During the Second World War, while men were sent to the warzone, women were recruited to take over traditionally male roles in the workplace. This forced many women out of the home and away from caregiver roles, and into the factories and shipyards to make the parachutes, tanks and bomb castings their countries so urgently needed.
After the war when life slowly adjusted back to normalcy it was expected that women would give up these jobs and their new-found independence, simply returning to their previous lives as homemakers. Of course, many decades of resistance ensured, with women rejecting traditional gender roles and embracing the chance to thrive professionally and financially.
That moment in history triggered a reaction that would forever change the course of women’s rights and gender representation in the workplace.
When great or tragic moments of human history like this take place, there will always be a flow-on effect. We know that every action must have a reaction, and this is never more certain than in a time of crisis.
So how will the action of sending staff home for weeks of social isolation change the course of our workplace history, just as it did for women some 70 years ago?
As this crisis unfolds, every day is a different story. Last week, we joked about the possibility of COVID-19 spreading through the office and having to work remotely; this week we are all sitting alone in our homes, doing our best to keep ourselves focused on the job at hand.
But some of us are not alone. I work with people who have partners and housemates, together competing for space around the kitchen table to get on with their work. One colleague told me she makes her calls in the bedroom, while her partner makes calls in the kitchen. They were not prepared for this disruption but are still working hard to get their jobs done.
Another colleague lives with three housemates, who have all been told to work from home indefinitely. This morning as a group, they set up on their outdoor table in the backyard embracing the sunshine as they worked during these dark times.
Prior to this moment, I had never met a couple who both worked from home at the same time. And I certainly hadn’t met housemates who sat communally alongside each other in their back garden while working through the day’s tasks.
In my experience, working from home has always been shrouded in a level of (often inadvertent) suspicion — are they really working? What are they doing? Have they done as much at home as they would have in the office? These silent questions linger, but the work gets done all the same.
It is rarely openly admitted that this is the attitude. In workplaces that pride themselves on flexible working these questions are more likely to display through a sly raise of an eyebrow or throw away comment before a teleconference begins. And in my experience, this scrutiny is never greater than when it is known that kids, partners or housemates are known to also be in the house.
But here we are, living in a reality of enforced and indefinite work from home. And, despite the complex work from home politics that many companies have struggled with over many years, right now people are really showing up to make it work.
I look to the future and wonder, will it become commonplace to have two work from home partners? Prior to this moment, it seemed out of the question, something that would be heavily scrutinized. Because it would be too distracting; because people might work differently at home than the office; because companies want to keep an eye on their staff. But it is working, right now, for so many. It’s shown when you give people a chance to show up in difficult circumstances, they often deliver above and beyond.
Already, just three days into this work from home period, I have heard very similar feedback from my work colleagues. On the one side, we are all snacking a bit more and not really getting up from our chairs much. Occasionally hanging out the washing after a long meeting. Many of us didn’t have time to think about an ergonomic at home set up, so back pain is an issue that we need to keep an eye on.
On the other side, everyone is showing up for meetings on time; meetings are more focused with less rambling and a more focused agenda; we’ve all gained back the time we usually lose gathering people and dealing with tech problem; people are being more collaborative and seem to be really listening to what others are saying; they are reaching out more to ‘chat’ and check-in online with friends to see how they are going; the quality of meme’s in the Slack channel has improved exponentially; we are all still connecting by saying good morning albeit through videos and emojis.
In the workplace it seems, some good things are coming from this very dark time.
I am mindful, it is only day three of a situation that could last more than a month. There is a fuzz of newness and fun in this global experiment, and eventually, when even this becomes a normal habit I am sure people will be challenged to stay engaged and interact with people they cannot physically see. New problems will arise, new challenges will need to be overcome.
But in the scope of human history, this unprecedented crisis could reshape the life of office workers (if we can even still call ourselves that). Just in the same way a critical global event affected women in the 1950’s, this could open a new era for “office” workers completely.
By the end of this, businesses will know a lot about themselves — were they prepared? What were their strengths? Where did they struggle? Have they built a company based on trust and accountability? Have they hired people they can rely on in a time of crisis?
I would encourage all businesses to critically review this period, day by day, asking their staff questions, encouraging discussion for improvement, eliminating challenges where possible, solving common problems and setting new standards to redefine this era of what a physical workplace means to your business.
To be sure, this crisis will get worse before it gets better. The impacts will be large and vast. How it affects workplaces will not be top of mind for many when the health of family and friends are at stake. It will be overwhelming. But when in doubt, consider the things that you can control, who you can support and how, at the end of all this, you showed leadership to the people who rely on you. It could make a big difference in this defining moment of history.
About the Author: Rebecca Jacobs, Strategic Planner at The Lumery.
Find out more about The Lumery here!