March of 2020 started to drain our bodies, minds and time in ways we could not have imagined. We were crushed by the stress of doing our jobs and homeschooling our kids at the same time, trying to keep the littles off the iPad but letting it slide because it was the only way they could socially interact, wiping down the red peppers and avocados that might just bring COVID inside, and feeling the the guilt of having a job we could do in pajamas while knowing that millions of others were suddenly out of work. Everyone broke – some a little, and many a lot. The weight of these new and heavy expectations forced every working parent to crack (with moms disproportionately affected, of course). Something had to give.
As parents do, we adapted. We started to push back on the corporate systems and expectations that made us pretend that between the hours of 8am and 5pm, our kids are quietly stacked away, neatly stored like clay figurines on a shelf, until we magically release them after the work day is done and they’re reconstituted into actual human beings for the evening. We accepted and embraced our new role as parent/teacher first and worker second, giving a collective middle finger to corporate America’s all-consuming demands we’d adhered to for so long. Yes, that’s my kid also joining this video call. Yup, my dog is barking. No, I haven’t showered today. That meeting time doesn’t work – I have to proctor virtual Kindergarten. All of this said matter-of-factly to our employers, with a steely undertone of ‘and there’s nothing you can do about it now.’
I don’t know what normal looks like after COVID19, but I’m hopeful that home-based work remains possible for those who want it. And, I also have hope that companies who have weathered this storm through remote collaboration technology and virtual working will afford a new level of grace and freedom to working parents. We built ourselves new norms and darnit, I want these norms to stick around. This requires companies to be flexible and have respect for people not as cogs in the corporate machine, but as part of real human families. This isn’t just in the best interest of the employee, but rather also for global public health and raising our next generation of people who will someday be our workforce leaders to be compassionate and think of others first.
Corporate America, here are six new norms that we should agree upon keeping that afford grace to desk-based working parents* in a post-COVID world.
- Our kids continue to join us on camera. Like clockwork 20 minutes into a video call, my son slyly asks for cookies when he thinks I can’t do more than nod yes when in order to not break consulting-character. Now, I just politely pause the conversation and say directly to my 5th grade cookie pirate, “no, we don’t eat Oreos for breakfast” and enjoy the knowing laugh with my client, appreciating their own struggles with young pantry raiders scavenging for sugary snacks at all hours. There’s nothing more rapport-building than parents connecting about shared experiences, especially when the kids join in.
- We share photos of our non-work activities without guilt. Talk Social to Me has a persistent chat on Microsoft Teams with a client – it’s halfway about work and halfway social conversation. Over the winter holidays, it was refreshing to see our client celebrating rest and respite by posting photos of their outdoor picnic and beach excursions, explaining why they wouldn’t be at our regularly scheduled meeting. We need more beach photos and less pretending that we’re always at our desks.
- We respect that our precious children are actually tiny disease vectors and keep them home when sick. Parents don’t want to admit it, but most of us have sent the little ones to school with a runny nose or a known tummy ache because “I’m on a deadline” or “my boss really needs me in the office today.” Nowadays, parents fortunate enough to have any in-person school have all agreed to the parental COVID-code that keeps kids at home at even the smallest rise in temperature. In the future, I hope companies acknowledge that our community’s health depends on everybody’s behavior, and sick kids stay home as parents are released from the guilt of not being at an office. This means we can finally give teachers and classmates the respect they deserve by prioritizing their health and well-being over a company’s demand for us to sit physically at a desk.
- We take breaks and focus on manageable work blocks. Out of necessity, parents blocked our work schedules to fit within the bubbles of what our kids could manage for math and science classes online. I quickly learned that my attention span for video meetings really wasn’t that much better than my 5th grader’s. I realized that I function better with a snack break and a PE break before lunch, too. I hope we end the habit of back to back meetings all day, normalizing mental and physical breaks that we have come to appreciate and ushered in by our kids.
- Our mornings remain less rushed and frantic. Without the pre-pandemic pressure of getting my son to school by 8am (sometimes 7:50 if I had an early meeting), our family settled in to a pattern of slower mornings and more sleep. Remote school starting at 8:30 or even 9am gave working parents a real reason for not attending meetings until later than the previous normal. Breakfast happened at the table, not in the car. We all got a solid 30 minutes more per day of sleep than ever before. I hope that restful time with less pressure to be in an office early remains with us and gives employees the chance to more frequently embrace a slow pace with the family.
- We turn our collaboration apps off. As reliant as we have all become on digital collaboration tools during COVID, not a single company melted into the ground when Slack went down in early January, 2021. We’re all familiar with the pings and the clackity-clack sounds of chat messages knocking on our digital doorstep, waiting for us to respond to someone else’s question. But COVID times have given working parents the opportunity to turn off collaboration tools in order to make lunchtime mac and cheese for the kids, or to help the littles navigate Zoom school. And you know what? Business has gone on just fine when we’re not always available for a chat. I hope that the practice of closing out collaboration apps stays with us, granting us the freedom to go heads-down for work, or simply spend time with others without the fear of an intrusive ping from a colleague.
What about you? What are the new norms that you hope home-based workers maintain as we emerge from COVID in 2021 and beyond?
*Before signing off, I want to acknowledge that this article is very specific to desk-based workers who have been fortunate enough to keep their jobs during a time when millions lost their livelihood. I also don’t seek to ignore the essential workers and frontline heroes who must be in a physical location in order to earn a paycheck and to keep our core systems running. I am grateful to these amazing humans. There are millions of working parents who need better access to a living wage, affordable childcare, and corporate policies and structures that protect them – not punish them – for having a family.