I’ve always considered myself a planner, but during this period of social distancing, my brain is in overdrive. The next business trip, the next big work event, and my daughter’s fifth-grade graduation are all completely up in the air. I can’t allow myself to think ahead to the excitement of her starting a new school in the fall, and I can’t give my team a solid direction on what to plan for three or six months from now. We simply don’t know.
As I work to shut down these thoughts of uncertainty, my mind goes to dark places. So many sick, so many dying, and so many affected immensely by the economic impact of COVID-19. But one thing that I’ve found helpful is thinking about what positives may come from this challenging time.
The past two-plus months of remote work has given the world a closer look at the juggling act that parents—and especially working mothers—are expected to take on. I feel optimistic that this new level of understanding will lead to increased empathy and more realistic expectations on the part of businesses, which in turn will make it easier for women to thrive in leadership roles.
When I present to an audience on the topic of women in leadership, I often ask people to raise a hand if they have a child. Then I ask people to keep their hand up if they were ever asked as expectant parents if they were planning to go back to work after their child was born. No man has ever kept his hand up. And I can’t recall a time that a woman has taken hers down.
When we ask this question, we imply that there will be a choice to be made—but only for women. Will you go back to work, or will you be a good parent? From a very young age our girls start to ponder this question, and it becomes self-limiting as we advance our careers. You can’t do both well is the implied message. (Men don’t get these messages, but they get equally damaging ones—work hard and get ahead, and when the kids come, help out when you can.)
But now we are in the time of COVID-19, and the messages and roles we all play at work and home are thrown out the door. Unless you are in an essential job, you are at home. And your kids are at home, too. Everyone is trying to manage the balance in any way they can. Parents are taking turns juggling work Zoom calls with school Zoom calls, cooking meals, and mowing lawns. It’s all hands on deck to get the jobs done, and whoever is free has to make it so.
Remember when the BBC video circulated of the guy being interviewed on camera and his kid ran in the room behind him? We were both humored and horrified. How embarrassing to have your kid interrupt you while doing something very important at work! Now in the time of COVID-19, not a day goes by where I don’t say hello to someone’s kid on Zoom or attempt to introduce their dog to mine. We have virtual happy hours with our spouses and welcome coworkers virtually into our messy living rooms. We have quickly come to a common understanding of the stress involved in balancing work with home. More importantly, we allow it to be okay to struggle with the juggle on a regular basis.
I’ve been proud to be part of teams that care about “work-life balance” in the past, but for the first time in my career, our executive team conversations about how we make sure employees take care of their own wellness has become an extremely high priority on our corporate agenda.
In no way are we taking off the pressure and expectations to perform, but we’re doing it in a way that genuinely acknowledges the bigger picture of employees’ full lives. Never in the time of COVID-19 would we imply that an employee must make a choice between caring for kids at home or getting their work done. We know which choice necessity would require them to make. Instead, we revise our policies and reactions in this new normal to genuinely make room for both.
The real question is whether or not this new normal will become the forever normal. Will women really be able to walk out of the office at 3:30 p.m. on a weekly basis to coach soccer without worrying about what management thinks? Can men skip a day of work to care for a sick child without the feeling they really should be at the office? Can we all make choices to be present in our personal lives without having to decide to take a step back in our career ambitions? I believe we are getting a step closer to this new normal.
This new normal could have a lasting effect on how we think about roles and the messages we give our kids about their future choices. Having more diversity in leadership positions is good for us all, just as having one or both parents actively parenting at home is best for our kids. No one, regardless of gender, should ever be made to feel they have to choose between pursuing a big career and being a good and present parent. As we are doing in this time of COVID-19, let’s collectivity work to create a mindset that allows for both—forever.
Stacey Epstein is the chief marketing and customer experience officer at ServiceMax.