19 Apr 2021
Work-Life Choices: Keeping Pace And Staying Sane in A Remote Work World
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In September 2020, six months after COVID-19 first sent shockwaves through the global workforce.
McKinsey released its annual “Women in the Workplace” report. The report described the gains made by women between 2015 (when the first edition was released) and 2020 and noted that women were facing heightened stress levels at work and home thanks to the pandemic. The result, they said, was that a disproportionate number of women were considering either downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce altogether. The pandemic was on track to set female workforce representation back by nearly a decade.
We’re now thirteen months into COVID, and McKinsey’s prediction is proving accurate. Minorities, particularly women minorities, were not just harder hit by the job losses early in the pandemic; they were also largely excluded from the economic recovery that reversed job losses for other demographics.
According to the National Woman’s Law Center, more than 2.3 million women are still without jobs because of the pandemic. And female workforce participation has not been this low since 1988.
As a recruiter, I have spent most of the last year talking to people about the pressures faced by executive women and minorities in our current environment. I recently hosted a fireside chat representing EME of the Georgia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce with Lynette Smith from NAMIC to celebrate Women’s History Month with an audience of Latina and black career women. It brought back memories of my time in Cable TV. We spoke with Tina Simmons, Senior Vice President of Human Resources at Comcast, about executive women’s challenges, work-life balance, skills development, and promotions. She had some excellent advice for how women of color could avoid burnout and instead thrive in a remote work environment where barriers between the home and office have disappeared. Here some of the highlights of our exchange.
Balancing work and home life have been hard for everyone, regardless of ethnicity or gender. Yet humans are resilient. Many people have gotten used to working remotely, learning how to enjoy its perks and minimize its pitfalls. Still, others, especially those with childcare or eldercare responsibilities, have struggled to find a balance and burn out at a dangerous rate.
During the last year, I had repeatedly encountered female candidates who would not consider new roles. The candidates shared that they were barely managing to juggle their various responsibilities in their homes, families, and at work, and although they were excited by the idea of a new position, they were afraid that changing roles would infringe on their ability to balance the other aspects of their life.
For this reason, Tina doesn’t like the term “work-life balance.” “Balance” implies that there is a perfect equilibrium to be found, a zero-loss system in which you can effortlessly flow between all the competing demands imposed by life. The reality, of course, is that when you’ve got a busy schedule, something always has to give. So a fairer and more accurate term is “work-life choices.”
Recognizing that every choice comes at the expense of a competing one forces you to sit down and arrange your priorities to make sure that your choices maximize meaning and productivity in your life. It means being deliberate about not committing to extracurricular things and allowing yourself to use your spare moments on your family or promoting your own mental and physical health.
“There are always consequences to making certain choices,” Tina said, “and the best way to navigate those consequences is to be conscious about why and how you make your choices.”
Managing from afar
A Gartner report said that “Prepandemic bias against remote workforce models now seem particularly unfounded given that employee performance has largely remained consistent or, in some cases, even improved.”
Companies are changing investments to accelerate digital transformation, enabling secure and intelligent collaboration technology so that employees can work in remote or semi-remote capacities. Two years ago, high levels of acceptance for remote work had been unheard of. Yet, today we see companies like Google, Facebook normalizing telework, and other companies like Ford announcing that a big part of the workforce will now be remote.
Distributed workforces, however, bring challenges to managers, who now have to find ways of maintaining the engagement of physically distant employees.
During the pandemic, it has been challenging, admits Tina, to know how to engage employees who are constantly distracted by hungry babies and barking dogs and partners yelling into their phones all day; she uses different strategies depending on the person’s circumstances to help them be productive in the new environment.
“Grace and space” is one of them, giving employees the option not to talk if they might find that helpful. Sometimes the best touch says, ‘Hey, you’re doing great. Let’s skip today unless there’s anything you’d like to talk about.’”
Other times, when a person needs more structure, Tina takes a “guided structure” approach, in which she gives employees more immediate deadlines and feedback. Frequent touches and discrete tasks make some people feel valued.
It’s also important to monitor for isolation—to look for employees who find remote communication and engagement difficult and then find ways to make them feel valued by drawing them into a more interactive role.
Remote work is here to stay.
Quoting Oliver Wendell Holmes, Tina noted that “a man’s mind, once stretched to a new idea, never goes back to its original dimensions.” This is where we are with remote work: we can’t go back. Remote work and flexible hours are now bartering chips—things that companies will begin to offer top talent alongside good salaries and benefits. Thanks to the pandemic, companies realize to value work based upon the work itself rather than the setting in which the work is performed.
This will have a significant impact on specific segments of the talent market. This trend will allow people to live where they want to live and enable them to pursue their dream job regardless of location. This remote working-class that has traditionally lived in or around America’s major cities is suddenly no longer bound by our loop-road housing infrastructure; the more in-demand your job is, the more likely you will be able to choose where exactly you want to live.
Conversely, companies based in hard-to-recruit-to locations will now attract talented employees from other talent markets. This means that companies in areas where it’s hard to recruit diverse candidates will find themselves able to ignore geographic barriers to diversity recruiting for specific jobs.
Career Development when remote Networking.
For many people, but particularly for women and minorities, career development has taken a backseat during the pandemic. Part of this has to do with the complexities of balancing family and work life, but some of it has to do with the challenges of remote networking.
Networking in remote environments can feel less natural and authentic than the coffee break or after-work drinks many people are used to. Yet, for career development, it is vital to be seen, to be included in conversations and strategy sessions, whether formal or informal, and remote work has made this difficult.
There are distinct advantages to a remote meeting request, however. It’s much easier for a senior person to make time for you when you’re only asking for ten minutes of their day. Yet you’ve got to be deliberate about how and when you make that ask. Don’t simply contact people when you want a job, Tina says. Contact them beforehand and create an organic relationship that you can build on over time.
Being excellent at the job is the priority. Make sure you’re putting your main effort into your career.
As we closed the session, we decided to do it again in the fall and have guests representing Latino, Asians, and Black in the conversation. I look forward to that chat and to sharing back its highlights.