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Why the Pandemic Forever Changed How We View Work

Paradigm Shift

The pandemic itself did not create worker dissatisfaction or the deeper desire to disrupt or reinvent one’s job or career. Rather, the pandemic scared us just enough to raise important questions about how we live our lives and what “career” means to us. Regardless of what everyone believes individually about the pandemic, it was a massive, all-inclusive, life-altering occurrence that stopped us in our tracks and forced us to ask a pivotal question that would have seemed unreasonable to ask in the past; “Do I HAVE to be in the office every day to get my job done effectively?”

Here’s how many seem to have responded; Now that I’m working from home…

  • I’m getting more done around the house while still being productive at work (laundry, bill paying, housekeeping, productive personal work, phone calls, etc.).

  • I’m away from my manager and colleagues and feeling less distracted.

  • I’m getting loads of time back into my schedule now that I have no commute.

  • I’m more relaxed/less stressed because I’m no longer having to deal with traffic, angry, impatient, and aggressive drivers, or mass transit commuters.

  • I’m saving money avoiding my commute (gas, tolls, parking, public transportation).

  • My car is going up in value relatively speaking, because I’m putting far less miles on it than I ever imagined.

  • I have more time to think and plan my work and my life.

  • I am able to be home significantly more with my family (the benefits here are beyond measure).

  • I’m getting overdue home improvement projects and repairs done because I’m able to be home for contractors and technicians.

  • I can be with my pets throughout the day (they’re happier and no doggie day care cost).

  • I see a lot more sunlight now from my home windows or in my yard (sometimes I work outside!).

  • I manage my workday according to my natural work rhythm, which is less affected by typical in-office scheduling.

  • I’m getting more sleep because I don’t have to get up as early to accommodate traffic.

  • I’m exercising more because there’s more available time in my daily schedule.

All of the above amount to tremendous, quality of life changes and there’s likely many more that could be added to the list. Individually, these factors can be significant, but cumulatively they’re a paradigm shift, and we haven’t yet gotten to one of the most powerful factors that came from the pandemic, employee leverage!

Power to the People

The pandemic caused a rare and very broad power shift in the balance between employers and employees in office settings. The collective pull-back of the employee population created more power on the worker side of the negotiating table. Prior to the pandemic, many, if not most workers felt somewhat powerless in their ability to persuade employers to accommodate or even consider their often-hidden preferences. Covid 19 ultimately caused employers to yield to unspoken yet pressing demands and needs of employees. Companies were forced to acquiesce to the plight of workers, whether in sincerity or for the sake of political correctness. Remember, there was a time when coming back to the office was unmentionable! It was dangerous and out of the question, and there was no way to estimate when those conditions would change. In the first few months of the pandemic, we didn’t know if or how we’d EVER get back to pre-pandemic norms. Employers could no longer dictate or make declarations regarding where or exactly how workers could manage their workday. They had to yield to the employee’s need for safety.

This is perhaps the most inconspicuous effect of the pandemic on the employer-employee relationship. Employers had to be careful about discussing or even mentioning returning to the office. Employers and employees alike had to tiptoe around the delicate topic of Covid 19. After all, they themselves or someone close to them could be or become gravely ill or even die. These were delicate times. This was an unprecedented event of great proportion and something unlike anything we’ve experienced in recent times. It created a widely unexpected issue regarding personal contact in the workplace with far reaching complications. There are some things that present so much traumatic impact that they permanently alter your perspective. We are to an extent forever altered in our view of human interaction in the workplace and how that relates to the priorities that we must balance with our careers.

Once the pandemic reached its unavoidable impact, employers were essentially at the mercy of employees, and guess what? It felt good for employees. It felt great. The American workforce had never collectively experienced this level of power, autonomy, importance, control, significance, and freedom, or at least not anything that still lives in our collective conscious. It was shocking but it welcomed a new emphasis on the “life” portion of the work-life portmanteau.

It was perhaps intoxicating for workers to have the cards stacked in their favor in a game where they usually have relatively little, or no power. Moreover, it’s a paradigm shift that forever changed workers’ perspectives. Once you taste the sweet sensation of being able to say no, or at least have your employer yielding to and accommodating your conditions because they have no alternatives, your eyes have been forever opened. This is toothpaste that simply will not go back into the tube. It is nearly impossible for everyone to revert back to employers making arbitrary rules and employees blindly following.

The fear is gone. The allegorical witch is dead. New thoughts and possibilities appear; Do I even like this job? Maybe I should switch careers, relocate to a better city or climate, or maybe go to school. Now that companies are struggling to find workers, I have much more value and many more choices. My stock is up for a change, I’ve got some juice!

The Great Rethink

There’s another kind of change that occurred alongside the shift in power from company to employee. Having the daylights scared out of us had many thinking more about the meaning and purpose of life itself. What’s it all for? Why am I stuck working hard and long hours, feeling powerless and unappreciated and forever at the mercy of corporate America? I’m thinking more about my family now, my health, my dog, my time, and my impact on this planet, etc. In fact, this new dawn of questioning spawned new thinking way beyond the workplace concerning society at large. During the pandemic we witnessed the unleashing of a fair amount of suppressed anger, discontent, disillusionment, as well as desire for change in forms we might not have seen coming. There was civil and political unrest, but at the same time there was also hope for lasting reform and opportunities to rethink anything we’d been perhaps taking for granted or not desperate enough to consider challenging. A new era of not good enough, let’s demand something better, was underway. The pandemic changed us…permanently.

The pandemic made us question the validity of our career paths. The extreme disruption of our worklives had an effect similar to the lottery fantasy exercise. This is a concept where you ponder what you would do if you won the lottery. The way it works is you think past all the - I’d buy a Ferrari, buy my parents a mansion, take a 6-month trip to Europe, etc. - thoughts and move onto the reality of post lottery life. The lottery fantasy exercise asks what you’d do with your life after the bliss of not having to worry about money anymore fades. Then what would you do? What kind of work really matters to you? The answer to these questions are then used as a guide to begin shaping your life in the here and now to look as much like the lottery life as possible, minus the actual money of course. For instance, perhaps you’d conclude that you would spend your days working to improve the lives of underprivileged families. If you now know that this would bring lasting satisfaction, you can decide to move toward this kind of life, even without the lottery money. You might start volunteering on the weekends in a food bank or you may choose to work full-time for a worthy non-profit organization. You get the picture.

The pandemic granted us an unsolicited break, and a long one at that. It gave us a vacation from being utterly overwhelmed, distracted, controlled, and caged by our jobs. It took us off the rat wheel (hamster wheel/rat race…whatever) just long enough to allow us to experience what our lives are really about beyond work and vocational pressure. It allowed us to ask what else might be important, what might be possible. It gave us the excuse to care openly about ourselves, our families and friends…our existence beyond our favorite area of deflection and distraction; the frantic obsession we call work.

Creating A New Normal

Is it any wonder that we can’t just snap back? Now that we’re sort of getting our heads above water, we hear the conventional and somewhat perplexed voices of various technology giants and big banks losing patience out loud. Ok folks, enough pandering to your laziness, back to the salt mines! The problem is that it’s not possible to force people back to a time before their eyes were opened, before they tasted the forbidden fruit.

After all, work life in America is a bit of an illusion, isn’t it? It is both excessively romanticized and demonized, over emphasized, inappropriately prioritized, over glorified and quite frankly woefully unexamined. We will literally work until we drop rather than ask ourselves the hard questions regarding meaning, purpose and accountability to our wellbeing. We misuse work as a distraction and an excuse to avoid hard questions about what we want. We make it the center of our life narrative, and we feel justified in doing so because everyone else is doing it.

More to the heart of the matter, we make work the star of our stories because it feels good. It provides us with a seemingly worthy excuse for neglecting our families, friends, health, and wellbeing. We usually get away with that until we crash one day from burnout, or we find ourselves at the end of our lives with the unquenchable burn of regret for what wasn’t, what we didn’t focus on, what we missed out on and failed to prioritize and enjoy until it was too late.

The pandemic was a paradox. It was a curse for sure, but it was also a gift. A forced pause. A chance for awakening. An opportunity. It was as if the divine force of life stopped us in our tracks and said, are you sure you want to spend your sole, precious, brief gift of life on this planet this way? I’ll give you some time to rethink that.

Message to employers everywhere and in every place: Here’s our response; No, we don’t want to do things the way we did them before…we want something new; we want a more meaningful experience at work. It’s not just a good idea, it’s an imperative. We can’t move forward effectively without it. We’re not getting back with the old program of work above all else because it’s obsolete. We need change in the workplace, not because we’re uncaring, stubborn, or lazy but because we’ve changed, our core values have come to the forefront.

However, let’s be clear; this is a shared responsibility. They’ll be no new norm without contribution and compromise from both sides. There must be a reckoning, an accounting and ultimately a fresh, robust and innovative collaboration between employee and employer to create real balance for a new age. Fear not, it’s not the end of loyalty and strong work ethic. It’s the beginning of a better version. Let’s get to work and share the burden of recreating it. It begins with a simple step; both sides leaning in and just listening to become more aware of what matters to the other side. Who’s in?

By Wes Ehnert

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