Like many employees adjusting to a “work from office” routine after the recent update to Covid-19-related rules, I was relieved to leave my workplace at the end of a day that seemed unusually long.
By the time I reached home after my 45-minute commute, I felt exhausted. And it was only Tuesday. How had I worked this way for over two decades in three countries, I wondered.
Two years ago, employees across the world scrambled to adopt a work-from-home routine without much advance notice or preparation. Yet, now, as employees gradually return to offices in a phased manner, there is much debate, hesitation and resistance.
I know I’m not the only one reassessing my situation as I observe the ongoing conversations about the mass exodus of employees being reported across the globe.
During the pandemic, there was a shift in not only how we “do” our work but also how we “view” our work. When the fragile line separating the two compartments of office life and home life disappeared, an already overworked and disengaged workforce tipped over into an abyss of dissatisfaction, leading to an existential introspection about the reasons why we work and the best way to do so.
The US Bureau of Labour Statistics reported that 47 million Americans voluntarily resigned from their jobs last year. A recent survey in Singapore showed that one in four workers planned to change jobs in the first half of 2022, indicating that resignations and reshuffling are very much part of the local landscape.
Articles in the Harvard Business Review have used terms such as the “great resignation” or “great attrition” last year to the more recent “great attraction” or “great aspiration” to name this phenomenon largely attributed to the pandemic.
As the world wakes up to the possibility of normal lives resuming this year, there is a sharp focus on businesses, with the expectation of a rebound to pre-pandemic levels of economic activity. This requires employees to return to work. Yet, the upward trend of resignations continues. Employees in most countries seem reluctant to hop on the hamster wheel of work life of the past. Is this a fallout of Covid-19 or something else that has been brewing for far longer?
In search of clarity
Across the world, widespread dissatisfaction with pay, work culture and career prospects seems to be pushing employees towards jobs and lifestyles that offer flexibility, freedom and respect, criteria that have less to do with making money and more with finding purpose.
From pursuing side-hustles to exploring self-employment to opting for early retirement, there is an undeniable pull towards making the most of life in a cautiously optimistic post-pandemic world. While this is true for individuals who lost loved ones in the recent past, even those who did not experience bereavement have encountered the sadness of a life curtailed, of the loss of basic freedoms and simple pleasures while grappling with the fear of infection and the reality of closed borders.
Adversity fosters resilience. The period of forced immobility has provided time and space for a pause and encouraged introspection, a luxury for many of us previously inclined to fill up every waking minute with work or activities.
Path towards well-being
While waiting for a train on the MRT platform recently, I noticed a set of new posters by Tafep (Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices). Four side-by-side panels featured a pregnant woman, a young South Asian man, a woman in a hard hat and an elderly man. Even before reading the captions, it was easy to figure out that each poster tackled a potential form of workplace discrimination – sexism, racism, ageism.
As I mentally travelled along my 25-year journey as a female scientist across three countries, I connected with every one of these categories. I was pregnant when I began working at my first job, represented a double minority (woman and South Asian) in many conference rooms and now, with my grey hair, I make for a visible target of ageism. Despite these biases, I was committed to staying in the workforce.
Bias, based on stereotypes that assume that people with certain characteristics (some temporary and others indelible) are unsuitable for certain jobs, hurts both the employee and the employer. As a young woman, I had the ambition and the resolve to power through but, now, I am not so sure. The ways of the world may not have changed but my priorities certainly have.
Personal experiences, public expectations
In his book The Power Of Regret, author Daniel Pink discusses his research about the often misunderstood emotion – regret. Among the four categories of regrets (foundation, moral, connection and boldness), the vast majority of people appear to regret things they did not do, over things they did, particularly as they age.
While this may lead us to believe that older people would veer towards more action, the pandemic has skewed the calculations and impacted all life domains for the majority. Meaning has taken centre stage when it comes to decision-making. Regardless of age, there is a deliberate shift towards meaningful action. Meaning is a subjective understanding of our life and its inherent value. While money may be a major motivator at the beginning of our careers, it loses its lustre as the years roll on.
On some level, even before the pandemic, women have struggled to find meaning at each turn when their professional goals and personal lives collided. With the further erasure of boundaries between work and home brought about by the pandemic, the struggle has only intensified.
Staying productive while working from home and continuing to shoulder the emotional labour of running the household, including caregiving for children and the elderly, have led women to push towards flexible work arrangements (73 per cent) compared with men (66 per cent), as described in a recent paper by the Institute of Policy Studies.
Add to it the complex emotions that accompany discrimination at various stages in one’s career, it is no wonder that there is an overwhelming demand for flexibility and hybrid work models as we move into another “new normal”.
The pandemic might have brought hardship but its most important gift may be the opportunity for a great “rethink”, as both employers and employees envision and jointly create the workplace of the future.
From considering employees’ personal preferences in planning their work week to maximise productivity and reduce burnout, to incorporating the changing aspirations of the workforce in view of the lessons learnt and skills acquired during the pandemic, there is scope to design a more harmonious work life at every level.
If done right, we may be on the verge of creating not just a more equitable work environment, but also a more humane world.
Originally published at The Straits Times, Singapore
Photo credit: Unsplash