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Moving Forward: Real-Life Work Lessons to Bring into Post-Pandemic Life

Moving Forward: Real-Life Work Lessons to Bring into Post-Pandemic Life

Sarita Parikh and Maggie Knoke sat down in May with about a dozen corporate women to understand, from the lens of work life, what a year of remote work and pandemic life meant, professionally.

What was a surprise? What wisdom did they gain?

The event was hosted by the Ellevate Network, which tends to attract smart, earnest, and consistently kick-ass women, and we learned a lot.

As always, some parts were heartwarming and other parts were infuriating (and a bunch in between). The stories grouped into four common themes:

  1. What people learned to ditch: What we did before that didn’t add value, or was even damaging.
  2. What people learned to keep: What existed before that is valuable and how to get back to it.
  3. Deliberately syncing with “who I am and what’s important to me.”
  4. Taking perspective and remembering that this one life we have is short and finite.

The most shared sentiment? Not one person wanted things to go fully back to the way things were before.

Let’s dive in.

What people learned to ditch.

If you think about work and its relationship to happiness, purpose, and growth (that is, its impact to your life beyond a paycheck), then you probably have a long list of norms that don’t make sense.

Here are a few stories we heard:

Unreasonable expectations of availability, hours, and urgency.

Beatrice (all names have been changed!) landed her dream job — leading marketing for a startup in the wine industry. She knew the hours would be long, which is normal for a startup, and the commitment high, but she didn’t know that “high commitment” was code for four hours a day, including weekends. In this work culture, commitments to priorities like health, family, community — anything that took the team away from the work — were scorned.

Beth says:

I will never again work for a company that expects that work comes before everything else. You need to take time to rest. You need to take time to live your life.

We heard an all-too-common expectation that people respond to after-hours emails right away. Or call into a status meeting when on a family vacation. Does the speediness of your email response cure cancer? No? Isn’t it weird that so many of us believe this is what we’re expected to do?

The loudest voice in the room.

Sara works for a multi-billion dollar firm. Here’s something Sara learned to ditch:

Something I realized was that whoever spoke the loudest, or banged his fists enough, was, de facto, the one to listen to. Women tend to get penalized for doing that, but it was incredibly effective for men. I realized I was succumbing to it, too. I realized that the loudest voice, or the most confident voice, doesn’t mean it’s the correct voice.

Busy-ness as status.

Chanda, a specialist in integrative medicine, spoke about status:

Before, it was a badge of honor to be juggling a hundred balls. You’re running this team, and also on the Board of this other thing and traveling here and there and giving talks and humble-bragging on LinkedIn. Busyness was status, it said something about your worth. If you weren’t doing it, you felt FOMO. Is that the way we want to live our lives? During the pandemic, no one could do those things and it felt like a sense of relief.

Chanda reminded us of the importance of quality over quantity and right-sizing your commitments to you.

There are plenty of workplace norms that need to go. Maybe it’s the unspoken biases that feed into what kind of people are good “fits” for roles — a wellspring for race and gender inequity. Maybe it’s the norm of treating everything as priority #1 and avoiding the hard choices about what not to do. Maybe it’s the norm of promoting style over substance. Gossip. Side-swiping. Butts in seats. Fear about speaking up. Instagram perfection. You get the gist. Plenty of ineffective (or even unhealthy) behaviors are entrenched in cultures.

So, look for those norms, the ones you know you need and want to ditch, and consider where you have influence and power to make change, even if it’s very small. Change (or any push against the status quo) can feel uncomfortable and scary. It’s fine, probably smart, to start with the smallest change and evaluate its impact. And ask yourself this: If not you, then who?

For those places where you know change is needed, but you just can’t do it….ask yourself about the barriers — maybe deep-down fears — in the way of ditching what’s got to go.

Are you sure, for instance, you don’t have enough power to have some impact? Can you widen the sphere of influence you do have, even just a bit? Write down what it costs you to leave things as they are, and what you might gain if you can succeed at the change. Are there other ways you could get that gain? With these insights in mind: Now what’s the next smallest step you can take?

[Related: How to Thrive in the Reinvention Revolution]

What people learned to keep.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and the list of what worked well, pre-pandemic, was long.

Here are a few stories from the group:

Boundaries between roles.

Ann is a single mom:

I’ve learned to compartmentalize. When I’m working, I bring my A-game to work. When it’s family time, I focus on the kids. I’ve spent years building the ability to bring my best to the thing I’m doing now. I had a ritual: In the morning, I was 100% mom: Get the kids ready, drop them off. Then, I could switch to 100% leader: Focus on organizational priorities, the clients who need attention, the progress and wellbeing of the team. At the end of the workday, I switched back to 'mom.' I succeeded as 'mom' and as 'leader' when I was only doing one at any given time. When I needed to do both at the same time, the compartments were gone and everything blended together. I needed the rituals and the clear lines of structure.

Physical presence.

Cassie is a user experience designer:

So much of my work is about understanding people. And part of why I’m good at that is that I really enjoy being around people. When we go back, I’m going to hug everyone, in every meeting, at the beginning and at the end. Did I mention I need to be around people?

Moving when working.

Sara shared that:

I didn’t love that I was in meetings all day, but it did get me up and moving, throughout the day. When I working at home every day, I was sitting in the same chair, all day, every day. I’m going to a hybrid work schedule, and on my remote days I’ll get up every hour and walk around the house for five minutes. It actually gets me a few thousand steps in the day and I don’t feel as drained at the end of the day.

We heard, over and over, the value of ritual and the value of workplace relationships. These probably don’t need a lot of explaining, but since we live in an age where there’s a bump in “burn this whole thing down” kind of sentiment, it’s worth deliberately identifying what’s already working well. If you’re around high-achieving women, you’re probably going to hear a lot of “what can be better,” and that’s a great source of fuel.

And also, there’s value in recognizing, and honoring, what is already good. The essentials of happiness are surprisingly consistent, and gratitude is on the short list. Making a ritual of acknowledging the already-good things can lift you up and ground you, at the same time.

How people synced up with their values.

Figure out what’s important and authentic to you. Remind yourself of your values and your deepest priorities. Other peoples’ value judgements are theirs and we don’t need to carry them. We’re all different, and other peoples’ expectations, are, well their expectations.

Here are a few stories:

Breaking out of the mold.

Mindy has spent much of her career at a giant Fortune 10 business:

For years, I was indoctrinated in how I should be, what mold I had to fit into to be successful. And it was rewarded… but the problem was that it was an inauthentic version of myself. I had to change parts of myself to fit the mold. I hated it. I got dinged every time I didn’t conform, which was a lot because I was trying to conform, so I was constantly contorting myself to fit the mold. Things like speaking up or adding a different perspective to the way things had always been done. I also felt like I’d ‘paid my dues’ and was advancing on the career ladder. I bought into the idea that other people were telling me how I 'should' see myself or what my potential was. People are welcome to have their expectations of how you should be, but you don’t have to accept them. I practiced having the confidence to start showing up, and speaking up, as myself, representing what I believed was important to our business — not what the mold told me I should be saying. It was so much easier after I stopped consuming others’ expectations and was true to my beliefs.

Making and building, without permission.

This strategy doesn’t work for all situations, but it works in a lot more of them than we think it might! Tanya is a field engineer in a male-dominated firm and a relatively rural location. She saw a need for the kind of support, career-development, and business-impact that Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) could provide, but her pitches to start the first women’s ERG in her company were continually shot down — by the head of HR, no less.

Tanya realized the situation was in conflict with her values in two ways: endless, numbing rounds of pitches and permission-seeking instead of the making and doing she valued as an engineer; and the out-of-date assurances that ERGs weren’t needed because everything was just fine, in conflict with her DEI values.

So, I stopped asking and just started the group. We met at lunch, with no budget, and who can complain about what a group of colleagues does during their lunch hour? The group is still growing and it’s now gotten recognition from leadership — but what’s most important [another of her core values!] is that the network, and the professional relationships formed, have been invaluable.

Firing the client.

Lena took on a former colleague as a client and found he was unable to leave behind the posturing and need for control that had marked his time as an executive. She increasingly realized this wasn’t the type of client she wanted to work with.

I had taken him on as a favor between old co-workers, even though he isn’t really the core type of client I work with. I really value expertise and respect, and his behavior towards me showed he didn’t. He refused to recognize my skill and experience, defaulting instead to playing very old tapes about the role he’d been in vs. the role I’d been in back in the day. His demands, continual scope-creep, and dismissal of my recommendations showed he didn’t respect or value my contributions, and frankly wasn’t ready to do this work. The costs in terms of drag on my time and putting up with obnoxiousness started to really outweigh what I was making on the gig, so I ended the contract.

[Related: Combining Entrepreneurship and Legacy as a Formula for Success]

How to take powerful perspective

Envision yourself at the end of your career, on the very day you retire. Ask yourself:

What activities am I retiring from? Is it what I deeply wanted and hoped I’d be doing? Am I retiring from a culture that I’ve loved and been delighted by? Ultimately, have I put energy towards work I’m proud of and that is meaningful?

How important is what you’re doing now, and the way you’re operating now, truly important in the grand scheme of things? Will your “future you” feel deeply satisfied to have spent all these working years this way?

Ask what you’ll regret if you carry on this way.

Sula coaches older leaders, who are close to or past retirement. She herself is building a second career doing this, having led and built businesses for many years. She confided:

I’m now at the age where I know I have more time behind me and less in front of me. I can see where the path ultimately leads. What’s important, how we spend our time, becomes so sharp and clear when you view it from here. Many of my clients, at the end of their careers, see it too. They tell me, ‘I wasted a ton of time and energy on unimportant things.'

A note on the power to choose.

These are just four of the themes that emerged in our discussion. There are many more ways forward. The key is, whenever possible, take a break and put deliberate thought into how you want this work life (and life in general) to be, and your next actionable step to move in that direction.

We do want to acknowledge that these strategies were born from a discussion among a group of corporate professionals; we recognized our relative privilege. We could work from home and we had resources.

It’s always a cognitive dance when you understand that you have more power and privilege than others, and there are people who have more power and privilege than you. We see these strategies may not work for everyone, and many in the group recognized that their privilege is something that could allow them to take risks others might not be able or willing to.

One thing we do know that’s available to everyone: choosing our mindset, intentionally. It takes fortitude — the fear that accompanies change is real and sometimes fierce. And also, facing our fear, and making even the smallest choices about mindset, actions, and values, has a way of growing our power.

And please remember this: The fundamentals of how to be happy are almost always the same, no matter who’s researching it: sleep, active gratitude, finding meaning, the right amount of challenge, doing things for others.

Undoubtedly, the world is unfair, there are inequities, and people are suffering. True at the same time is the fact that you do have a measure of influence, you are in control of your mindset, and you can make change in your mindset and resilience.

If anything, consider it a path to invest in and replenish yourself, so that you can show up in the broader world to do good.

[Related: Embrace the Art of Self-Care for Increased Self-Regulation and Resilience]


Sarita Parikh and Maggie Knoke are Ellevate members and leaders of the Twin Cities chapter.

This article was first published on their Medium publication, Everyday Disruption, in June 2021.

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