Marianne appeared visibly unsure of herself at the start of our Zoom call. A mutual friend had connected us, as so often happens in my long time in the staffing business. From her LinkedIn page, I knew she had excellent educational credentials as well as broad and challenging work experience, hard-charging, and now mid-career and assuredly on track for upper management. From our mutual friend, I learned that her husband was a middle manager at a local branch of a national insurance company, and they were raising two children, both now in elementary school. Our friend also confided that Marianne desperately needed career advice now that her firm was asking her to return to their office, hence our phone call.
After the typical pleasantries, I asked Marianne how the COVID pandemic experience was progressing for her.
“It’s making me rethink everything!” she quickly responded.
Marianne related her family’s experience: Her company had sent her to work from home in March 2020, just about the time the schools switched to online learning. Her husband started working from home exclusively shortly thereafter. While they both agreed to split equally the facilitation of their children’s remote learning, she found that she was the one dedicating more time to the children. It wasn’t that her husband was shirking his family responsibilities; she kept offering to take on more when he was swamped, which was often.
“I guess I was brought up to be service-oriented, perhaps a woman-thing,” she explained.
The couple both work late into the evening after the children were in bed and during the weekends, but “it wasn’t like we had much of a social life anymore anyway.” Marianne explained. Both of them frequently felt that they were approaching burnout.
The management at her company had been great in supporting her and giving her the flexibility she needed. Many of them were in similar family situations. When the vaccine first became available, there was finally talk of everyone going back to work and school. Marianne and her husband scheduled their shots just as soon as they were eligible, and they are thrilled that their children are now halfway through their COVID vaccine shots. Still, once her vice president asked her whether she was prepared to come back to the office, Marianne had this horrible feeling in her gut, realizing she wasn’t at all ready.
“And why was that?” I inquired.
These were the reasons she ticked off, with a surety that spoke of how long she’d been reflecting and working to develop this mental list:
- School Uncertainty: While her children’s school is strongly committed to in-person learning with full masking, small cohorts, and twice-weekly testing, the need for occasional class quarantines due to COVID exposure or contraction by classmates results in remote learning that requires adult presence and involvement. How to make business commitments with that level of uncertainty?
- Virus Exposure: Returning to the workplace for both parents adds family exposure risk from those who remain unvaccinated and break-through contractions by those vaccinated. The school can control these exposures, including required masking by all, better than the workplace can do. Passing along COVID to her children, now even as a breakthrough infection, is horrifying. whMarianne is also involved with the care of her aging father (“welcome to the sandwich generation!”), and worries about passing along a breakthrough infection, or even a cold, to him in his immunocompromised state.
- Advancement Opportunities: While Marianne’s employer has been terrific about accommodating her needs, and is now considering her request to remain a remote worker, she fears that her opportunities to advance her position will be affected by her ongoing lack of impromptu face-to-face access to senior management, those who need to be comfortable with her to recommend her advancement. Her request for special permission to work from home might also subconsciously mark her as less than a team player in her superiors’ eyes, even though her company is committed to closing the gender gap among management.
Eighteen months of diminished social involvement has also given Marianne time to reflect on her goals and priorities. If she can’t “have it all,” she would choose her family over her career. Many of the women in her network had been sharing similar thoughts. I informed her that 1-in-4 women are now considering quitting their jobs to stay home, and the quit rate for women is about 1% greater than for men; 1-in-3 women are contemplating downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce, with 1-in-4 mulling those options last year.
The savings that she was unable to spend on travel, vacations, and summer camp has given this couple a financial cushion that would allow Marianne to take a career “gap year” while the “Great Job Resignation” becomes the “Great Job Realignment.” During that time off she could research and evaluate her choices and ultimately identify a career path that offers her better life-work balance for whatever the new reality of “living with COVID” entails
I was grateful to our mutual friend that Marianne contacted me before choosing to leave the workforce for a while. I could see that the same passion she has to serve her family also made her such a key member of her workplace. I first suggested that she raise these concerns with her employer to determine if her needs could be accommodated without curtailing her advancement. I next developed the following list of requirements that Marianne would seek from an “ideal employer” relative to the flexibility and opportunities she sought:
- “Work from anywhere” mentality, where in-person interaction was not vital to operations (or advancement).
- Greater flexibility in her regular work schedule, including possibly working four longer days a week.
- Partnering or teaming organization, so that she would have a ready backup if she needed to suddenly be at home, and she could offer that to her partner/teammates, too.
- Cohort approach to isolating employees during virus surges, to limit transmission between the unvaccinated to the vaccinated, and between associates who are each other’s back-ups.
Abel Personnel has been approached by many “Mariannes” lately, supporting their search for more accommodating employers that offer a better life-work balance without compromising their careers. We have client firms looking to add staff that can offer the flexibility and advancement opportunities to create the kind of diverse workforce that they know leads to better outputs. Women are in a particularly strong position now to negotiate these accommodations. How can we help you?
CNBC, “Women are leading the way in the ‘Great Resignation.’ Here’s what it means for employers and job seekers,” Michelle Fox, November 17, 2021
Money Watch, “Americans are quitting their jobs — and women are leading “the Great Resignation,” Aimee Picchi, October 13, 2021.