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Today’s Office: MullenLowe’s Rebekah Pagis on the need for boundaries and empathy

“In this new world, it is virtually impossible to keep work and life separate”

Rebekah Pagis has had a full house since working from home. The MullenLowe New York managing director tells us what it’s like sharing a workspace with her son, husband, mother, dog, cat and her frenemy Peloton.

In March 2020, work moved from MullenLowe’s office in Manhattan to my house in Larchmont, New York. The ‘new office’ comes complete with a dog, a cat, a radiant and amazing special needs son, a husband, and now… my mother.

My mom left North Carolina to be with us since the onset of Covid-19 to help with remote school for our son, which has been incredible. But also, I haven’t lived full-time with my mom since I was 18, so that’s a lesson in patience for both of us.

I’ve set up camp in the sunroom of our rented house. It’s nice and bright, but I discovered this summer it has no A/C – and yes, I know one can open windows, but the landscapers up in Westchester are real real about their jobs and their extremely noisy leaf blowers, making Zoom calls a challenge. On the plus side, I can see green, which feels like a real luxury given my proximity to New York City.

The biggest challenge is simply that work is at home. My little sunroom set-up includes a glass-paneled door, which I have put a curtain on so my son can’t see me (out of sight, out of mind, maybe?). A closed door is supposed to mean mom is working and do not disturb, but unfortunately the dog and cat take deep offense to any door that is closed. There’s also the dog’s deep and loving need to let us know, via aggressive barking, about a squirrel! A truck! A neighbor! The leaf blowers!!!

I do miss the city. Commuting into NYC every day is not the most fun, but getting off the train and feeling that rush of being in NYC is something special. It’s a place where ‘things happen’, it’s filled with culture and interesting people with amazing style. The neighbors walking their dogs in their fleece and sneakers isn’t giving me the same energy. But, hey, it’s great to see you Bob! (Discreet wave and pointing to my headphones).

Pitching new business has really been one of the most challenging things to embrace in our new remote world. A key part of any pitch is chemistry – that the client feels you all are moving in lockstep and they feel enough of a connection to the team that they want to hire you. It is incredibly hard to translate passion, energy and excitement over a flat computer screen. If you over-rehearse, you sound scripted, but under-rehearse and you have awkward silence or over-talking. It is a delicate balance, and one we continue to refine!

I’m inspired by our people. There is a new intimacy and realization of humanity that has come from virtually entering into everyone’s home lives. Our staff and their families are getting physically sick, they are battling mental health challenges, they are tackling racism, and struggling to tread water with family and life responsibilities weighing them down. It’s heavy. But it is real – and incredibly inspiring.

Our seven-year-old son has a rare genetic syndrome called Williams syndrome and he really thrives with a good routine. The syndrome means he is at a higher risk for contracting Covid-19 (congenital heart disease and developmental delays), so we have kept him home doing remote school.

Lunch is 12pm-12.30pm exactly. If you don’t show up for lunch, he finds you and asks why you aren’t at lunch. So, if we have meetings that are going to keep us from lunch, we try to let him know at breakfast!

Dinner is at 6pm. And yes, he expects to see you at the table at 6pm too! In all reality though, the routine is good. It has allowed my husband and I to keep work in work’s place a bit, instead of letting it take over all times of day – which I know has been a challenge for many folks.

Things move a bit slower in the mornings now, since we aren’t rushing out the door to catch the train. I settle into my office in the sunroom at 9am, which I share with our Peloton and the dog bed.

Thanks to my mom and my son, I’m eating three healthy meals a day. No skipping breakfast or ravenously eating takeout at my desk (OK, maybe that still happens sometimes). My Peloton roommate and I are frenemies. I hate that she is always in my video background but love that she gives me freedom to work out when I can (which is usually 9pm, after the little man goes to bed).

Our son really perseverates on certain topics, getting deeply obsessive on niche things. Right now, all free time is spent looking at videos of African Dogon masks, making African Dogon masks and dancing African Dogon dances (with masks on, of course). Being at home more affords us the luxury of really exploring his interests and having fun with it, instead of using our home time to run around town to do errands or activities.

In this new world, it is virtually impossible to keep work and life separate. The key, in my opinion, to any successful relationship (and yes, sadly we do have a relationship with work) is boundaries. I do my best to model these boundaries (which I am grateful to my son for helping keep in place!) for our ML NY office – many whom have new babies, roommates in teeny apartments and are also living with their parents again. We’ve worked at home for nearly a year now and will be working from home for the foreseeable future, so boundaries and empathy go a long way!

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