Jessica Mann-Amato: “We are more open to trying new things”

I have noticed that people have learned to be more empathetic than ever before. I think that bodes well for humanity; there is a greater sense of human connection (all being in the same boat and helpless to do anything about it) that has come out of this time of being apart. The Covid-19 pandemic has […]

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I have noticed that people have learned to be more empathetic than ever before. I think that bodes well for humanity; there is a greater sense of human connection (all being in the same boat and helpless to do anything about it) that has come out of this time of being apart.

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Many of us now have new challenges that come with working from home, homeschooling, and sheltering in place.

As a part of my series about how busy women leaders are addressing these new needs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jessica Mann-Amato, IIDA. She is a natural design leader with over 20 years of client-focused design experience, overseeing workplace strategy, space planning, and interior design for Mancini’s New York office. She utilizes the company’s state-of-the-art Design Lab to lead clients through proprietary 360 Design Sessions which immerse them in their future spaces and allow for a truly collaborative and interactive design process, which Jessica has always promoted with her clients. Her career highlights include design projects for a wide array of clients that met unique business goals, integrated new workplace strategies, and delivered design that has had significant impact on clients’ company culture.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

I have wanted to be an interior designer since I was a little girl. As a child, I was always rearranging things in our house, painting the walls new colors, and accessorizing every room (shout-out to my mom for indulging me). I had a steadfast conviction as a teenager that I would go to design school. I was fortunate to have some amazing high school teachers who nurtured my dream and let me focus my lessons on assignments that would be good portfolio pieces for my application to art school.

I attended Ringling School of Art and Design, which had a fabulous Interior Design program. The professors and department head at Ringling really helped mold my work ethic into what it is today; I will be forever grateful for their mentorship and the doors it opened for me. I moved to New York for an internship in 2000 and never left!

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started at your company?

One of the primary reasons I joined Mancini Duffy is how technology-forward we are. I have always been a big proponent of using technology to forward design thinking.

I will never forget the first time I walked through a project we designed with a client in our VR arena. It’s such a powerful design tool to be able to immerse the client firsthand into the space you designed. Since they are seeing everything in first person, it makes the things you are presenting and discussing about the design so fluid, because the client can see every little detail. Seeing the client’s amazed reaction to our 360 Design process for the first time is something I will never forget.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Yes, we have some great projects in the works right now…corporate office headquarters, restaurants, event spaces, building repositioning projects, and more. I am excited for each of them because they all feature designs that are completely unique to the client.

I think we help people every day, because we go through a process that allows us to delve into our client’s world: gaining knowledge of their vision, business drivers and goals, and logistics of how they work. Based on this process, our design solutions not only realize their vision, brand, and aesthetic, but are also highly efficient and function fluidly based on how they interact with their space every day.

We all spend so much time at our place of business — it needs to be somewhere we want to be and that simultaneously enhances our work each day. The same should be said about our houses at this moment in our lives; when the place we live is the place we work.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There are so many people! My high school teacher Mike Rychlik who sat down my angsty and rebellious teenage self and said, “What are you doing? Take all the energy and channel it into achieving your dreams.” My professor Ruth Beals at Ringling, who taught me to trust my instincts, and focus all the ideas in my head into a clear vision. And a handful of bosses, peers, and co-workers through the years (Hilda, Jodi, Suzette, Peter, and Ellen, to name a few), who became dear friends. They each helped me learn my trade, hone my skills, channel my energy, and champion my profession. Each experience has helped me become the person I am today.

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Can you articulate to our readers what are the biggest family related challenges you are facing as a woman business leader during this pandemic?

I think trying to juggle everything is the biggest struggle. I thought it was hard to juggle before the pandemic, but it’s taken on a whole new meaning now. Before the pandemic, I could manage my day (along with my husband’s and daughter’s) fairly neatly 98% of the time. We all had our schedules of places we needed to be and everything worked out as long as you could keep things on schedule. Now everyone and everything just blends into each other and it feels more chaotic. My husband and I are both working full time from home, as well as being teachers and parents to our 4-year-old daughter. It’s been tough for us to adapt (as it has for the rest of the world right now).

Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?

For me it’s really been about making the most of the little moments. At the beginning of all of this we tried to create strict schedules of working and teaching which fell apart quickly…my daughter rebelled against it, it was difficult with our work schedules, and we were all very frustrated.

What has worked for us is to focus on doing the real meaningful activities with her before 9am, at lunchtime, and after 5:30 pm. We switch back and forth setting her up with activities which require a little less interaction from us and more individual focus for her during our more focused work times.

This pandemic has taught me how important it is to be more present in every moment that I get with my daughter. Before, I was often juggling work while trying to do things with her. Now, I am hyperfocused on the importance of being in the moment (close the computer, set down the phone), and focus only on her when it’s her time. It’s amazing how much more special those moments are for both of you when you are completely focused on each other. We decided if she is happy, learning, and thriving then we are all doing ok juggling it in a way that works for us.

Can you share the biggest work-related challenges you are facing as a woman in business during this pandemic?

At the beginning of this pandemic when we had to quickly pivot the whole company to work from home full time, we tried very hard to maintain the feeling of being together even though we were apart. Due to that, I think we went a little overboard with the Zoom meetings, Teams chat, phone calls, emails, etc. We had team meetings every morning so we could ensure first and foremost that everyone was ok, and secondly that we were able to manage schedules and deliverables. Then, we also did video meetings and chats constantly throughout the day for each project team meetings, and twice weekly company-wide town halls.

The result was twofold — the good thing was that we grew closer and learned a lot about each other as a group because you are immersed in each other’s personal lives in a very intimate way (we are in each other’s living rooms, bedrooms and kitchens every day because of video calls). I really think it’s helped us feel there for each other as we navigated this unprecedented time.

On the other hand, we all got Zoom/chat fatigue, and I think we all started multitasking too much and being spread a little too thin bouncing from video to video, which resulted in not having enough focus time to be present in the moment. It was also making me feel spread way too thin in this weird state of being surrounded by my family all day, but with no time to be with my family.

Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?

As a work team, we have reduced the video calls to a more manageable rhythm and started to have more focused conversations and chats broken up into smaller segments. We have learned to be really honest and transparent with each other about scheduling our time and allowing each other some uninterrupted “focus time.” I think this has allowed for more efficient and productive use of work time and therefore allowed me/us to get our work done faster so we can be in the moment with our families when we should be.

Can you share your advice about how to best work from home, while balancing the needs of homeschooling or the needs of a family?

Find what works for you and stick to that as best you can. I realize we are all in different situations and what has been easy for me, because my daughter is four, might be impossible for others. Once I stopped putting pressure on myself to follow a rigid curriculum and schedule we all benefitted — we are happier, and actually learning more! So, see if there is a way to tweak how you are doing things to fit your life better.

Be transparent. We are all in this together. I think we are all much more understanding of the need for work/life balance than ever before. I had this client that used to be very demanding of my time — I had to be there when they requested it with zero care in the world if it worked for my schedule. This client is so much more understanding now, because we are all reduced to dealing with the same struggles, and we now schedule our video calls at a mutually beneficial time.

Be in the moment. Make sure that you are taking time for yourself and your family and tune everything else out.

Be open to new things. I was very against too much screen time for my daughter, but this situation has changed my ideas on that (a little). She now has three different educational apps she can use — in limited doses — while we are working. I don’t love the fact that it’s on a screen, but I must admit that she is learning a lot from these educational apps and it allows me some focus time.

Can you share your strategies about how to stay sane and serene while sheltering in place, or simply staying inside, for long periods with your family?

Try to get outside at least a few times every day: It’s amazing how 20 minutes of fresh air and a brief walk in nature can reset your mood, focus, and creativity.

Create new activities to do together (don’t fall back on the same old routine all the time): We figure out new activities so that we are not doing the same thing all the time. Last week we learned watercolor painting and did family yoga together.

Learn a new skill: We have become master chefs during COVID. And we have really embraced Zoom dinner parties. We pick a recipe then all cook and eat it together over a long video call.

Dance parties: It’s great stress relief!

Tackle that to do list: We have checked about 20 things off our home improvement list — it makes you feel better about the space you are stuck in.

Give yourself little things to look forward to: It’s helped us to have something to break up the feeling of time-melding we all live in right now (what day is it?). We look forward to long hikes on the weekend, or a trip to the ice cream shop at the end of the work day.

Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

1 — I have noticed that people have learned to be more empathetic than ever before. I think that bodes well for humanity; there is a greater sense of human connection (all being in the same boat and helpless to do anything about it) that has come out of this time of being apart.

2 — We are learning new skills — people who have never gardened before are planting gardens and growing food for the first time in their life. As a lifelong gardener, it makes me very happy. My husband and I used to joke that if there was a disaster and food supplies ran out, we would be in big trouble because such a small percent of the population knows how to grow food…not a joke anymore. We should all be growing our own food.

3 — As tough as it is on all of us to be stuck in our homes during this time, I also think it’s simultaneously an amazing time to be a family. If the pandemic had not happened, I would have missed so many moments with my daughter that would have been reserved for her teacher or her friends. I feel like I am seeing so many new sides to her than when I was commuting to and from the office five days a week and I would have missed all of the little moments.

4 — We are more open to trying new things — I would never have done a Zoom dinner party or drinks before COVID. In this world where video calls are the norm, it’s made me feel like it’s easier to connect with friends who live far away.

5 — Learning to unplug — Due to Zoom fatigue, I have noticed more people understanding the importance of turning off our technology every now and then; truly disconnecting (it’s so important to do every now and then).

From your experience, what are a few ideas that one can use to effectively offer support to their family and loved ones who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?

In my experience, it’s just being there for them…in this new world where we can’t always be physically present, I look to be there in other ways. Text check-ins, lend an ear over a call, really listen to them and be honest about your own fears (often just talking about it can calm you/them down). It’s simply about letting them know that you’re thinking of them. My personal favorites are still to write a card or send flowers.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

There are a few that really resonate with me:

“You just can’t let life happen to you; you have to make life happen.”

“If it’s meant to be, it will be.”

There are so many things in my life that have not gone as planned, but I truly believe that what is meant to happen will happen. Sometimes when you are going through tough times it’s very hard to understand that, but then when you look back you realize how much you grew and learned from those tough experiences.

I have felt this so keenly from many things — my drive to become a designer, my choice of where to live and build my career, the hill I have fought my way up as a woman through every career milestone; but most of all because of my beautiful daughter. My husband and I always wanted to have a child and adopt a child. We went through fertility treatments for six years until we decided to place our focus solely on adoption. We were matched to our birth mother within eight weeks of becoming active with our agency and were there for the birth of our daughter two months later. Our birth mother is an amazing person, who will always be part of our lives. She said from the moment we met her (before our daughter was born) that she was meant for us, and we all believe she really was. She looks exactly like my husband, has my personality to a tee, and it’s astounding how many of our biological family traits she has; a true study of nurture vs. nature. We both feel that even with all the pain we went through, the child that was meant to be ours is the one we have.

How can our readers follow you online?

Instagram: @jessicamannamato

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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