MAYBE YOU’VE FELT THE AIR around your workspace’s proverbial (or literal) watercooler thickening lately. If that’s the case, it’s not hard to imagine an obvious culprit: the midterm elections.

It should go without saying, but this tension comes to shore off of one of the most politically divisive years in recent American history. Now, it’s spilling over, into cubicles, break rooms, and workplaces. We’re growing edgy. So many of our conversations seem subtly imbued with anxiety about the future of America. An Associated Press-NORC/MTV poll in late September found that half of all Americans aged 15 to 34 feel anxious about the elections, up from 36 percent in July.

Like so many Americans, Ximena Hartsock, the president and co-founder of Phone2Action, a digital advocacy company, watched the pivotal confirmation hearing for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh on a Thursday morning with her team at work, with people who didn’t unilaterally agree on what it meant for America. It represented a sea change in an already turbulent time. More than 20 million watched live on TV as Stanford University professor Christine Blasey Ford accused Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her 36 years ago, and Kavanaugh fiercely deny it.

We saw employees who were agitated, with tears in their eyes,” she recalls. Her experience wasn’t a unique one. All over the country, people of all political stripes had their moral orientation, their experiences, their biases, and their psychology stress-tested that day. And not knowing how to address that, regardless of your views on the matter, could only make everyone’s lives worse.

As Hartsock witnessed firsthand, “anxiety happens most when we don’t have compassion for other people’s views or views are held in secret.” The Kavanaugh episode brought into sharp relief for her—and so many Americans—the reality that people with different identities and different lived experiences process news quite differently. And the intensity is only ratcheting up.

“We live in very different times today than even 10 years ago,” says Hartstock, whose company has space at WeWork Metropolitan Square in Washington, D.C. “And ‘looking the other way’ may not be advisable.”

THE NICETIES OF NOT TALKING POLITICS AT WORK, and co-workers skirting the topic, could contribute to the pressure-cooker incubation of these tensions. On the one hand, not knowing someone’s political views could be a sweet, ignorance-is-bliss relief.

Except—get this—it could genuinely make things worse.

“It appears that people may both be more fiercely fired up, politically, and simultaneously more afraid of sharing their perspectives, especially when they are unsure of the views of their peers,” says Danica Harris, a psychology professor at Texas Women’s University. “This is surely leading to greater anxiety and distress at work, which can impact one’s ability to focus.”

“Some of what people are hearing on the news is triggering,” explains Harris, “and for those with a history of trauma, this information may legitimately impact their functioning.”

Anxiety, stress, and isolation lodge themselves in our bodies. They’re part of the fight-or-flight response, which draws blood, glucose, and oxygen from our immune system and other critical body functions. And for all the money we spend on yoga, or eye creams, or meditation apps, simply walking into work—the place you go to earn the money to spend on the stress salves of our lives—and not saying anything at all?

That could double the damage.

“If you’re stuck in a chronic state of stress response, it’s going to shave years off your life,” says Michael Lee Stallard, a Greenwich, Ct.-based consultant and leadership trainer, and author of Connection Culture. “A lot of people are in pain now.”

As such, gone are the days when HR reps advised managers to discourage political discussions at work. It just isn’t a viable option anymore. But if that’s truly the case: What actually is?

Your oxygen mask goes on first

The person easiest to control, naturally, is yourself. Step one is the most obvious and, also, the one that bears repeating the most: self-care.

Start with sleep —  the foundation of (or culprit affecting) mental health. All the tips you already know will help: electronic devices off well before bedtime, charged outside the bedroom, and so on. Nourish yourself with enough water and healthy food, which often become neglected in times of stress. “When we are depleted, lacking sleep, or highly distressed, our ability to process triggering or emotionally intense content is impaired,” Harris says.

On that note, time to go full-Marie Kondo on your media diet. “Tune out the loudmouths,” Stallard says. “Don’t watch television or listen to radio where the people are shrill and everything is a crisis and the other side is out to get you. It’s better to read.” For example: Make a list of people on social media who consistently trigger your stress, whether you disagree or agree with them. Be it sadness, rage, or panic, if they have an easy way into your mind—and even if this goes against your principles—consider blocking them. The logic’s pretty clear cut here: You can’t have principles without being of sound mind. No point in engaging these people anyway, if your reaction to them is so pavlovian.

Step away from a tense situation, if needed. Then, Harris advises, use all five senses to ground yourself in the moment. For example, using the “full body scan” method many mindfulness meditation courses employ—during which you take a moment to breathe deeply, and simply take an inventory of all the sights, smells, sounds, and kinetic feelings you’re experiencing — could be a good exercise to get practiced in.

There are so many important topics being discussed right now, and it is hard to turn away,” she acknowledges. “Ultimately, though, you need you most. When you’re watching or reading more, especially when you are already flooded, this will not serve you, or anyone else. Give yourself permission to breathe and take a break.”

Checking on, and checking in

Next, reach out to your coworkers. Empathy is contagious. Exposing your own anxieties, even absent any specific political outcome, could prove therapeutic. If a colleague seems withdrawn or you realize you haven’t talked in a while, invite them for a walk, a coffee, or lunch. “If people seem to be isolating themselves in the workplace, that’s a bad sign,” Stallard says. “Reach out to them because they’re in pain. If somebody cares, it gives them a life raft of hope.”

This shouldn’t surprise anyone, but in-person conversation—off Slack, off text, right in front of you—is a genuinely healthy use of your mind. Literally.

“It engages the frontal lobes of the brain and it quiets the amygdala and limbic system. It engages the part of their brain where they’re more likely to make good decisions,” he says.

As Hartsock recalls of the Kavanaugh confirmation battle, “we managed to create a safe environment where employees felt camaraderie and comfort by sticking to our core value [of] ‘take care of each other.’” For touchy subjects, make the extra effort to speak in real life, rather than using Slack or Facebook. “People are more tolerant and composed when speaking to a colleague or coworker face to face,” Hartsock says. “In general, employers don’t give employees enough credit. Most people are mature in the workplace and handle these conversations with respect and tolerance.”

Also helpful? Having a confidante. Make speaking with them a regular practice. “A daily debrief is healthy for our mental and emotional health,” Stallard says, citing research on the power of empathy. “When you empathetically listen to the other person and hear what they’re grateful for and can attune to their positive emotion, it enhances their positive emotion. When you attune to their negative emotion, it diminishes their pain.”

Even if you don’t share someone’s political views, look for a point of commonality where you can hear their perspective. “Just seeing people’s emotion is validating, even if the only words that are exchanged are, ‘I see you,’ ” Harris says. “Once people feel validated, the tension is likely to subside, and you will have created an office culture of safety, where people feel encouraged to share and connect.”

Sense and sensitivity  

During the Kavanaugh hearings, women’s #MeToo stories poured in via all forms of media—Facebook, newspapers, TV, even elevator screens. People were, en masse, sharing decades-old traumatic experiences with colleagues, friends, and close family members, often for the first time.

It’s a powerful reminder that the current political climate takes a larger toll on marginalized groups, whether women, assault survivors, people of color, or members of the LGBTQ+ community.

“Marginalized groups are experiencing greater amounts of fear,” Harris says. “The safety of the workplace will be greatly impacted by how political conversations are conducted. Are people allowed to share their own stories? Do people have the space to be heard? Are people’s experiences believed?”

Reaching out to colleagues who may be in one of these groups can create an opening for connection, empathy, and a deeper relationship. It can be as simple as asking how they’re finding room for self-care or saying you’d like to support one another.

“Focus on the individuals in the room rather than the politicians in these conversations. It’s easier to have empathy when faced with someone’s lived experience, rather than their disdain for a politician,” Harris says.

In that sense, as fraught as this time may be, it also represents an opportunity to build stronger working teams and better mental health for everyone. It’s key to remember that you can do this even if you disagree with people’s ideas, and you can do so without addressing those ideas, too. That’s not some centrist caterwauling so much as the simple fact that expressing compassion isn’t at all a political act.

It’s nothing more (and nothing less) than the kind we all benefit from: a personal one.

Because she is the name and face of the operation, it’s easy to assume that Issa Rae alone is responsible for parlaying her web series, Awkward Black Girl, into a thriving business that includes producing her hit HBO show, Insecure, and other endeavors. But she would be the first to dispel such misconceptions.

“I like to hire people who have a specific lane, who do something very well,” Rae told WeWork employees from around the world as part of the “Team Awesome” track at the company’s Global Summit in Los Angeles in early January. “I hire a lot of people who are smarter than me. If I’m the smartest person in my company, then my company will go nowhere.”

(Left to right) Benoni Tagoe, Deniese Davis, and Issa Rae talk about how they work together to fund passion projects at WeWork’s Global Summit.

Two of those people—Benoni Tagoe, business-development director of Issa Rae Productions, and Deniese Davis, her co-founder at ColorCreative, which shepherds underserved voices in Hollywood—joined her on the panel. They spoke both about how they work together to fund passion projects that will also elevate their brand and how they find other team members who may not always be the obvious choices.

“Sometimes you may not have the skill set; sometimes you may not have the talent,” says Tagoe, a friend-of-a-friend Rae hired when he explained to her all the ways she was missing out on monetizing her business. He says the important thing is to “always have the curiosity” because “with curiosity, as long as you’re trying and figuring things out, you’re allowed to make mistakes.”

Because these executives came up through nontraditional means, Davis stresses to her coworkers the old adages that there are no bad ideas and you shouldn’t be afraid to speak up. Even when budgeting or scheduling won’t allow them to implement an idea right away, she says, “We love to come up with ideas to attain and aspire and achieve, even if it’s going to be three or four years down the line.”

Rae admits that she’s sometimes had doubts about pitches, but when others persuaded her to have the patience to wait it out, “I found out, pleasantly, that I was wrong, and I’m glad I didn’t say no.” She also keeps a file of the projects that didn’t pan out, which keeps their egos in check and reminds them that there’s more work to do. “I don’t necessarily believe in failure; I just believe in the opportunity to learn and grow.”

Davis and her team never stop learning—and because of that, she says, “we’ve gotten really good at identifying the priorities that need to take place” even if they require extra meetings and work to make their time efficient.

Sometimes this is easier said than done. Tagoe says that even though he may be the type of person who is always looking for the next big idea, “in a team setting, you can’t get everyone to move at the same time. You have to approach people individually.”

While Rae acknowledges that there can be extra pressure on people of color to always “have your best feet forward,” she firmly believes that “within your company and within your team members and the people you’re working with,” it’s OK to sometimes bring your B-game.

“The world is watching,” agrees Tagoe. But, he says, every year has built on the last. “I think we’re excited about 2019 because all our ideas are coming together.”

Much of this is due to employee retention, he says. It’s not just about “making sure [you’re] taking care of [your] people,” he says. “It’s making sure that the company you work for is telling that story of, This is a great place to work.”

The head of the operation isn’t anything without the support of the bodies behind her.

For Jaden Smith, The Pursuit of Happyness is more than just the creatively misspelled title of the film he debuted in at age 7 with his superstar dad, Will Smith.

It’s the overarching goal in life, says the 20-year-old musician-activist-entrepreneur. “Unhindered, long-term happiness,” he emphasizes. “People think it’s the new car, the job promotion, but it’s not. That’s not what success looks like. Success is happiness.”

Smith alighted on the subject as part of an insightful address at the “Make It Happen” track, a panel discussion at WeWork’s recent Global Summit in Los Angeles. Sporting powder-pink hair and clad in apparel from his MSFTSRep sustainably-sourced fashion brand Smith possessed his father’s charisma; the directness of his mother, actress Jada Pinkett Smith; and a preternatural maturity.

“I’m young and on the path of trying to make things happen,” he says. “But everything I do in my life, I do for my parents.”

“Failure is important because it’s how you keep going,” says Jaden Smith.

So far, he’s done a lot. He went into acting against the advice of his well-meaning parents, who warned him that it was a lot harder than it looked. But when his dad had trouble finding the right young boy to play his son in Pursuit, Smith got his chance. He nabbed roles in other films—The Karate Kid and After Earth—while segueing into music; his debut album, SYRE, which came out in late 2017, hit 100 million streams on Spotify. His clothing brand, MSFTSRep, has the lofty ambition of reusing materials as much as possible: Pants that Smith wore on stage were embellished with patches of old T-shirts that would have otherwise ended up in a landfill.

And then there’s JUST Water, his brand of water bottled in Glen Falls, New York, which comes in plant-derived packaging with a cap made from sugarcane, designed to be reused or recycled with none of the long-term environmental impact of plastic. On the market since 2012, JUST Water—a member at WeWork 311 W 43rd St in New York—is now sold in 30,000 locations across the country, including Target, Ralph’s, and CVS.

The success of the brand fueled JUST Impact, a nonprofit arm of the company predicated on environmental preservation. JUST Impact’s latest initiative involves installing a reverse-osmosis filtration system in the lead-ridden water supply in Flint, Michigan. With this pilot program, the city can purify 10 gallons of water every 60 seconds, allowing residents to ultimately wean themselves off of the reported 3 million bottles of water consumed each year.

“Instead of having to outsource [water], we said, ‘Let’s create something for you here where you can pump your own clean water, in your community,’” Smith explains. “I’d been seeing them struggle for so long, and I asked, ‘Why isn’t someone doing something about this?’ Ultimately, what I’m trying to do is to help people around the world.”

As if this weren’t enough to keep anyone busy, with Smith there are always more ideas percolating, companies incubating, and partnerships forming. “If it’s more of a complex idea, the first thing I will do is find a business partner, someone I can explain it to and they get it,” he says.

Next, he focuses on team-building, which he says is a critical step in any endeavor. “We look for the next piece of this puzzle. We go through our phone books and find someone who could be a business manager. Then I say, ‘Do we all still get this vision? Do we get the mood boards?’ I repeat that the whole time, meeting after meeting until we’re sitting around a conference table with 10 people, and we can say, ‘OK, let’s get it done. Let’s go.’”

For Smith, the true measure of success may be happiness, but he also finds value in failure. “Failure is important because it’s how you keep going—it’s what you do right after you fail,” he says. “Nobody is meant to win all the time. Instead of saying, ‘I failed today,’ start saying, ‘Here’s how I learned, experienced, or grew today.’”

Paint is big business—and for most of us, a big hassle. While American consumers are expected to spend just north of $30 billion on paint and paint accessories in 2019, the process of choosing, buying, and applying paint to homes, offices, and retail spaces is often an aggravating one.

“Buying paint has traditionally involved an overwhelming color selection, poor customer service, many trips to the store, and a lot of frustration,” says Nicole Gibbons, an interior designer who founded the direct-to-consumer startup Clare as a way to offer design-focused customers an easier, better way to engage with every step of the painting process.  

From colors named after trendy incense to paint that promises to reduce sound, new direct-to-consumer brands like Clare are proving that changing the color of your walls can be easy, cost-effective, and stress-free.

With Clare, it’s all about taking the guesswork out of painting a room. A point of pride for Gibbons is Clare Color Genius, a tool she describes as “a digital color consultation paired with a high-tech algorithm that delivers an expert color recommendation.” It prompts users to upload images and information about natural light in the space, furniture, personal style, and more before offering suggestions. An easy swatching system (stick-ons!) helps customers narrow the field to the color, and a calculator determines exactly how much paint is needed to cover the area.  

The direct-to-consumer startup Clare offers design-focused customers an easier, better way to engage with every step of the painting process.

More than anything, the future of paint is one in which logistics aren’t a concern—the direct-to-consumer model, says Gibbons, allows her to see in real-time what her customers need and offer them the right products each step of the way.

For Caleb and Natalie Ebel, the husband-and-wife team behind Backdrop, the frustration with the painting process was personal. “We’ve painted every apartment we’ve lived in,” says Natalie of the New York City-based couple, who previously worked in financial operations at Warby Parker (Caleb) and marketing (Natalie). So in November 2018, they launched Backdrop, their own direct-to-consumer paint company. From the start, they knew they’d tapped into something important.

“We had an amazing community of early Backdrop brand supporters—some of whom we met at WeWork Corrigan Station in Kansas City, Missouri (the Ebels call New York home but are originally from Kansas City, and often travel there to visit family)—who helped vote on colors and paint names,” says Natalie. Their colors, like “Palo Santo” and “Rose Quartz,” speak the language of Instagram, tapping into trends in design and decor.

Looking beyond home spaces, the Ebels note that the new wave of paint options could be a boon to business owners: “Commercial walls require so much upkeep that Backdrop can really help streamline,” Caleb says. Going the direct-to-consumer route cuts down on shopping time, and smaller color ranges allow businesses to home in on the right look for their spaces instead of poring over an endless array of shades.

Looking beyond home spaces, the founders of Backdrop note that the new wave of paint options could be a boon to business owners.

Other companies bypassing the hardware store are offering paint that does more than change the wall color. Airlite, a member at London’s WeWork 1 Mark Sq and recipient of funds from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program, offers a powdered paint product that uses titanium dioxide to reduce not just pollutants but also odor and bacteria.

Shanghai-based Hipaint, a member at WeWork Ciyunsi, offers paint containing polymer-nanofilm technology, which turns any wall into a whiteboard. The product was inspired by founder Justin Cheng’s then-2-year-old daughter. “She just grabbed a marker and drew on the wall,” he said. “An entire wall can hold a totally new world for kids.”

Jonah Lupton came up with the idea for his noise-reducing-paint company, Soundguard, while living in a loud apartment building after college. “I thought, there has to be a better way to deal with this than just trying to soundproof the room itself,” says Lupton, who worked with a team of paint chemists for more than two years to refine Soundguard’s patent-pending formula. The paint is proven to reduce sound through interior walls at nearly 90 percent and is already being used (or soon will be) in hotels and apartment buildings in vacation destinations like Hawaii and business hotspots like San Francisco. But Lupton, whose company is based at WeWork 745 Atlantic Ave in Boston, thinks it holds an obvious appeal for workspaces, too. “Imagine a law office that deals with sensitive information,” he says. “No more whispering and trying not to be overheard!”

One thing nearly every new direct-to-consumer paint company has in common is an emphasis on sustainability and safety—for humans, pets, and plants alike. The products are low-odor, low-VOC (volatile organic compounds), and GreenWise certified, meaning less stress for increasingly health-conscious shoppers.

The new crop of paint startups can’t promise that changing the color of your walls will be quite as easy as changing the color of your shirt—but their goal is to make it as painless, even enjoyable, as possible.

Prep school

Before you paint, check out these tips from our experts.

Stock up ahead of time. Instead of running around the hardware store hoping you get all the right supplies, try a preassembled toolkit, like Backdrop’s Essentials Kit, which comes with all the tape, trays, and brushes you’ll need to get the job done.

Try before you buy. Every expert we spoke to agrees—sampling is key. That’s why new direct-to-consumer companies offer low-priced, easy-to-use swatches you can consider in your space before committing.

Get creative. Have a vision: “Do you want it to feel calm and relaxed, energizing and vibrant?” asks Gibbons. ”Try to find colors that channel those vibes.”

Photos by Katelyn Perry

If you ask the judges of WeWork’s second annual Creator Global Finals how they ended up picking the winners of the international entrepreneurship competition, they have two words: “Adam and Ashton.”

Gary Vaynerchuk—entrepreneur, investor, and chairman of media company VaynerX—says actor and investor Ashton Kutcher and WeWork CEO Adam Neumann approached him on the same day. “They said, ‘We need you.’ And I said, ‘I’m in.’”

Kirsten Green, founder of Forerunner Ventures, came onboard in a similar way. “Ashton told me how passionate he is about the work he’s doing with Adam and WeWork, and how he thought this show was special,” she says. “The companies have ambitions and goals in terms of big business but are also about having impact. It’s an honor to come be involved for a few hours.”

Vaynerchuk, Green, and Kutcher were joined on the Microsoft Theater stage in Los Angeles on Jan. 9 by fellow investor (and rapper) Sean Combs to hand out prizes of over $1.7 million to three mission-driven business ventures and one nonprofit in the Global Finals. They explained what they were looking for in the winners.

Know your unique perspective: “The very basic criteria is, how differentiated is the business?” says Green, an early investor in retail brands like Glossier, Outdoor Voices, Dollar Shave Club, and Bonobos. “Are they really playing into a new space in the market? Are they offering an opportunity for business to get done better, both more efficiently and in terms of delivering a better experience?”

“The very basic criteria is, how differentiated is the business?” says Kirsten Green, an early investor in retail brands like Glossier, Outdoor Voices, Dollar Shave Club, and Bonobos.

When she listens to a pitch, she says, she wants to hear an entrepreneur tick off five items: “Define your business; say how it’s different; say what it is today, what it’s going to be in the future, and why you’re the right leader for it.”

Her dream pitch? “If you could figure out how to touch on each of those five things in a way that’s cohesive storytelling in a quick minute, that’s ideal,” she says. “But it’s really hard to do that.”

Think two (or three) steps ahead: The judges took their jobs seriously, looking for flaws that haven’t been considered or opportunities that haven’t been pursued during the Q&A. “That’s when I start poking a little bit,” Vaynerchuk explains of his investment strategy. “What are their reactions? Do they have a grasp of the second move of their business, not just the first?”

But be honest: While Vaynerchuk values leaders who have ready answers, he can easily suss out spin. “Don’t exaggerate something you don’t understand,” he says.

Chloe Alpert, whose medical-technology-resale startup Medinas Health took home $1 million in funding at the awards, had a ready—and honest—answer when Vaynerchuk asked her about hurdles her company had overcome. She told the panel that a subscription fee for hospitals to use their technology hadn’t worked because cash-strapped institutions weren’t interested in laying out an up-front payment for an untested product. When Medinas decided to charge a fee for each transaction performed on their platform, all 12 of the hospitals they’ve approached said yes.

Keep the consumer top of mind: There was an important human element to the winning pitches. Combs asked Rachel Corson, co-founder of London-based Afrocenchix—an affordable, all-natural hair-care line made for black women—why someone should use their products. Corson answered by pointing out the health risks posed by ingredients in many competitors’ lines. “Every single ingredient [in Afrocenchix’s products] does something for the customers,” she explained. Her products don’t add artificial fragrance on the misguided theory that “all black women want to smell like coconut.”

Take your pitch seriously: Talking to these industry giants was nerve-wracking for competitors—especially considering they were doing it on stage in front of 6,000 people. “Gary V. is an absolute marketing god. Kirsten Green, she knows brands,” Alpert says. “Sean Combs, that dude’s a business dude. My co-founder was like, ‘Oh, yeah, music is secondary. That guy knows business.’”

In the moment, standing in front of them, Alpert remembers thinking, “I need them to know the economics. Every time Gary asks a question, it’s a laser. When Green asks a question, that’s like a bomb.”

The judges clearly enjoyed having a crowd witness the kind of conversations that usually happen behind closed doors. After one exchange with Alpert earned her a round of applause, Vaynerchuk leaned back in his chair and looked out into the theater. “It’s more fun to do this with an audience,” he observed.