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Contractor Perspective: Gianna Vallefuoco, Vallefuoco Contractors, LLC, Rockville, MD

Gianna Vallefuoco

COVID-19 has touched almost all facets of our lives. As a family business owner, the pandemic hit me with instant fear for the survival of our tile installation company. I wondered how my husband and I would meet payroll and overhead costs, keep our installers and office manager working, feed our family, keep our home, and get our three kids through college. All these mundane pre-pandemic assumptions quickly eroded into fragile aspirations that were no longer a given. Then I considered the heavier stuff; the possibility of sickness or even death from this virus touching our lives. I’ve been taking a lot of deep breaths.

The pandemic has not only made me question the stability of our company, but all aspects of our life; work, family, community. In March, our installations, like those of our colleagues, began to dwindle due to client fears and lack of social distancing space on job sites. I began working exclusively from home, learning to make tile selections with clients and vendors remotely. Within the first week of virtual project meetings, I noticed a subtle but palpable transformation in our business interactions. People wanted dialogue. And I don’t mean chit chat.

Work communication evolved from polite, strategic conversations to compassionate, intimate discussions about our livelihoods, families, fears and struggles. Over the last three months, I’ve been fortunate enough to share and hear very heartfelt stories with clients, vendors, installers, superintendents, and even insurance agents about the new normals of 2020. No small talk. People want to unveil the heavy stuff, the reality we’re all experiencing. They want to talk about their loved ones at high risk, their unlived vacations and uncelebrated graduations and weddings. People want to feel connection, even while at work.

Since the pandemic, I’ve shared in the tears of three colleagues, and intensely belly-laughed with at least a dozen more. Life is emotional right now. News outlets and bank statements readily remind us of our fears, but fear isn’t the great consequence of 2020. I think it’s empathy. Perhaps it’s the solidarity of being stuck in home confinement, or the uncertainty of our careers, health, and futures. Whatever the reason, people clearly need connection. My work role has adapted to that.

Our business, like many across the globe, has been forced to pivot quickly. Our income and workload since March has been highly inconsistent. This pandemic has made us reevaluate our priorities. I started writing our Intentional Spaces blog last year to educate clients about tile selections and layouts for their new spaces. Client needs since the pandemic immediately shifted the blog focus from designing physical spaces to creating meaningful space in our homes and hearts. My job title has transformed from Tile Designer to Mindfulness Mentor.

This sounds like a pretty big jump, but my training as a mindfulness teacher has always seeped into our tile installation business. A gratitude jar has adorned our cozy tile office for many years, enticing all who enter to jot down something for which they feel grateful, and drop it in the jar. We have poignant little scribbles from office staff, neighbors, vendors, and even delivery drivers. The gratitude messages range from things like “grateful for my daily walks” or “nobody cursed at me yet today” to “my family is healthy” and “I have a home.” I’ve always felt that mindfulness belongs in the workplace. The pandemic has verified that.  

My recent discussions with tile industry colleagues have propelled the teaching of mindfulness to the top of my list of job duties. Many industry partners, who are also longtime friends, are living in a state of unsustainable stress. Some have just lost jobs or taken pay cuts. Tile showroom owners have expressed how heavily weighted they are by the guilt of letting employees go and the fear of losing their businesses. This emotional tension is taking its toll on us, revealing a dire need to find resilience.

For those not familiar with the term, mindfulness is the act of being present, with compassion and curiosity, and without judgment. Mindfulness encompasses many practices for navigating life’s curve balls like breath techniques, meditation, focused attention, gratitude, and abundant others.

During the last couple months, amidst designing backsplash frames around pot-fillers, and gratefully signing lien releases, I’ve been teaching mindfulness. I’ve lead guided meditations with colleagues and community groups, teaching how to reduce stress, decrease anxiety, observe and control thoughts and stress responses, and find acceptance in difficult situations. I’ve started planning a mindfulness retreat in Tuscany with fellow women business owners. I’ve led meditation groups. These reactions may not be your typical “pandemic pivot” for a tile contractor, but they’ve allowed our business to forge its path in the new normal. We’re all in this together. In uncertainty. In change. In resilience.