Returning Without Regressing: Opportunities for a More Equitable Post-Pandemic Future

Lia Garvin

May 11, 2020

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I'm going to let you in on a little secret. I wore yoga pants to work before the quarantine. And the bigger secret was that I was still able to deliver great work in my office job. My hope is that there are a range of silver linings that can surface from quarantine life and the total disruption that COVID-19 has caused, one of those silver linings being permission to get your work done in the way that works best for you.

The New York Times had a fantastic Op-Ed piece a few weeks ago called What Moms Always Knew About Working From Home. It talked at length about the bias in modern workplaces towards face time in the office, often penalizing working mothers for needing to take care of family obligations. As women typically bear a greater burden of the family care-taking, this bias is predominantly directed at them. But what we always knew was that you could be just as productive in designing your own schedule. We always knew that leaving at 3:30pm to pick up kids, and signing back online in the evening to finish a project had no reflection on the output of the work. Still, a disparity in the amount of "face time" in the office has had the impact of setting men and women on very different tracks.

This was, of course, the reality until this pandemic turned our lives upside down, and we all were dropped head first into flexible schedules without any office face time. Moms, dads, well-trained goldendoodles, you name it, were all thrown into roles of caretakers and teachers, and have had to jump in and just figure it out. With women holding 75% of healthcare jobs, men in these households are having to fill these caregiving roles in numbers we haven't seen since WWII. Parents all across the world are gaining an appreciation for the incredible patience teachers have, and how undervalued their work is in our society. So with the virus bringing a spotlight onto experiences that had often previously been kept in the dark, we're left with the opportunity to come out of this in a more equitable place as a society than we went into it.

Let's explore three opportunities to reframe the pre-coronavirus conception of working norms. I encourage you -- challenge you even(!) -- to take action to make these real.

Looking the part

As visual animals, we notice how people present themselves. In fact, in the book Atomic Habits by James Clear, he states that 1/2 of the brain's resources are dedicated to vision. Clear shares this example to discuss the importance of curating your environment in support of the behaviors you want to establish and reinforce as habits, and it is equally relevant in terms of creating the visual cues to demonstrate you have your shit together.

But as a society we've become obsessed with "looking the part," so much so that we promote taller men into CEO positions at higher rates, and make brash judgements about people we work with based on what they are wearing. Women are overwhelmingly subject to more scrutiny on their appearance than men. In scenarios ranging from the commentary of how political figures dress to focusing on what actresses are wearing on the Oscars red carpet, the fixation on appearance feels unescapable.

Now, in a world full of more video conference calls than we know what to do with, how we look is extending further than our physical appearance. We're getting a window into people's homes and personal spaces, a window that many of us don't necessarily feel safe to open. While some of us are happily snapping pictures of our cushy quarantine office setups, others do not even have a stable internet connection to take a video call, or a private space in our house to work from.

Does how we dress, style our hair, and the tidiness with which we keep our home office reflect in any way our ability to do great work? NO.

Then let's use quarantine as an opportunity to reset our expectations of ourselves and each other. As we find ourselves opening our laptops at 11pm while laying in bed next to a pint of Ben & Jerry's, logged in to finish a presentation due first thing the next morning, let's remember that great work can happen anywhere, in any pair of raggedy sweatpants.

Consider hosting virtual meetings where people do not have to have their video playing, or setting up opportunities for more asynchronous communication. In an effort to start to reduce the focus we have on appearance, be mindful of commenting on what people are wearing or how their hair is styled, and comment on the great work that they did. Trade comments like "you look comfortable" (which is never appropriate or welcome) for "the points you made in your report were really clear and compelling" (which is specific and actionable, shoutout to Kim Scott's Radical Candor feedback model). Let's reframe from a focus on appearance to a focus on someone's work quality and contribution, and watch as we see new bright and brilliant stars start to emerge.

Modeling allyship

While we're at it, let's model inclusion - and take direct action to make safe spaces for others to occupy. Allyship is the act of taking action to create opportunities to others who might not have them. It's about recognizing the privilege you might have in a moment or circumstance and lending it to another who does not have that same privilege. Because allyship is anchored to taking action, it doesn't mean just thinking good thoughts, but in actually doing something about it.

With more men home from work than we've seen in the last 75 years, there is a real opportunity to be allies to women, who disproportionately carry the home and care-taking responsibilities. This does not mean just giving permission to team members to take care of their families. It means not only stepping into the role of a home-schooling parent, but sharing that information with your teams, and setting the expectation that family comes first. It means blocking off your care-taking hours in your calendar, and setting work-life boundaries that your team can follow. Men, you cannot leave this on the shoulders of our women caretakers - step up and step out, own it. Make it safe for men to do this, and others will follow.

Trust your team members to do the right things, and to be able to manage their time. And then ask them continually if they need support. Everyone is having their own unique experience of quarantine life and social distancing, and while one person in a team might be drowning in home-schooling their three children, another person might be living alone and have more time on their hands than they've ever had in their lives. Allyship is recognizing that someone else needs support, and then offering help. If you have extra bandwidth, work with a team member to offload something, making it clear there will be space for them when they return. This is a moment to be humble, not to land grab or resent others who need support.

Make it safe to ask for help, model grace in giving it.

Flexibility first

I mentioned the pressure around "face time" in the office, and the possibility of rethinking the importance of that in this new remote world. The key here is to really tease out what is working better right now, in a reality where so many things are much, much more difficult.

In a recent episode of Sam Harris's podcast "Waking Up," he interviewed Matt Mullenweg, the CEO of Automattic, about the future of work as remote working becomes more of a norm. This is the company that owns properties like Wordpress and Tumblr, and operates with a 100% distributed workforce. Mullenweg described a five-level framework for thinking about working from home, ranging from level 1: having no real working-from-home setup and real work is saved to when we get back into the office, to level 5: distributed work allows you to do things you never could have done when working in a physical office, opening up new avenues of productivity and creativity. This includes having a home office setup with all of the sights, sounds, and smells that help you be productive, along with the ability to break up the day to tailor to your personal needs. We have an opportunity in this new future, to unlock our imagination around the unlimited potential of distributed work, making this "level 5" way of working a reality.

The fundamental assumption of a remote-only environment is that managers trust their employees. No remote working environment can survive without this. If we commit to giving people responsibility, and allow them to step up and deliver great work, we build trust over time. We can then also commit to letting go of our need for control over every minute in our employees' days. This is a good thing, but it requires some up-front work. Fortunately, so many of us have been thrown into working remotely literally overnight, that we have had no other choice but to make it work.

By embracing flexibility as a first principle, we demonstrate that we trust our employees, colleagues, and team members to get things done. Along the journey to establishing trust, it's completely fine and encouraged to put some processes in place to set clear parameters around expectations. Consider the levels of communication you need in order to feel like there is sufficient insight into people's work and output, and then run an experiment. Maybe a team shares their top three priorities for the week, maybe there's a daily team meeting, maybe people share a recap of what they accomplished at the end of each week - all of these lightweight tools can help create an environment that is both flexible and not the wild wild west. It is ok to still have expectations -- in fact, clear expectations are even more important in flexible environments. To quote the goddess of all things leadership, courage, and vulnerability, Brené Brown, "Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind."

I mentioned experimentation, and it's worth calling out more explicitly, because if #quarantinelife has taught us anything, it's that we might have to throw a whole boatload of noodles at the wall to see what sticks. Another tenet of flexibility is experimentation, and trying different things to discover what works, as opposed to coming in with one solution and sticking with it come hell or high water. This is also referred to as the Growth Mindset, and is something that's important to adopt and practice now more than ever, in moments of so much stress and change. Growth Mindset is the belief that people can grow, learn, and change; as opposed to Fixed Mindset believing that people are hardwired to be a certain way and are who they are.

Growth Mindset is flexibility in a nutshell. It allows us to be both resilient and adaptable to what we are faced with, and carry forward the new realities and norms that we find to serve us best into our new future. Whether our life is completely unrecognizable or just a shade different, this pandemic has changed all of us in some way. Coming out of this situation, let's let flexibility in how we work and when we work become the reality. Let's not penalize people for having lives, children, pets, hobbies, appointments, continuing education, mental health, physical fitness, musical talents, spiritual or religious traditions, nutritional needs... whatever it is - and let's trust that our teams and employees will do the hard work they've always been doing, from wherever and whenever it needs to be.

A new normal

I strongly believe that in order to find the opportunities for a better future, it's critical to recognize something has changed in the first place, as much stress as it might cause to acknowledge it. There is so much of the experience that we may want to leave behind and never think about again. For me, it will be the walks to the kitchen every hour on the hour to eat what should have been a week's worth of quarantine snacks in one sitting. But this experience might have brought forward things we do want to keep. This is not an exercise of making lemonade out of lemons, but in exploring the many dimensions of a complex experience.

I welcome you to consider the potential of new opportunities across the three areas we explored, and share others as well. Stay strong and healthy out there, we will get through this. And we'll do it in yoga pants.

Opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily those of WITI.

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