Kevan’s back from paternity leave! Which makes this the perfect episode to take a break. Listen in on a lively conversation between two colleagues about the value of taking time away from work to see both yourself and your work more clearly. Kevan and Veronica draw on their own and each other’s experience to explore the topic of leaves, trust, identity, and what being a human-centred organization is all about.
What taking a break can teach us about work
Domain7’s Facilitation Practice Lead, Kevan brings wisdom from over a decade of experience leading award-winning digital strategies for a wide variety of institutions and businesses. A seasoned and engaging facilitator and speaker who has been with Domain7 since 2010, Kevan has helped shape our collaborative and people-centric culture. He’s studied design thinking and innovation processes at the THNK School of Creative Leadership.
Veronica is Domain7's Brand and Editorial Director, exploring themes around digital making and human flourishing. A creative leader with rich experience in brand and storytelling for tech, social purpose, and higher education, Veronica enjoys cultivating a deeper understanding of how contemporary technologies can aid and support healthy human connection and create new spaces for meaning to emerge.
Kevan: Welcome to Change is in the Making, Domain7’s podcast where we explore all things digital through the lens of purposeful change. I’m Kevan Gilbert.
Veronica: And I’m Veronica Collins. And together, we’ll be discussing themes of connection-making and culture shaping, delving into how to create meaningful change, from a business standpoint and a human perspective.
Kevan: So, let’s get started! It’s good to be back, Veronica.
Veronica: Welcome back, Kevan! I have missed you. I have been reading that whole intro by myself, and that has just felt strange, and-
Kevan: You have done fantastic with this.
Veronica: Thank you. It is good to have you back after three, three and half months?
Kevan: Three months.
Veronica: Three months! See, it just feels longer.
Kevan: It does. Well today, fittingly enough, we are exploring intermissions.
Kevan: Taking a break.
Veronica: That’s right.
Kevan: Disconnections. And not taking a digital detox where we put down our phones, and delete social media apps, but we’re talking full-on sabbatical mode. Stepping away from computers, calendars, email, slack, work, meetings, production, identity! Colleagues, offices, commutes, and taking an actual break.
What does it look like, what does it feel like to take a long-term break from work? How does it influence organizational and individual help? And what would the impact be if more of us did this?
Veronica: Yeah. As you may guess, listeners, this is partly inspired by the fact that Kevan has just taken an intermission. It’s also a good breather in the middle of our first year of producing this podcast. This is Episode six, I believe? So, just a moment to reflect on this thing that we call work, and what we bring to it.
Before we get started. I know, Kevan, you were talking about it would be wise just to acknowledge that there is privilege involved in being able to take time away from work. I know, even, as a Canadian woman with a lot of American friends, the fact that I’ve been able to take two maternity leaves, and decide how much time I want to take away, up to a year, has felt radical when I’m watching what my friends are going through south of the border. And, there’s different situations in life. People are in different situations and environments. So, I just want to acknowledge that before we get started, that this is a privilege.
Kevan: Yeah. Absolutely. I’ve maybe talked to two other fathers who have taken a paternal leave, and during the time off when I was chatting, especially with older folks, they would shake their heads and be like, “That’s so good. In our generation, we just didn’t know that we could, we just didn’t know it was an option.” And it wasn’t an option.
Veronica: Yeah. I think it depends on the culture you’re in, too. I think at Domain7 we’re not perfect, but I do think there is a good reaction around the idea of putting family first for a season. That’s not points against you as a man, or questioning your commitment. It’s not like, “Oh, where’s your three days off after the baby’s born, and then back to it.” It’s, “Oh, good for Kevan.” That really aligns with our culture. That really aligns with what we believe in terms of the fact that we’re a team of human beings who have human lives, full of diversity and responsibilities and seasons. And whether that’s as a parent, or just as a person, that you would put your life first, and that work is part of that life, but isn’t above it.
Kevan: Yeah. That’s really well said. That’s super-interesting. I feel like, that’s the value of talking about these intermissions. Our context, right now, we’re talking about parental leaves. But, for individuals who don’t have families, the question still exists about sabbaticals or simply time away. Whether it’s unpaid leave that you save up for, or … something longer than a vacation. There’s something there that I’d been wondering about for a lot of years. It happens to be that it’s my seventh year working at Domain7. And, the idea that using that using that seventh year at Domain7 to take some sort of sabbatical is something I had always wanted to do. It just happened to line up with taking a parental leave anyway. And, I’m just curious what our experiences, and the research coming up from this space might say for other people who might want to do things like this, or other organizations that might want to sponsor that, and, the benefits that can happen when you do say yes. They might be unexpected, or off the radar, a little bit underground. It’s not immediately obvious how time away from work benefits work, benefits even the person’s wholeness. And that’s, I think, what we want to talk a little bit about today.
Veronica: Yeah, I agree. I mean, we were just talking about the privilege of taking a break. I think there is this interesting thing that happens for parents, that I wish could happen for everybody. When you are expecting a baby, suddenly it’s like, “Okay, I just have to go pay attention to this for a little while.” At least as the mother.
It’s a forced break. And you can decide to come back pretty quickly if you want. But, at least for a little while, you are usually going to take a break. And it’s interesting that it takes something of that size and importance to wrench you out of it. And, I just, speaking to colleagues at Domain7, some who have kids, some who don’t … I am really interested in, what if the individual is feeling like there’s something inside them that’s calling them to take a break. What would that be like to … you don’t have to have, “Oh, I’m taking a mat leave to take an intentional step away.” And that that wouldn’t be points against you. That wouldn’t be a sign of a lack of commitment. But maybe it just means that you are actually committed to an excellent life. To being an excellent human being.
Kevan: It reminds me of that talk that’s available online from Stefan Sagmeister, the designer who has the firm in New York. His TED talk walks through how he distributed his retirement years intentionally throughout his working years. So, every seven years his firm shuts down for the year. And they take journeys and trips, they stay put. What he had been finding is that, in the year leading up to sabbatical, their creative output is starting to stagnate a little bit. It’s starting to get a little bit repetitive. They’re getting into ruts. And, taking a break was a vital activity to refresh their creative output.
And, coming back from these sabbaticals, they find that the next six or seven years of product ideas, of creative breakthrough, are generated from the inspiration and ideas gathered on these sabbaticals. And it’s this deliberate investment in this divergent exploration. Getting new ideas, changing the rhythm. If any aspect of your work or life has to do with creative output, or innovation, then there is a case to be made for taking a break, so that your influences can widen.
Veronica: I want to ask you, Kevan, what it was like for you? We’ve talked about how different types of leaves could have a lot of common with each other. But looking at your own personal experience, which is really fresh right now. And something I was saying to our good colleague, Tracey the other day was, I remember coming back from my last mat leave, which was not that long ago, it was last fall. And it feels like you’re in this different space. When you first come back, you’ve got fresh eyes, you got a bit of different relationship to your work, your perspective is slightly different. And there’s something that sometimes I’ve felt like after both of my leaves that, I feel like, “There’s something I need to learn before this fresh insight disappears,” you know? ’Cause you know you’re going to get back into the routine, and you’re going to fall into that again. So you, I feel like, still have fresh glasses on. You’ve only been back for, what, a couple of weeks? Two weeks.
Kevan: That’s right.
Veronica: Two weeks. And, yeah. So I just want to capture what that feeling is like for you, or what are the things you’re seeing right now. What was it like while you were away? What was that part of it like?
Kevan: Yeah. Those are great questions. It is interesting coming back. It’s not as if I reached some sort of epiphany while I was away that I can’t wait to share. It’s-
Veronica: Shoot! I was hoping you’d be enlightened, and I could just tap into that.
Kevan: That’s not what I mean. It’s, instead, a frame of mind. A readiness and openness. An ability to listen and notice that now I can bring to what comes next. Do you know what I mean? It’s exactly like you’re saying. It’s only in the season now that I can ask certain questions. And, I identify certain things that I would have been blind to before. Whether it’s my own habits, and assumptions, and routines, and rituals that I bring to my work, or the way our company operates that I now have a different lens on, that I can say … I can ask questions about. But, before, I was just, I was a fish in the fishbowl. I’m caught up in it, and I can’t see the context. So, it’s really limited — there’s a timer on it — point of view, where I’m in it, but still freshly outside of it.
Kevan: You know what parenting’s like. It’s not like I was just on a vacation, although I kind of was. You know? It’s true that I’m not bound by calendar schedules, and email notifications. But there’s still a very full life. So, I didn’t go away to be, “Ahh! I sat on a beach!” But I did completely remove myself from any conversation about work. And with it comes a bit of, almost insecurity coming back. Like, do I have the traction that I had before? Do I have the insight that I had before? Is my identity still what it was when I … what do I do? Do people know who I am? There’s new hires. Just this sense of instability that I find fascinating, because that’s something else to ask questions about, like, “What is up with that? Why would I be feeling insecure? Is work giving me a sense of personal identity security? Is that healthy? Are there other ways I can find identity and security in this world besides my work output?”
Kevan: And just the gift of being able to as questions like, that itself is so valuable, that I might not have noticed because I’m still getting that validation, and the dopamine hits of positive feedback that happen through work-life. Instead of feeling like, “I have a life separate from what I produce at work, and they get to be friends with each other, but it’s not needing to be one in the same.”
Veronica: Did you feel that intensity while you were away? Or is this sort of mix of… this little storm of discovery happening only now that you’re coming back? Or were you on pat leave with your four children in the beautiful hills of Kelowna, feeling some of this?
Kevan: No, I was just present with family. I wasn’t really worrying much about work. It is coming back that I’m asking myself more, what my contribution can be. How I can show up. What I can contribute to in ways that are meaningful. And, it’s that where I have a chance to let go of a little ego to see what else can grow around me. I mean, that was one of the neatest things to notice about being gone for three months is, it’s long enough that other people needed to take over, where I might have otherwise stepped in. And when I see people doing a fantastic job of leading, and leaning into areas where otherwise I might have accidentally been blocking their contribution. But now, new leaders are enabled by my absence, and that just creates an opportunity for a whole new level of game. Now, it’s not just me stepping back into what I did before, but we’ve got more competence, more capability on the team, or confidence around us from people who have had to do what I was doing.
And, what area we going to do with that? It’s so great. We’ve got a new level of skill, and I get to ask myself questions of like, “Okay, what’s my next contribution?” ’Cause, if I was comfortably sitting in an area “A” before, we now share that. So there gets to be new things that is a push for having to find the next level of contribution.
Veronica: Yeah. It’s interesting. I like that you’re using the word “contribution.” Which is something I feel that the group I work with at Domain7 does … is think in terms of “contribution.” There is not a lot of language around trajectory. It’s not as linear-focused. It’s more about, you’re trying to figure out what you bring, and not like, “Oh, was my place usurped?” Or, like, “Am I still on the track?” Which I think is just a much healthier way to approach it.
And I feel like that’s something that probably a lot of people, a lot of women experience, coming back after mat leaves, after leaves is … “What next?” ’Cause things don’t stay static while you’re gone. I think there’s something about creating this space here, that’s on the organization and on the team to say, “Look, Kevan’s going to come back. Let’s create a space for him. Let’s make sure that we’re ready to hit the ground running with him, and welcome him in where he’s always belonged, without it having to be frozen in time.” That’s a really tricky balance. I don’t know if I have that figured out.
Kevan: It strikes me that the commitment of an organization to hold the space, or hold the place for somebody who’s not there. It’s maybe uncommon. It just sounds like a really beautiful practice. And, to imagine an organization that is accustomed to keeping in its collective consciousness, the possible contributions of everybody that is in its employ. Like, you are an organization because you’re made up of people. And, if you can have that sense of somebody’s here, somebody’s coming back. It’s just more of this team fabric that sometimes is missing when we reduce our organization structures to just widgets, and bits, and blocks, and people who do roles that are interchangeable. It’s instead about the person’s unique contribution, and how that fits.
Veronica: You’re articulating that it’s more about what you bring. And, no one can ever replace anyone else, in terms of what someone brings. But, in order to see what someone brings, you have to really see the person. So, again, it’s back to that team health, and that ability to bring your whole self to work, and the ability to be seen and understood. And then, to work in the right niche for you. And that’s always going to be needed. That’s never going to be replaced.
Kevan: How did you find doming back to Domain7 after your leave that ended in the fall?
Veronica: Yeah, it’s a good question. I was trying to think back now. I have the work goggles firmly on now that it’s been almost a year. I came back part-time. So I came back two days a week before full year was up, just to ease back in. And, one of the things I benefited from, if I can say this without flattering. But with sincere appreciation, I worked very closely with you of course, and that you had held that space for me.
So, we had a wonderful person come in and cover my mat leave. Just an amazing writer and researcher. And, she did an excellent job. But I felt like at every stage of my mat leave that I knew that I was waiting to be welcomed back, like that the team was waiting to welcome me back. And, that was very intentional on your part.
Kevan: You know, we use the word “leave” and “vacation.” It all sounds like an absence. Like a taking off. Like an abandoning. And yet, it sounds like we’re saying the keys to a successful leave are actually retained, but at that presence, where the employee, the employer that you’re stepping away from continues to see you as present in a way. And that you yourself retain a bit of presence or engagement with your organization. It’s not a peace-out, I’m outta here. It’s almost a fondness in the absence. And, it seems to be a way to just let that person return to being who they need to be, doing what they need to do, with full respect and acknowledgement that as they return, there will be that welcoming back into a present engagement.
And, I gotta say that, in terms of what makes successfully engaged employees. There’s people talking about mastery, autonomy, and purpose. But what better way to grant that, than to let people have a good old, grown-up leave once in a while?
Veronica: Yeah. And I would say even … I think the flip side of that is that, as the person on leave, there will be times that you feel like you are fully enmeshed in a different life. Or, at least I felt that way. Maybe I shouldn’t speak for everyone.
Kevan: Well, I would identify with that.
Veronica: And, for that to be okay … I think there were moments where I was, “I love my work, and I feel like I’ve found the company that I click with.” But, I’m not sure what the future holds. There were times on my mat leave where I was so in the stream of … and, again, little kids are very … all-demanding, right? So, it’s a very physical, very mental game that you’re in when you have a baby and a toddler.
And, it’s very in the moment. You’re very present in the moment, doing what you’re doing, and after hours, days, weeks, months of that, you can start to feel this interesting … you’re in a different identity in a different life, and you can remember your work life as like, “Oh yeah! That thing that I really enjoy doing, and that team that I really enjoy, and I’m so glad that they’re holding space for me. But, I wonder how this is going to all shake out, you know?”
Right now, I’m a different zone. And for that to be okay, because … I think that we so rarely have the courage to … we talk about “unplugging,” but to actually allow ourselves to full flesh and blood be in the moment that way. And to let things go a little bit in terms of knowing exactly what the roadmap is. You can’t really have self-discovery unless you let go of some of those maps, I think.
So I think with my first leave, which was not with Domain7, but I was much more concerned about getting it right. Like about re-entering the workforce, and about how I was going to model this for my daughter, and how I needed to signal my commitment. And I think with my second one, I just let go a little bit more. I was just like, “You know what? I am enjoying where I am at, but I am also experiencing this season of life. And I am going to experience it fully. And when the moment comes to return, we will meet that moment then.” Just sort of meet each moment as a friend, instead of trying too hard to be something. To be the parent who will return, or to be the person who knows what they’re doing with their life. I think there is something to be said for sometimes not knowing, and letting yourself, just be.
Kevan: That’s super-well said. I feel like, at some point as you’re describing that, it becomes clear that we’re not just talking about leaves during a season, we’re talking about the lives that we lead in conjunction with the work that we do. Right? Because, you’re describing a connection and a presence of the world around you that is not work. And, I don’t know, I just feel like I’m having so many conversations these days with people whose lives precede and have a great deal of beauty, sadness, and difficulty, and reality. And, the need to hold that space for you, to have that experience, while still doing the plain old job. It’s not meant to diminish the meaning of passion that can be inherent in the work, but to give the space and time you need for acknowledging who you are in those other spaces, and not demanding that somehow they’re unified, or they’re the same.
Veronica: I think we’ve had some conversations prior to this, Kevan, about how I really struggle with all the articles that are like, “Make sure your employees are happy, because then you will be a more profitable business.” Which is true. Like, absolutely. Thriving individuals, thriving business. Makes sense, and that needs to be pointed out.
But sometimes it just feels like, “Is that the best we can do?” Is the best we can do is to say, “Well, be good to your people so you make more money.” No, that’s not what we teach our kids, right? That’s not what we believe about the world we want to live in. It’s, be good to people. And stop. Including yourself. Live good lives. The only reason that we do any of this stuff that we do is to build healthy lives, including what our businesses are doing, right? Like, hopefully.
And I love … we’ve talked about this before too, but I love that Shawn Neumann, our CEO/founder … he’s a very mild-mannered person. But I think the only time I’ve seen him get really passionate about something, and a little bit on a rant, is this idea of, “It doesn’t matter if the purpose of your company is great. That, at the end of the day, what matters is the people who work for you, the people who are part of your company … what is their quality of life like? If you are punishing them in order to change the world, I’m sorry, you’re not changing … well you are, but you’re not changing the world for the better.
“Forget being a purpose-led organization, and be a people-centric organization. Be a human-centric organization instead.”
Kevan: Yeah. I feel like that point of view can be really hard to accurately capture and camp out on. Because it goes against so much of what gets preached and modeled in our workplaces. And yet, I think, as we’re exemplified by the ability … we’ve had to go on these leaves. The perspective for bringing back, and just, what you’re bringing up about Shawn’s leadership here. There is something, next generation, that awaits the way our business is organized, that do put the value of people first, and not in an exploitative way. To say as you’re saying, “Treat your people well, so that you can be more efficient, and economical. Treat your people well, because the impact it will have in doing so will make an incredible contribution.”
One of the articles that talks about that so well, that Shawn has actually referenced a bunch last year, was talking about Norway’s Halden prison. It’s a high-security prison in Norway. But, the guards don’t carry weapons. The inmates can mingle with the guards, even be in the kitchen preparing food with knives. And, there’s some really great articles to walk through exactly why that is the way it is.
But, in one particular article, it’s a New York Times one from 2015. There’s an interview with one of the guards, where the guard is explaining that in officer training school, guards are taught that treating inmates humanely is something they should do not for the inmates, but for themselves. And the quote goes, “The theory is that if officers are taught to be harsh, domineering, and suspicious, it’ll ripple outward in their lives, affecting their self-image, their families, even Norway as a whole.” Chris Offerson, the guard, cited a line that is usually attributed to Dostoevsky: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” And we modify that here to say, by entering its workforces. You know, your decision to be harsh and domineering and suspicious is gonna infiltrate your team, and infiltrate back to their individual lives, and infect the places that we live. If you wanted to have an impact on making a healthy society, it starts with the attitudes you encourage your teams to hold, and your workplaces to foster.
Veronica: Yeah. I love what you’re saying there. I think it’s ironic that we are talking about prisons, when we’re talking about work. But it’s not so crazy far off. One of the things that I am still taken aback by … I’ve had the privilege in working in, the nonprofit sector, and in tech for quite a while. So, this is still a little bit of a surprise to me, because those areas quite often have been a bit of the forefront of humanizing the work environment a bit.
But, I’m still taken aback by how much we infantalize people at work. How much we treat people like children, and not in a good way. Especially in large corporations, that we still seem to have … and I don’t know of all the answers, but we still seem to have a long way to go. And, what you’re describing there is this, again, this psychological safety that Shawn is so good at nurturing, where you see the person as a whole person. As an adult. As somebody who you can trust.
And I’m thinking about this story that I saw earlier this week about Mary Barra, who is the CEO of General Motors.
And the way that she approached changing the culture, the first thing she changed was their dress code. Which is really a funny place to start. But, a very important one in terms of gender. But, it was 10 pages long. Many of these large corporations, a 10 page long dress code, she changed it to two words: “Dress appropriately.”
And, she got scathing emails from senior leaders who were like, “How are my employees supposed to know how to dress, if you just tell them to dress appropriately?” And it’s kind of humorous reading the article, because the absence of trust in that fear. The absence of seeing people as people. And her answer was, “Please just talk to your teams. Have a conversation with them. Get them in the room. And if you’re really actually worried about them not knowing how to dress appropriately, talk to them.” And in order to do that, you have to engage with the whole person. And see them not just as a number, or not just as this label, “employee,” who must be managed. But as this individual.
So I think there is really something here around … when I first came to Domain7, one of the phrases I heard tossed around a lot, that I was relieved and bewildered by, was the phrase, “Bring your whole self to work. We want you to feel like you can bring your whole self to work.” And what I’ve seen over three years is, people do that. They bring the fact that their child is in hospital right now. They bring the fact that their dad just died. They bring the fact that their relationship has fallen apart.
And, we walk alongside them with that to different degrees. You know, different people have different privacy needs and thresholds, and have different needs for the community involvement. But, that is not just allowed, that is encouraged, to be a messy human being, and also a mature human being, who might know to put a pair of dress slacks on if you need to meet with somebody. But, yeah, I feel like there’s a gap there that we’re still trying to close in corporate culture.
Kevan: That is so well-said, Veronica. I loved that. From the GM story, to the way you’re contextualizing that to the selves that we all steward. The people that we are. This isn’t a conversation about just intermissions, temporarily focus on things in your world. But that your world will continue, even when you’re back at work. And, that our workplace cultures have a chance to synchronize a little bit with the reality that people are bringing to work.
And, I don’t know, when we’ve been asking the question of like, “Why does this topic fit on the podcast?” To me, it’s because, if we’re going to have a conversation on this podcast, about themes like organizational design. Or, innovation. Or, the way technology connects us. Then, to me, we can’t have that without going a little more deeply into the reality of what we’ve trying to become. Who we are as people. What’s not brought to the table at work, because we’ve been having to leave it stranded and abandoned in our personal lives.
It’s not just because we actively do believe that healthier, more innovative solutions are going to come through syncing that up. But, as I was saying. It’s a pathway to a healthier everything, that is far beyond what your organization could ever hope to achieve by denying the humanity of its employees.
Veronica: So, Kevan, I am remembering that before you went on paternity leave … I don’t remember how much before … but we wrote this piece together where I interviewed you, because I noticed that in our quarterly goals that we shared with each other as a team. One of yours was to take care of yourself so you could sustain your energy levels. And it was such an interesting business goal that somebody made, personal well-being, a business goal to actually quantify, and to report back on it at the end of the quarter.
And that piece was really popular, and it was what you found in doing that. And, I’m wondering if with this new season that you’ve walked through being away, if you have any sort of resolutions or practices where you were like, these are things that I would like to put into place, or things I’d like to work on, that we could maybe circle back in a few months, and ask you how that went.
Kevan: That’s a good question. I think what comes to mind when you ask that is just the … I would say this. I resolve to notice people. Here’s what I mean. When I was coming back after these three months away, and was going through emails and slack messages, trying to get the picture of the company that had, we had become in may absence. The stuff that was highest signal for me was the news about our individuals. New people joining. People who had had significant experiences in their lives.
And finally, above any news about clients, or sales goals, or launches in production, the stuff that was most meaningful to me was people news. And then also, I was trying to pay attention to what people would say to me, like, “We’re happy to have you back.” Why were they saying that? And what were they finding that they missed about me? And, what I was hearing was themes like, my ability to encourage people. And, I just found that so fascinating. And it made me consider that going forward, how can I put a little less attachment to the output itself. Not saying that I’m going to do a worse job on what I create, but to see the people around me as being maybe the primary focus of my work, in the tasks that we’re doing together. Which is just a hypothesis I have right now. I’d like to see how that shakes out. But in what ways can my daily work life be more about people, or people on the pathway to doing these jobs that we do. So, it’s something that I’m curious about.
Veronica: I love that. And, yourself as a person as well that is worthy of attention in the work process. We were talking about paying more attention to what we bring. What our contribution is. Then, exactly how that is accepted, or where we reach on a ladder. I think, listening to Shawn, I often think that he is saying that the people matter more than anything. And, I often think, it sounds like he’s saying, “People are not a means to an end. They are the ends in and of themselves.”
Veronica: And that includes yourself at work. And, it’s a different way of stepping in to this space that we call work. And it makes work not so separate from our life after all. Maybe it’s not leave. Maybe it’s just all one big whole thing.
Kevan: I love that! With the leave, it helps create wholeness.
All right, well that concludes our episode for today. Thanks for tuning in. We hope you enjoyed today’s conversation, and that you’ll join us for upcoming episodes as we continue to tackle the complex challenges we face as digital makers, simply as human beings at this technological moment in time.
Veronica: You can find upcoming episodes at Domain7.com/podcast, where you can sign up for our newsletter. You can also find us on Medium at The Connection. And follow us on Twitter @Domain7. You can also drop us a line with ideas or feedback. I’m Veronica@Domain7.com, and Kevan is Kevan@Domain7.com. Thanks so much for listening.
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