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Warming Up The Workplace

Article and photos by Maria Vargas

An Unusual Monday

Here’s the thing, I love Mondays. Nothing makes me happier than spending my time practicing my craft and working alongside a tribe who encourages me to be myself and who I can learn from.

But on this particular Monday, February 15, I woke up to a frosty nose and unusually cold sheets. Climbing out of bed intuitively sensing something was wrong. It was 5:30 AM and it’s still dark so I went to instinctively turn the light on. Click click. Nothing. Glancing at the clock on my oven confirmed my suspicion that the power was out. A winter storm was raging outside but I assumed we’d have power again in a few hours.

I grabbed my phone which was at a sad 30% battery and quickly texted my neighborhood friends to see if they’ve lost power too. They all had. I lit a candle and grabbed my camping headlamp and then went downstairs to peek outside. There was about a foot of snow covering Austin, Texas unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. The weather app read, "Feels like -5°F" and I was alone outside still in my pajamas just taking in the eeriness of the silent frozen-over neighborhood. I was in a state of heightened awe, confusion, and uncertainty. Feelings we’ve all become too familiar with over the past year.

You don’t know what it could be like until you experience it

The saying, “You don’t know what you have until you lose it,” although cliché, is true. With no power during a massive snowstorm, my routine was debunked and it made me realize how much our days rely upon energy and power and work. No heat, no hot water, no Wi-Fi, no refrigeration, no computers. Communications and basic needs of food and shelter all disrupted and at risk.

But I think there’s an opposite side to that popular phrase. I’d suggest we often don’t realize what things could be like until we experience a new environment. Weather aside, I’m referring to workplace environments.

See, at the start of the power outage I immediately posted on our company Slack channel that a winter storm hit and power was out so I would be off the radar for a while. (I just didn’t know it would be out for 5 days.) But the response I got from our leader, Charisse, was “Don’t worry about work— enjoy the gift that winter has shared.”

So that’s what I did. For the rest of Monday my sister and I roamed the city taking in the sights of it all covered in snow. A spectacle that hadn’t been seen in over a century. But by the end of the day, power hadn’t returned and the city began shutting off water lines. The storm raged on and the situation quickly turned from a fun snow day to a serious safety issue for the entire state.

Personally, I'm grateful my sister lives down the street from me and even though she didn't have power, her house had hot water and more people living in it, which meant more warmth. So I quickly packed a go-bag that was already mostly prepared thanks to all my recent camping trips. I stashed it with headlamps, canned food, a sleeping bag, camp stove, winter clothes and walked to my sister’s house.

There were five of us staying at the house and in the evening, all of us were in the living room texting our respective companies and bosses that we’d be unreachable for the foreseeable future and wouldn’t be able to work until we got power back.

My phone buzzed with the reply from Charisse and a soft smile emerged on my face as I read it. “I know there isn't much I can do, but I want you to know that I care and I am thinking about you. I am sending light and love. If there's anything I can do, please let me know.”

On the contrary, one of my friends shared that their boss suggested they take an Uber to their boss’s house (which was empty because they were out of town but their house had power.) But to my friend this felt like just a suggested solution to a productivity problem. As if their boss just wanted them to get to Wi-Fi so they could continue with scheduled meetings and take advantage of the storm to get some solid work done. I was appalled by this. Not only was this boss suggesting putting people at risk by driving on frozen over roads, but putting a stranger up to the task in dangerous conditions, not to mention all of this during a pandemic. All for the sake of productivity.

Meanwhile, another friend’s boss asked them to check-in on Slack and reply to a few emails when possible. Another friend told me their company was deducting these power outage days from their PTO (paid time off). This was a stark contrast between how different companies treat their people. Charisse and my tribe reacted with compassion, ubuntu, and humanity. Our Culture Circle tribe’s words of support for each other meant everything to Andrea and I who both live in Texas and were dealing with the winter storm.

This was a week every person was focused on survival, and helping their neighbors and friends, and staying safe. Our energy was being spent fixing exploding water heaters, taking in friends whose homes had flooded with burst pipes, and filling bathtubs with snow to use as water to flush toilets. A house two streets from me went up in flames and had fatalities because the residents turned the gas stove on to heat the house. It was a lot to take in and feeling pressured by work shouldn't be another obstacle to overcome. The compassion and space Culture Circle held for me and Andrea was unlike any other company or team I’d experienced before. It’s something I didn’t know was possible.

On Thursday night, the power came back so we all let our workplaces know we could return to work the next day. Like middle school kids dreading the return to school, my friends were dreading the return to work and all their bosses wanted them back on Friday. I on the other hand was basically jumping with excitement to return to my craft. I, however, received a different email than my friends:

“Energetic health days?” At first I was ready to reply and say I was ready to get back to work. But then I stopped and checked in with myself. My energy was drained. We’d dealt with a lot in the past few days that I still had to process. There were a lot of neighbors and people still suffering. We shouldn’t expect people to just go back to “normal” when so many around us were still in crisis.

I spent the next day helping distribute water and taking blankets and supplies to shelters. I was blown away by the Austin community helping each other. Restaurants giving out free food and hot drinks, my friends volunteering at hotels for displaced people, ATX Free Fridge project and pantries popped up over the city, and local Buy-Nothing groups sharing food and supplies with their neighbors. It was a time for people to come together, not just go back to their day jobs. It’s about humans showing up for humans.

The compassion and kindness that I witnessed in Austin led by groups like Austin Mutual Aid gave me hope for our communities, but it also made me realize how much we erase the humanness of ourselves when it comes to the workplace. Why is it that in “professional” settings we don’t show up for each other with empathy and care?

Humans should always come first. Humans above productivity, meetings, and to-do lists.

I realized the kindness and humanity shown by Charisse and the Culture Circle tribe was actually something I’d never experienced before in a work environment and something I didn’t know could and should be shown. Even my friends were in awe when I read Charisse’s replies to me in comparison with their bosses’s replies. None of us knew that simple humanity in the workplace could exist and that it could mean SO much, until I witnessed it through this tribe.

The workspace culture at Culture Circle is special because we get to share it with people who genuinely care, which causes me to enjoy what I do and where I work, so much more. It’s why Mondays are my favorite.

About the author: Connect with Maria on LinkedIn and Instagram.

About Culture Circle Humanity. Ubuntu. Efficiency. These key values create the foundation for inclusive and healthy workplace cultures. U.S-based Culture Circle, founded by Charisse Fontes, is the only Black-owned, Woman-run Culture Consulting Agency that transforms the employee experience through the lens of anthropology and humanity. Learn more and connect with us here.



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