Making Cars Safer while Balancing Work and Family— Advice on Getting It All Done

Last updated: 03-05-2021

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Making Cars Safer while Balancing Work and Family— Advice on Getting It All Done

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If you aren’t familiar with them or their work, Toyota Research Institute (TRI) works to make cars safer. Automated driving, robotics, machine-assisted cognition, accelerated materials design and discovery, those are all part of a day’s work at TRI. As you can imagine, it’s a big job that requires a lot of communication and collaboration. So how do you collaborate if you’ve never met your team. Jennifer Dawson, PhD, PE, has never met any of her co-workers at TRI in person. Like many people, she started her job of Senior Manager - Functional Safety remotely, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to adjusting to a new job, responsibilities, she’s also had to juggle two children who are suddenly learning remotely. 
She recently spoke to Fairygodboss about the challenges of balancing a job with lots of responsibilities. To begin with, her day starts early. Jennifer says, “I am a married mom of a nine-year-old boy and seven-year-old girl, so my day is all about flexing my schedule and optimizing every minute to meet everyone’s needs.” Read on to find out how she finds time to take care of her job, her family, and her own wellbeing.
Tell me a bit about your current role. What are your priorities?  
I currently manage TRI’s Systems Engineering team. Our fundamental job is to make sure we keep our employees and the public safe as we test our technology both on closed courses and public roads. Systems Engineers are big picture thinkers who architect complex systems, think proactively about how different stakeholder needs should be addressed in the design of the system, ensure systems have sufficient redundancy or fault tolerance, identify risks and risk mitigation strategies, and help to ensure we are thoroughly testing our technology. We are hyper-vigilant in trying to spot potential problems before they materialize and we work in a highly cross-functional manner to make sure our teams deeply understand what we are trying to build and how the system will be tested to ensure safety. It’s a big job!
I am a working manager, so I lead and develop my team while I also perform Systems Engineering. I truly enjoy coaching and mentoring, so I spend a lot of time listening to my direct reports talk about their projects and giving advice on how they can help do things better or move things forward more quickly. My team is a collection of rock stars, so they are truly a pleasure to manage. Managing also involves a fair amount of project planning, including participating in various status and planning meetings, to ensure that my team is strategically supporting all of the needs across the company. I make sure we are tactically addressing any urgent, emergent issues while at the same time thinking proactively about how we can continuously improve our systems and processes to be more supportive of our safety goals.
Paint a picture of a typical day for me. What’s the first thing you do when you wake up and the last thing you do before you go to sleep?
I am a married mom of a nine -year-old boy and seven-year-old girl, so my day is all about flexing my schedule and optimizing every minute. Our day starts early, typically around 4 am. I review my schedule for the day and figure out when I can sneak in about 90 minutes of exercise, some combination of walking, running, or yoga. I make myself some coffee and get to work on a focus task - typically writing documentation or doing document reviews because I know later in the day my work time will come in small chunks. Our kids are usually up at 5:30 am and I spend some quality time with them, helping them get ready for school, playing Legos, or snuggling with them during their screen time. Trying to get the kids out the door is usually a challenge, and I often help manage some big feelings as we get shoes on and gather up their things.
Most of my work day is meetings, including cross-functional status meetings, industry-level collaborations, one-on-ones with my direct reports, and working meetings for projects. In between meetings, I respond to Slack messages, emails, and knock short tasks off my to-do list.   My husband works full-time but is also an equal partner in chores and caretaking responsibilities. COVID hit right before I started working for TRI, so I have never actually set foot in the office. One benefit of working from home is that between meetings I can sneak in some chores around the house like unloading the dishwasher or putting away clothes and toys that may have been left in the family room — something that makes my husband happy when he comes home.
In the afternoons, my husband usually cooks dinner while I spend time with the kids. Evenings, I often have meetings which could include church leadership meetings, therapy appointments, or socializing with friends and family. I typically spend 60-90 minutes reading to our kiddos at bedtime and then I veg out in front of the TV for an hour or so before heading to sleep. 
I try to make  evening or weekend work the exception rather than the rule and reserve it for truly important tasks. This help me avoid burnout.
What does “balance” mean to you, and in what ways do you feel like you’ve achieved it?
The three main prongs of balance for me are: satisfying professional work, wellbeing of my family and self-care.
Professional work: I care about my work team and their success and I find it personally satisfying to work hard and see the meaningful impact of my personal contributions. I am driven to grow professionally and find new ways to help my company achieve success.
Wellbeing of my family: There’s a lot of heavy lifting in caring for my family’s emotional health, meeting physical needs, tending to their growth and development, and resolving issues that may emerge. I invest time taking classes and researching child development to help me to be a more effective parent. I give my husband “me-time” by keeping the kids occupied and helping to cover household chores. We also know that tending to our marriage is an important part of our family wellbeing. While we are not great at carving out time for regular date nights, we have figured out that taking parents-only trips a couple of times per year helps us to reconnect.
Self-care is something that has become critically important during COVID. Many aspects of life are harder and more overwhelming, and so self-care has become essential to making sure everyone is coping with life. The main components of my self-care routine include:
Continuous learning: I find a sense of wellbeing when I am continuously learning - sometimes related to my day job but often not. I am currently learning Italian, but I have also learned cello, studied radio frequency engineering, and read books on women’s leadership or mentorship. I have a lot of interests and I feel better when I am productively pursuing areas of personal intellectual growth.
Keeping in touch with friends and mentors: I spend a lot of time talking on the phone with my friends and mentors. I have a wide and deep social circle that provides tremendous emotional support and sense of connection for me.
Exercise: COVID has enabled me to get more exercise. I often walk for 30 minutes while I do my audio Italian lesson and then run or do yoga. As an introvert, getting alone time outside has helped me keep my sanity, particularly when we have all been working and schooling from home.
Therapy: Like many people, I have experienced some acute challenges in my life and at times therapy has been an incredibly important aspect of self-care. When my emotional wellbeing is order, everything else in life becomes much more manageable.
Spiritual practice: My faith and spiritual community is also a fundamental part of my self-care. Prayer, practicing gratitude and participating in service activities all help me to feel balanced and bring meaning to my life.
Attaining work-life balance can’t be done solo. What people, resources, and tools do you rely on to get it all done?
Husband: My husband is an outstanding life partner. He just gets stuff done around the house whether it’s managing our finances, planning our travel, signing the kids up for activities, cooking, doing the kid’s laundry, or researching big new purchases like appliances or cars. He consistently works hard around the house without me needing to prod or nag. I am truly blessed to have someone who is so devoted, consistent, capable, and hard working.
Parents:  We live close to my parents and they are incredibly helpful in supporting our family.  During COVID, they are home schooling our daughter every day and when the kids were younger they provided part-time child care. They have a very close relationship with our kiddos and our kids love to spend time with their Grammy and Papa. My parents and my mother-in-law have also been critical in enabling my husband and I to take extended trips without the kids which allows us to reconnect with each other.
Neighbors: Our closest neighbors on our street are also our best friends. Our kids are the same age and at the same schools, and we enjoy spending time together. Our kids routinely run between each others’ homes playing, the parents commiserate about neighborhood and school happenings, and neighbors have provided emergency back-up care in a pinch. Our neighbors have picked-up our kiddos from school when we got stuck in traffic or kept an eye on them so we could run a quick errand. It is incredibly helpful and unusual to have friends in close proximity that can jump in to help in a pinch.
How have you had to adjust your schedule during the COVID-19 crisis?
It definitely helps to be spending less time commuting. I am getting more exercise because I can fit it in at any point of my day where I have a gap in my schedule.
Since I started at TRI after shelter-in-place, I have yet to set foot in the office. There are definitely some inefficiencies that come from working 100% remotely. It’s harder to get to know people and build relationships across the organization because I have to schedule a lot more 1:1 meetings to just chat and check-in with people. In person, you can more efficiently grab lunch with 3-5 people and do small group catch-ups. I also end up attending more status meetings because there’s less impromptu hallway conversations to get quick updates and situational awareness into what is going on across the company. I have been more intentional about organizing team social time to make sure my team feels a sense of belonging and connection.
Working from home, particularly with kids, has meant I have needed to be more flexible and adaptable. We have had power outages and internet outages, kids needing urgent attention, and interruptions due to delivery people or service people arriving at the home. It can be a bit distracting and frustrating to have to split my attention, but in some ways not so different from frequent interruptions from colleagues when I was working in the office - the kids just tend to do a little more screaming, whining, and crying than my work colleagues.
One solution that we found is my husband and I rented a tiny little office near our home. It gave us a private, COVID-safe, quiet space to go to when we needed to take important meetings or work on focus tasks.
What resources or support has your company offered you during the crisis? 
Emotional support: The biggest blessing of my timely transition to TRI has been the incredibly supportive leadership. Gill Pratt, Kelly Kay and other senior leaders have consistently and passionately messaged that the health and wellbeing of our ourselves, families, and communities is our number one priority. TRI work comes second. Valuing people first has led to incredible organizational health during a difficult time. As a result of their leadership, I truly believe our TRI team experiences reduced stress and anxiety as well as increased gratitude, job satisfaction, and commitment to the organization. Their goals have been amplified by our employee resource groups, including our Parents ERG, which actively foster empathy, understanding, and compassion between our colleagues.
Working schedule: TRI adjusted our working schedule to optimize our organizations productivity.  Leaders observed the team was struggling with some conference call burn-out and so they created a working schedule with meeting-free Fridays and every other Friday off. It has enabled me to be so much more productive and greatly reduced feelings of work fatigue.
Community: TRI’s employee resource groups have organized several events specifically targeted at how we can navigate life during COVID. Panel topics include how parenting positively impacts the workplace and I participated in a mom’s panel to talk about our experiences as mom’s navigating COVID. We had events to make our kids feel connected to TRI and their parents’ work, including a Halloween costume party, story time, Diwali celebration, and paper lantern making craft activity. In addition, TRI has taken seriously how issues around racial justice have affected our employees and our communities. We had an entire day dedicated to self-reflection and study, which included a deeply powerful town hall with deep personal sharing and calls for change. More than any other company I have ever worked for, TRI genuinely lives out its value of fostering diversity.
What has been the biggest challenge for you as you are navigating this ‘new normal’?
Helping my kids adapt. We have experienced a lot of big feelings from our kids. They are feeling frustrated and angry and struggling to adapt to all the constant change in their worlds: homeschooling, isolation from friends, an inability to participate in their favorite sports and activities - it’s a lot. Often the dynamics that play out with my kids, also play out at work, but adults are just so much easier, more rational beings. As I have developed skills to help my kids cope, I am able to apply many of the same techniques at work to help my team and colleagues get through the crisis.  Digging deep to find new levels of empathy, expressing gratitude for what is going well, random and gratuitous acts of kindness, and praising people for resiliency have all helped with adjusting to the new normal, both at home and at work.
What advice do you have for other women who are working remotely with their children at home?
Emotional support: I spent the first bit of COVID focused on our kids’ deliverables. We had a checklist of school work that needed to get done everyday and a reward system to motivate completion of tasks. The result was a ton of fits, tantrums, and stress. I had to shift my parenting to caretaking the kids’ emotions first and foremost. When I primarily focused on how they were feeling, including worries, fears, and frustrations, we were able to get through the day with less resistance. If their emotional worlds were okay, everything else fell into place much more easily.
Accepting good enough: As a highly-driven person with perfectionist tendencies, I have really had to lower my standards and expectations. Doing the bare minimum is definitely good enough right now. I have to quell my own anxiety about whether our kids are “falling behind” and realize that we are trying to survive in a situation where our kids have been forced into a learning mode that is developmentally inappropriate. Celebrating small wins, paying attention to the growth that has happened, and focusing on the whole child, not just academic progress, has helped me to keep things in perspective.
Accepting feeling vulnerable: It can feel like you are failing when kid-induced demands make you act “flaky” at work (e.g. cancelling a meeting at the last minute because a kid is throwing a tantrum, kids drawing your attention briefly and having that be the moment you get called on to answer a question, etc.). Many of us working moms like to be perceived as superheroes who can do everything with grace and ease and these moments can feel like very vulnerable chinks in our armor. In reality, they really are not that big of a deal. The moment passes and people barely notice. It’s okay to feel the vulnerability of those moments, but it’s also okay to give ourselves the self-compassion to make sure we are not catastrophizing.
What is your favorite way to destress outside of work? 
Bikram Yoga: I always feel better, both physically and mentally, after completing my 90 minute yoga practice. It’s been a little more challenging during COVID with kiddos running around the house and my yoga studio closed, but it’s still super helpful to get in some yoga time.
Golf: With COVID shelter-in-place orders, golf courses have limited the number of households that can go out together. As a result, I have gotten to do several rounds alone, walking the course, on warm sunny days, while chatting with my dearest friends on the phone. It’s magical!
Spending time with friends: Eating a good meal and enjoying the company of friends is one of the things that brings down my stress level the most. We set up a COVID “pod” or social bubble with two other families that are also very diligent about following public health measures. We are able to have regular in-person, outdoor gatherings that have provided much-needed stress relief.
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