Kiwi Annie Lewin has one of the most high-ranking jobs at Google so when it comes to talking about digital wellbeing, changing our relationship with technology and the eternal battle of ‘the juggle’ she’s got a heck of a lot of experience. She talks to Capsule about leading from the front in terms of parental leave and the realities of imposter syndrome.
Annie Lewin, a senior director at Google, is not necessarily a fan of the term ‘work/life balance.’ “It kind of implies that you’re not alive when you’re at work,” she laughs. “I think we would all aspire to be living wherever we are, right?” She prefers the idea of “snacking” to get tasks done – a walking meeting with colleagues, running an errand on a phone call, rather than the idea that work/life has to be two separate worlds. Because, as she says, that hasn’t existed for most of us for the past two years.
“I don’t think we will ever go back to the way we used to work,” she says. “So what are the elements of the old ways that we want to bring with us into the future?”
Digital Wellbeing: Find Your Phone/Life Balance
After starting out as a journalist, Annie moved to the tech sector, including working for YouTube and has been at Google for the past 14 years. She now holds one of the top ranking jobs, as Senior Director of Global Advocacy and Head of Asia Pacific for Google’s philanthropic arm, Google.org. As you would imagine, it’s been a fascinating time to work in the tech sector and also at Google. The tech giants have become some of the biggest power players in the world and as their power has stretched, so has the need for social responsibility in how they conduct themselves and what they create.
And, this, of course, was all happening before Covid-19. “The pandemic was an accelerant – in many, many fields, we’ve made about a decade’s worth of progress of things moving online in just a short amount of time,” Annie says. “But what’s been really important to us is to make sure the most vulnerable people don’t get left behind.”
When Covid first hit, Annie was working in Singapore and moved back to New Zealand in February 2021. Tech industries have always been famous for their office culture but, like the rest of us, they were working from home as well. So while all the good parts of technology were highlighted – the flexibility, the connection – the bad parts were as well.
“Now, even the physical boundary of ‘I’m going to put down work for today,’ well, we lost that too. We lost that commute time that said ‘we are now transitioning from one part of our life to another,’” she says. “My commute is now a door!”
Even pre-pandemic, Annie had been aware that people needed help improving their relationships with their phone – ‘phone/life balance’, as it’s often called. “Years ago – well pre pandemic – a Google colleague and I would find that every time we started a meeting at work, we would spend the first five or 10 minutes talking about how ‘there must be a better or different way to have this relationship with technology.’ It just kept coming up, all the time.”
It was while both of them were away on maternity leave that they really got stuck into it, creating a social enterprise that was designed to help people change their relationship with technology. The result was Space, a behaviour change app that monitors screen time, habits, etc.
“What was really gratifying for us both to see is that during the period of time we were working on Space, both Apple and Google incorporated this digital wellbeing technology into their products.” There has been a “moment of reckoning,” Annie says, for people realising they were out of balance and needing to know more information about their habits. “In the same way you might want to know how many steps you’ve done in that day, or how much sleep you got last night.”
But it’s important to remember that our technology is both a blessing as well as a curse, Annie says. “During the pandemic I had a lot more compassion or empathy for people using their devices because the role of technology has become so central in people’s life,” she says. “I’ll be honest, I would often find myself getting a little judgy when I would see people all lined up at the bus stop, on their phones, or on the Tube, staring at their phone. But for the time that I was away from my family, nine times out of 10 that would have been me doing a video call with my mum, or a Whatsapp conversation with my sister.”
“The primary thing we need to be careful of is are your devices working for you, rather than you feeling like you’re out of control.”
‘Meaningful’ work as a #1 priority
“Out of control” feels like an apt way to describe so much of our work-and-home lives from the past two years but as Annie points out, it is a real point of privilege that so many of us have been able to work from home – and how much tougher it’s been for people whose jobs didn’t allow that. By working in the philanthropic arm of Google – Annie says it’s ticked one of the big boxes that people are now looking for in their careers: what can I do that feels meaningful?
“Realistically, this has been the hardest two years of everyone’s life, wherever they are in their life phase,” she says. “So now the meaning that I think employees are looking for is much deeper than it used to be – am I working for an organisation that I can see is contributing to the community that I’m part of?”
One of the key aims of Google.org is to focus on women and children. Annie says it’s extraordinary how few charities focus on only women and children and the pandemic has disproportionately affected both of those groups, both in terms of financial stability (female-dominated industries like hospitality or care-giving), the huge disruption to child care with lockdowns and the increased amount of care-giving.
But there’s also a real impact on school-aged females as well, with an estimated 20 million girls at risk of not returning to school because they’ve been helping at home or bringing in needed income. “There’s an awful lot of work that needs to be done to make sure we claw back some of the losses that the pandemic has taken on the gender equality movement,” Annie says.
The invisible loads of caregiving or extra responsibilities have affected all workers – not just working parents, Annie says, but the very real problem of having kids out of school for long periods of time has meant a huge juggling act that does normally affect mothers most of all. Good companies brought in policies around these issues, but Annie says it’s also up to leaders to actually take those policies as well. As the pandemic gathered speed, Google brought in extended carers leave, which meant that if you had caregiving responsibilities, you could down tools when you needed to. “It was very hard for me to wrap my head around; at the time, I was running a 60-person team and it was the biggest job of my life,” Annie says. “It was like ‘I can’t possibly take time,’ but I also knew I couldn’t NOT take it. So at the height of the pandemic, I went from sitting around a table, trying to work out Google’s policies were going to be, to then stepping away.”
“Looking back, it’s the most powerful thing I could have done, because I was showing everyone else on the team who also had caregiving responsibilities that this was not a normal time! This is not a time that we’re just supposed to white knuckle our way through.”
Dealing with imposter syndrome
“Imposter syndrome” is such a buzzword in business but it’s also a double-edged sword in that a) nobody ever asks men about having imposter syndrome and b) it can subtly imply that as a woman in business, you should experience it just for being a women in business. Annie laughs wryly and says that it’s definitely something she’s experienced in each of her high profile jobs at Google.
“My general approach at shaping my career has been when interesting doors open, I walk through them… but then sometimes I do find myself on the other side of those door, being like ‘What room am I now? I didn’t quite expect this!’”
“I think that there is a great shame that we don’t realise how little of an imposter we were until we leave,” Annie says. “This idea of finally getting over the idea of ‘what leaders should look like’ is probably the most fundamental thing that all of us need to get over, no matter what stage of our career we’re at.”
“Still to this day, or at least until very recently, if someone had said to me ‘close your eyes and picture what the leader of this team would look like,’ why is it that we never picture ourselves? There is so much unlearning in that and the more telling people, in the moment, that they’re inhabiting that role beautifully, I think would be a really positive step.”