Three weeks ago, I was naively planning my son’s third trip to Disney World. It would be our last trip before we became a family of four, and he was FINALLY old enough to be properly excited for the rides, the characters, and the Mickey Mouse shaped waffles. In the background, I’d been keeping tabs on the mysterious “coronavirus,” certain that it wouldn’t affect our plans. It was in Asia, the west coast, New York. Orlando, Florida felt safe. Until just a few days before we were scheduled to leave, and suddenly it felt like nothing was, in fact, safe. With a swiftness that could give you whiplash, it seemed everything was cancelled – work conferences, social events, the NBA season, my son’s school. Eventually, our vacation plans succumbed to the virus too.
What came next will be hard to describe to any generation that didn’t live it. Within days, thousands of people became ill and flooded our hospitals, urgent care centers, and doctors’ offices. Businesses shut down and entire states were ordered to “shelter in place,” only permitted to leave their homes for essential activities. Hundreds of thousands of people lost their jobs overnight, and those lucky enough to keep their employment were suddenly forced to find new ways to work while “socially distanced” from their colleagues, families and friends. It’s not hyperbolic to say that we live in a whole new world.
I’m a full-time remote worker and have been for more than a year. For me, the day-to- day of how I work and communicate with my colleagues hasn’t changed. What has changed is that now I’m working while my husband and son are at home, too. I’m learning to work while also navigating their schedules, teaching my son to read, write and do math, cook three square meals a day and wash so. many. dishes.
What’s also changed is that so many others I communicate with on a daily basis – clients, vendors, and colleagues – are doing the same. Everyone from CEOs to secretaries are suddenly finding themselves in the same boat – trying their best to balance their professional and personal responsibilities, most without the resources they’ve come to rely on for help – family, home workers, caregivers and schools.
Of the many observations I’ve made since the world turned topsy turvy, the one that has struck me the most is how work/life conflict has been democratized in ways that were unimaginable just a few short weeks ago. This virus has no regard for age, race, religion, wealth, or occupation. We are all vulnerable, and none of us can afford to take chances. So we all sit at home day after day trying to make our new lives work. We all struggle to dial in to the conference call. We all get interrupted by screaming children demanding snacks. We all have to pitch in to do laundry, mop floors, and cook meals.
For many, this is perhaps the first time they’ve been exposed to everything that goes into maintaining a household and raising and educating children, while also excelling at work. They’re learning what many more of us have known for a long time: it’s not a balancing act. It’s an impossibility.
But amid the chaos, exhaustion and anxiety we’re all feeling, I’m hopeful that we can also leverage the opportunities we’re being presented with after this crisis has ended.
I’m hopeful that organizations will finally begin to value remote workers, instead of penalizing or questioning them. Study after study shows that employees who work from home are more productive, more engaged, and less likely to leave their jobs. Giving employees autonomy and control over when and how they work will not only make them happier, it will make them better, more valuable employees, and it will position organizations to deliver better products and services in smarter, more innovative ways.
I’m hopeful that leaders will become more empathetic and recognize the artificial lines we impose between work and family, health and other personal demands. Far too many employees feel the need to hide aspects of their personal lives that might signal anything less than total commitment to work or highlight that they’re somehow “different.” This virus has leveled the playing field and exposed the truth, which is that we’re all humans with hopes, commitments, fears, struggles, vulnerabilities and triumphs. The more we’re able to bring these pieces of ourselves to work, the better off we will all be.
I’m hopeful that we will finally begin to make progress on much needed policy reforms around paid leave, affordable childcare, and accessible healthcare. And, that we will finally start to value the “invisible,” unpaid work taking place inside the home in the same way we value the paid work outside of it.
Mostly, I’m hopeful that we will not forget the lessons of this time and that we will never again take for granted the small things that make life so worthwhile – hugging a family member close, traveling to new places, going to a movie theater, playing with our kids in the park. And hope, as they say, is merely passion for what is possible.
What are you hopeful for?