With a world of vaccines-for-all-adults on the horizon (I got my J&J shot on Thursday!!!), conversations around the so-called return to work are mounting at a fever pitch. I’ve gotten a bunch of questions on this topic this week alone. “Do you have an opinion on remote work and going back to the office?” “What do you think will encourage people to go back in?” And “Have you been tracking companies’ reopening plans? What do you think of them?”
I’m writing today to advocate for two things:
(1) For Working Parents: Take a deep breath and sink into the “I’ve got this” feeling, because you truly are experts in returning to work. You’ve been through a leave and return process before. (Yes, also while you were burnt out and sleep-deprived.) You know its ups, downs, and many emotions. It doesn’t mean you won’t feel them this time, too. But you have a good deal of wisdom to impart on this topic that you can share with your friends and colleagues.
(2) For Employers: Turn to your working parents for advice on the return to work process. They are hidden fonts of knowledge about change and transition. And about leaving an office and coming back. Sure, the circumstances are different here in a post-pandemic return. But I promise you that your working parent colleagues have lived through an experience that is, in many ways, akin to this one. They know what works and what doesn’t.
For example, employers, your working parent colleagues will tell you that a return is always a process (sometimes one that lasts months or even a year) and not an event. So too, with this pandemic. Having a long runway for the return to work will be critical, particularly because reopenings are so uneven. My children will (finally!!) be returning to school in-person 4 days a week soon (hallelujah!!). But I will still need to navigate for the foreseeable future a world of remote school Wednesdays. An after-school program that hasn’t yet reopened. And any unexpected COVID-related school closures.
As with a return to work after parental leave, there is no flipping-a-switch-and-suddenly-things-are-back-to-normal moment.
Consider This 4-Themed Framework for the Return to Work
After my own return to work after maternity leave, I realized that I could have had a much more calm and empowered experience with my own transition had I focused on four key themes. These are the themes I now teach in the Mindful Return course for new moms and for new dads to help them with their return to work after baby.
Creating a framework for a life transition can help ground a seemingly chaotic process in some structure. Also, I truly believe these themes are equally useful for the post-pandemic return:
Theme #1: A Mindful Mindset for the Return to Work: Over the course of this past year, many employers have doubled down on calls for employee wellness. They’ve invested in apps, webinars, resources, and wellness activities. Why? To address this past year’s massive burnout. This attention to mental health can’t go out the window with the return. We have experienced a “species level trauma,” says clinical psychologist Christine Runyan on this wonderful episode of the On Being Podcast. We’re still in the trauma, she reminds us, and it’s hard to grieve and heal from something that’s not over yet.
As with new parents returning to work after a baby, we will need permission to “feel all the feels” as we return to our offices. We’ll need strategies to cope. Time to breathe. And grace for the time it takes us to get back on our feet.
Theme #2: Figuring Out the Logistics: Having plans and communicating transparently helps reduce our anxieties. When new parents struggle with spiraling thoughts (e.g., “I don’t know what I’m going to do about childcare, and it keeps me up at night”), spending a certain amount of time per day addressing tactical and practical solutions can help. Employers, you can help stem anxiety by communicating what you know as soon as you know it. And by communicating as clearly as possible. I received a third-hand message today about plans for one of my son’s return-to-school classrooms. And the way the message was communicated served only to magnify my anxiety. Logistical plans are important. And how they are communicated really matters.
Theme #3: Seeing the Leadership Opportunities: Leadership opportunities?! Yes, I get asked often about why we’re talking “leadership” in the space of returning to work after parental leave. Yet I get on my soapbox with some frequency that parenthood provides an amazingly fertile ground for new parents to grow all sorts of leadership muscles that are useful to their careers. So too, in this COVID return. We’ve had opportunities to learn resilience, prioritization, and perspective on life that no other experience has granted.
Now is also the perfect time for employers to be leaders in this next phase of work. We need not return to a world whose expectations never seemed to fit so many different populations. Just as I encourage new parents to be vocal about their working parent experiences, to shine a light for those coming up behind them, so too do I encourage employers to blaze a trail in creating new hybrid – and more sustainable – solutions to work.
Theme #4: Staying in Community: The worst mistake I made in new parenthood was isolating myself. I took an attitude of “I’ll figure this out myself.” Which only led to isolation and desperation. COVID has taught us how much we crave and need people, community, touch, and support to thrive as humans. So let’s not go through these transitions back to our offices alone either.
If you’re an employer, how can you help your employees connect with one another in a meaningful way as they navigate the return to work? In what spaces can they be vulnerable and say how it is really going for them, rather than, perhaps, what you’d like to hear?
You may be tempted to think, “oh, we’ll all be so happy to see one another when we come back, that we don’t have to worry much about community.” And if you said that, I’d caution that you’d be wrong. This return will be both exciting and a trauma in and of itself. One for which it is worth putting in place intentional plans to support one another. Can you establish a mentor program around the return? Can you activate your already-existing affinity groups to support this process?
My Personal Opinion on the “Return to Work”
We all know by now that the whole idea of working from home while also simultaneously caring for children has been a disaster. It has led to burnout of massive proportions. I hope never to do it again. Note: no employer should take this insane situation as “evidence” that we can’t be productive while working remotely. When our children are not home with us, our remote work productivity is off the charts.
Yet for as bad as it’s been, the pre-COVID working world wasn’t exactly functional for working parents either. Common butt-in-chair expectations that often existed merely for the sake of presence and for “proving” commitment to an employer inevitably harmed and stigmatized anyone with obligations outside of the office.
In a return-to-work post-pandemic world, the policy I believe would most destigmatize face-time culture and (perhaps ironically) encourage more people to want to come into the office, is a policy that prohibits anyone (essential workers aside) from returning to a 9-5 in-office-every-day workweek. Designating a core day or days when everyone comes into the office will help with interpersonal connection. And outside of that core day or days, employers should set an expectation that we all demonstrate flexibility of one variety or another.
As a working parent, if I saw that flexibility was truly valued, de-gendered, and de-stigmatized, I’d be more motivated to come into the office to see my colleagues on “core” and some “non-core” days alike.
Finally: I know we’ve all been calling this the “return to work” post-COVID. (Myself included.) But really. When did we stop working? Maybe we should start calling it the return to the office, instead.
Want more practical tips on working parenthood? Check out my book, Back to Work After Baby: How to Plan and Navigate a Mindful Return from Maternity Leave