The Radical Act of Rest

In this reflection piece New Profit CEO Tulaine Montgomery reflects on New Profit's period of collective rest and offers takeaways and insights gathered from the experience.

By Tulaine Montgomery, CEO

November 17, 2021

This fall at New Profit, in the midst of a very busy programming and fundraising season, we did something some would call radical. We cleared our calendars, switched on our out-of-office responders, and closed our laptops for a period of collective rest. For the first time ever outside of a holiday, we took a company-wide break.

Over the summer and into September, the news held a constant drumbeat of stories about companies shutting down for a week or more, while memes about rest and self care took over our social feeds. Our team met the challenges and opportunities of the past 18 months with courage and grace, and accelerated our work to lift up solutions for the education, economic, and democratic systems that are failing us. And we were tired. Inside and out, momentum was building around the idea that we needed to prioritize rest.

But despite the memes and the trends, despite what we all agreed we need, rest remains a radical, countercultural act. It’s one thing to agree that rest is important, particularly on social media where it is often framed as a dimension of self care. It’s an entirely different thing to build a culture that centers rest, framing it as a dimension of community care, and making it available to everyone—from the people who keep the lights and servers on and the payroll running while everyone else’s screens go dark, to the workers in retail, restaurants, manufacturing, construction, and other industries that find it harder to hit pause.

At New Profit, our journey towards building a culture that centers rest started with recognizing that rest and impact are not opposites; they are interdependent… two sides of the same coin. We are still in the very early stages of operating with a healthy appreciation for rest, and the role it plays in our collective impact and our team’s health. Here are a few insights from our process that might help you plan your own company-wide rest and reset.

It’s not a straight line from desire… to idea… to implementation. 

As we worked to implement our company-wide rest, it was interesting to notice the sense of case-making that took hold of the process, the collective and introspective convincing that it took to get us to a place where we could hit pause. We long for rest and rejuvenation, our bodies and brains signal the need for a pause and shift, but there’s still this ambivalence – within ourselves and our communities, shaped by a national culture that teaches us to glorify the hustle and grind, that makes it harder for us to take the rest that we deserve and need. And collectively, the pushback came from questions named and unnamed. What would the board and funders think? How would we appear to our partners? What about the people who would have to drastically shift their work plans, and the people who can’t completely turn off, like payroll?  Are we still demonstrating a commitment to impact if we do this? There was a whole set of potential barriers to navigate, and the burden of proof was on us every step of the way to believe that the rest was worth it.

Develop a process that centers proximate voices.

We wanted to behave in a way that honors how important rest is to our mission, so we asked ourselves not just what it would take to pull off a rest period, but what it would take to do it well. For us, that meant that there would be no disproportionate burden on any individual, and our plan would be of equal benefit to those whose duties weren’t as flexible as others. It also meant that the plan would be collectively designed, implemented, and owned by a group of people from different functions and roles across the organization, rather than a top-down leadership decision. The core steering group surveyed and spoke to team members from across the organization, listening to those who were most proximate internally to potential barriers or concerns. The end result was a rest and reset period of 7 business days, the proposal that came closest to equalizing time off and narrowed the gap of what people across the team experienced.

Support a strong roll-out with no room for ambivalence. 

We recognized we needed to put support in place, like draft language for out of office replies and emails to alert partners, to make it clear our people had the backing of the organization and proactively address our need to be perceived as available for our communities. But we didn’t anticipate the mental excavation it would take to land on the right language. In an initial draft of the all-staff email with language to communicate with our networks, we used apologetic language. We hope you’ll understand… We saw how our ambivalence was broadcast in those words, and how we were opening from a place of criticism and skepticism. We decided instead to use language that focused on why we’re excited to take a rest, and why we hope others will do the same.

…To continue moving [our] work forward powerfully, New Profit has decided to take a moment to rest and reset. Our team will be stepping away from the inbox, turning off the webcam, and closing the laptop. 

To our partners and friends, we appreciate your understanding as we hit ‘pause’. We encourage you to find the time and space to do the same in a way that works best for you.

(Re)set healthy boundaries. 

In our out of office replies, we provided two emergency contacts: my cell number, and my co-CEO’s. We didn’t receive a single call. It was a tip we learned from another organization who inspired us in this process. We’ve made ourselves so accessible, especially in our remote work culture, that we don’t put much thought into boundaries. But when we have to call the CEO on her cell phone, it forces us to be more discerning. It’s a striking example of how, even in our hustle and grind culture, it can be relatively simple to put some boundaries in place.

People need time to rest, to think, and to do nothing at all. When machines pause they stop…when us humans pause …we start. We start reflecting, designing, integrating our learning and doing all the things required to improve our lives and our world.  As folks who work in social impact – particularly philanthropy-  we are keenly aware of the collective privilege we have to be doing work that matters to us. This awareness leads us to question our worthiness: Who am I to be tired and need rest? Look at what’s happening around me, in our communities. But when we reinforce toiling as the standard of leadership, then we miss the opportunity to achieve the impact that philanthropy can have at its best—when we are working with others to design and create more equitable systems. We have to give ourselves time to rest, and model it and push for it in our communities, so we can help build a culture that normalizes conditions that enable us humans to be at our best.