growth following.
I don’t know which benefits make sense for which organizations. I know we’ve pushed the envelope and reaped rewards far beyond what we could have imagined. It’s not only the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do. I’ve heard some organizational leaders say, “Now is not the time to come down hard on employees.” I’m here to say there is never a time for that. We can rise, innovate, support and watch our teams thrive. A healthy, engaged team can move mountains. Let’s not get in their way by withholding the shovel.
Beth Shelton is the CEO of Girl Scouts of Greater Iowa. With 120 full- and part-time employees and 13,500 members across Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota, Shelton and the team at Girl Scouts have embraced an innovative view of leadership and culture, prioritizing the well-being of each team member. Shelton has shared her case studies on leadership and culture across the country, from the National Academy of Science to Seattle Interactive.