When Apriel Biggs-Coker began her Yale career almost two years ago, leading the Portfolio Management Office within ITS, she never could have predicted she would suddenly find herself pulling double-duty– caring for her infant aged daughter while simultaneously managing a demanding workload. Her typical morning commute has been replaced with dance-off parties in her daughter’s nursery, and daily face-to-face meetings have been swapped for Zoom calls featuring a very special (and pint-sized) guest. Apriel has found the secret recipe for effectively managing work and home life, even as the two very different worlds have collided. At the top of her list? Making self-care a priority, being deliberate and realistic about her schedule and needs, and making time to connect with her daughter, family, friends, and colleagues.
We recently caught up with Apriel to discuss how she achieves work/life balance, what she’s learned about herself as a result of her recent experiences, and what advice she has for others facing similar challenges.
What is your current role at Yale?
I lead the Portfolio Management Office within ITS. We’re responsible for assisting ITS project and program managers with delivering successful outcomes on efforts driven by IT for our colleagues across the University. I started at Yale in this role in October of 2018.
Note: Apriel has taken an interim role as Senior Director, IT Shared Services, to allow Lisa Sawin to temporarily focus on Return to Work related efforts.
How has the COVID pandemic impacted your work?
Project management, as a function, for the most part, can be done anywhere. There are a few projects that have been impacted because our customers aren’t on campus, which has, in some cases, stopped work completely. Project managers are doing their best to continue to press forward and drive solutions where possible.
While working from home, what steps have you taken to achieve a work/life balance?
That work/life balance thing for me is as elusive as a unicorn. With schools and daycares around the country closed, I now have a 13-month-old coworker who is clueless that mommy has a day job other than caring for her. My first priority is making sure my little one is safe, happy, and on some semblance of a schedule. We wake up in the morning and dance before breakfast. I’ve incorporated my daughter into my every day versus feeling bad about trying to bridge two very different worlds. We take 9:00 a.m. zoom calls together as she navigates learning to use a spoon. She’s learned to say “hi” and “bye-bye” because colleagues enjoy being a part of her development. There are occasions where I recognize not everyone is interested in what she’s up to, and I simply direct her attention elsewhere so I have time to focus on the call at hand. For us, the key has been to navigate my relationships to do what works for the situation.
How have your leaders or peers supported you, and ensured your success, as you’ve been simultaneously taking care of your children and managing a demanding workload?
Overall, demands have increased for everyone, and we are all trying to figure out how to respond. I am fortunate to have an amazing manager who also happens to be a mom. She is empathetic and takes into account that this is not an easy time. At the beginning of the pandemic, when we were newly working from home, I hosted a large meeting, which included many members of the senior leadership team. My daughter was climbing all over me during the meeting when John Barden interrupted and said, “Apriel, it’s okay.” That one small statement was so meaningful to me because I felt seen and accepted instead of admonished and judged.
What have you learned about yourself as a result of this experience?
At the start of the pandemic, I freaked out because I had no clue how I would manage the professional pressures of delivering results, managing a team, and caring for an infant. It’s amazing what we’re able to do once we decide to be successful…recognizing that my definition of success has changed. I’ve become good at defining boundaries, using my voice, and managing my time. My team has offered tremendous support, and everyone has leaned in to rise to the occasion to help each other out. I’ve also learned no is a complete sentence that we as women aren’t always comfortable using. I’ve become okay with saying no and offering alternative options that allow me to maintain personal and professional integrity. I have also learned to shift my definition of success. Gone are the days when I’m working till the wee hours of the morning running myself into the ground. In this season, I’ve prioritized my mental health and wellness. Success is now eating a good meal, going for a walk, seeing a smile on my child’s face, and honoring the professional commitments I’ve set for the day.
Do you have any advice for colleagues who are facing similar challenges?
One of the things I always find myself saying is that we need to give each other grace. There are so many blogs and articles about working from home that are simply not relevant. We’re all doing the best we can with spouses and children clamoring for internet, time, and attention. My first piece of advice is to get clear about what you need to be successful. This could include greater flexibility with schedules or not scheduling meetings back to back to allow time to change diapers, clean messes, and prepare meals. The second would then be to ask for what you need. I grew up hearing that closed mouths don’t get fed. We cannot expect our team members and managers to know how this experience is affecting us. Need to have your last call at 4:00 p.m. to help with homework? Tell people that and help them with finding alternatives to complete assignments. And last, do something every day that makes you feel good. I make it a point to dance with my daughter every day. It gives me time to be silly and gives her time to experience me as a mom versus a mom trying to navigate working from home during a global pandemic. This is a really tough time, and we all owe it to ourselves to be deliberate about placing our own self-care at the top of our to-do lists.