We all know the COVID crisis has impacted women disproportionately. According to the Center for American Progress, “women have lost a net of 5.4 million jobs during the pandemic-induced recession compared with 4.4 million lost by men. And women with children have been hit especially hard. Study after study has shown that in response to school, child care, and camp closings, as well as reduced hours and reduced class sizes, significantly more women than men have reduced their work hours, left work to care for children, and spent more time on education and household tasks.” As a result, the Center for American Progress estimates, “the risk of mothers leaving the labor force and reducing work hours in order to assume caretaking responsibilities amounts to $64.5 billion per year in lost wages and economic activity.”
There finally seems to be a glimmer of light at the end of the COVID tunnel. You would think this would bring deep, pervasive relief to all of us, and especially to women. Instead, coupled with the relief that we may be coming out of the pandemic’s darkest stage, I consistently hear dread in the voices of my community of working women. Across all industries, cohorts, and levels of seniority, there’s a similar concerning sentiment: “I’m afraid they’re going to make me go back to the way it was before.”
Here’s the thing: how we worked before COVID didn’t always work for us. Expectations around how to work often didn’t fit with how women actually live, work and parent. One unexpected consequence of COVID is that it “dis-assembled” work: no power suit — or armor, as one woman put it– no commute, no boundaries, a complete intersection of work and life, no business trips, no 3-day team meetings. Now that it’s time to re-assemble work, women are concerned that “they” will make them return to norms that didn’t always work for them before.
The lack of agency inherent in the statement is troubling (who is “they?”). What if we have more agency than we think? What if we can transform this dread into initiative? What if we have, today, a unique opportunity to put work back together in a way that works better for us? I am encouraged by the emerging national conversation about the future of work. But let’s not wait for “them” to help fashion how work will be for us. Instead, let’s start taking action to shape how we will work going forward, and trust that the sum of a bunch of next right actions will culminate in transformation.
Four things you can start doing right now to re-assemble work in a way that works better for you:
- Get clear about what you want
Invest the time in writing down what worked for you about work-life during COVID and what didn’t. Make a list of specifics that made your life more joyful or even just more manageable. Don’t stop there, though. Get underneath and examine your work beliefs as well. For example, have you changed how you think about work-life balance? Have you evolved about how much of your humanity you let bleed into work (think kids and pets in the background)? Have you changed your mind about what a day looks like and when work fits within it?
- Embrace your agency
From entry-level to very senior, women across the seniority spectrum have sat across from me on zoom and told me they feel they have no control over what re-entry will look like for them and their colleagues. I’m calling cop-out on this one. We will never transform how we work-live if we don’t acknowledge that we have agency over our choices. We can, in fact, pick our consequences. Choose not to upset the apple cart and accept that work will look pretty much like it did before, or start cementing some minor changes understanding that you may get some push back. Either choice is fine; just know that you chose it.
- Understand when you need forgiveness vs. when you need permission
Very early in my career, I was sitting outside an executive’s office waiting for a meeting and took to chatting with his secretary. I mentioned to her that I was thinking of asking for permission to leave early on Friday afternoons to watch my toddler’s swim lesson. Rene, a seasoned C-suite executive assistant, said to me: “Don’t you dare do that, missy. Don’t you realize that these guys go to the gym in the middle of the day practically every day? And that he (pointing to her boss’ closed door) works from home on Fridays?” (This was way before working from home was a thing). I followed her advice. I went to the swim lessons on Friday afternoons and took my phone with me. I never asked for permission. It was fine.
Once you decide on a short list of actions you want to commit to to re-assemble work in a way that works for you, look at the list critically and ask yourself: “Do I really have to ask for permission to do that?” Most of the time, the answer is no. Leave the permission asking for the big stuff.
- Know your non-negotiable
Let’s be practical. You’re not going to get everything you want. Take your list and identify one thing – one single thing – that is your non-negotiable. That could be working one day from home. Or home every day at five. Or no meetings before nine so you have time to meditate and move your body. Or 20 minutes for lunch so you can take a breath. Write your non-negotiable down on a post-it and stick it on your computer. Unless there is some sort of existential crisis, commit to sticking to it. And remember, no need to ask permission.
Working in a way that works for us will not only introduce more joy and fulfillment into our work-lives, it is also likely to make us more productive in service of our employers. COVID has given us a unique opportunity to re-assemble work in a way that works better for us and for everyone coming after us. Can we take the next right action?
We’ll be continuing this conversation with a new series on LinkedIn focused on the #NextRightAction. Stay tuned for more! In the meantime, comment below to share your thoughts, connect with me on LinkedIn or email email@example.com if you’re passionate about committing to positive change.
Martellus is a specialized consulting network of women executives who have chosen to work flexibly and are ready to partner with your company to deliver results in areas where we have deep functional expertise, including almost every core marketing and customer experience function. Whether you have a specific project assignment or need help filling an interim role, we can help.