OPINION: Should wall between our personal, professional lives come down?

For women, pandemic-sparked changes in work world can be double-edged sword
PINK’s Signature Spring Empowerment Event in March featured a roster of diverse C-suite women. The fall empowerment event will take place Oct. 18. (Courtesy of PINK)

PINK’s Signature Spring Empowerment Event in March featured a roster of diverse C-suite women. The fall empowerment event will take place Oct. 18. (Courtesy of PINK)

In the years before the pandemic wreaked havoc on the lives of workers, the best companies were often considered those that celebrated work accomplishments over all other things. Leadership recognized top employees as those who went above and beyond job requirements while sending the message that working harder was generally more valuable than working smarter.

For so long, women in particular have fought mightily to keep our personal lives from interfering with our professional lives. Those of us who fall outside of the traditional standards of professionalism in any way — race, economic status, gender or gender identity, for example — knew we had better put on our masks and get those codes switched before we set foot in the office.

But the pandemic seems to have accelerated a shift away from the workplace mores of the past. It wasn’t so easy to hide certain aspects of our humanity with a camera zooming our personal business straight from our homes to the computer screens of our colleagues. Kids and pets appeared at inopportune moments. Our hobbies, home decor and habits were captured in a video frame for all to see. Once we pulled back the curtain dividing the personal from the professional, many of us decided we preferred a more holistic approach to work.

In this era of the Great Resignation, when millions of Americans are quitting jobs to look for more flexibility, more money or more satisfaction, workplace changes that have long been desired may finally have the chance to take root. But some experts caution that for women, the shift could be a double-edged sword.

“On the one hand, working women, working moms have much greater opportunities for flexibility, especially if they work for companies that are still allowing remote work,” said Cynthia Good, founder and CEO of PINK, a digital and events resource for women leaders, which is holding its 17th annual fall women’s empowerment lunch on Monday.

“The new blurring of work and home allows for greater transparency and humanness, which can build better relationships through vulnerability and authenticity. We get to know each other better, which is great, but women also run the risk of being overexposed.” Male-focused work cultures are still in the majority, and in those environments, overexposure coupled with lower levels of face time could backfire against women, Good said.

I have written before about why no one wants to return to the office, but I focused largely on the ways in which remote work has allowed the kind of flexibility workers — particularly parents and women — have long desired. Many companies are adapting to that new standard, but there is also a need to build better workplace cultures that make employees feel safe and valued.

In a recent survey of 3,500 workers in the U.S., U.K, Ireland and Canada, Workhuman, an organization that provides solutions to create more human-centered workplaces, found that 4 in 10 employees planned to look for a new job in the next 12 months. More flexibility was the primary reason for job hunting, specifically among working parents and Black employees, but employees said they also wanted to work for companies that offer appreciation, recognition and gratitude and an environment of psychological safety where workers feel they can bring their whole self to work without fear of humiliation.

“Collectively, organizations have failed people,” said Meisha-Ann Martin, director of people analytics for WorkHuman, in a recent company podcast. “They have failed to provide the community that we have an opportunity to create when people spend so much time together.”

It’s time, she said, to bring humanity back to the workplace.

Good recalled one consulting session in which they asked senior women leaders what they really want from their careers and lives, and a high-ranking executive at a Fortune 100 company broke down in tears because no one had ever asked her that question.

“We need to start asking and paying attention. I worry that the post-pandemic culture will further adversely impact women who are making difficult choices. Companies that take the time to listen, be flexible and change will be able to keep their most thoughtful and best women employees,” said Good.

As we now know, almost no one is willing to live the 24/7 work life anymore, so it is even more important to make any time spent working feel more welcoming and community-focused.

A key aspect of improving company culture is creating a sense of belonging, Martin said. People who feel as if they are part of a community are likely to do their jobs at a higher level and are less likely to leave, she said.

Using recognition as a tool for performance management rather than as a reward for above and beyond performance (which promotes a culture of burnout) can go a long way in changing company culture, especially for women workers.

According to February data from Workhuman, more than 25% of men reported always receiving thank you’s compared to less than 19% of women.

“Men are often more likely to set expectations, to value themselves and demand a certain level of treatment,” Good said. “Those who expect and ask for more tend to receive it.”

PINK has offered programs to women on how to advocate for themselves and how to have executive presence through hands-on training and the chance to network with senior-level women leaders, said Good. The annual conferences give every woman the chance to hear the stories of top women leaders and learn secrets of success from people with similar life circumstances and work experiences.

“As we reevaluate what work looks like for women in the future, everything is at stake,” she said. “My greatest fear is that we will continue doing things the way we have always done, keeping the status quo, too often paying lip service to the idea of diversity rather than taking action. We have the chance here and now to arm working women with the tools they need to better advocate for themselves and become better leaders for their organizations, the chance to give women the support they need to live their fullest lives, while contributing some of their greatest gifts.”

Read more on the Real Life blog (www.ajc.com/opinion/real-life-blog/) and find Nedra on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AJCRealLifeColumn) and Twitter (@nrhoneajc) or email her at nedra.rhone@ajc.com.

Event preview

Reimagining Women @ Work - Post Pandemic

12-1:30 p.m. Oct. 18. $15-$700. InterContinental Buckhead Atlanta, 3315 Peachtree Road NE, Atlanta. Tickets to attend the event virtually or in person are available at Eventbrite.com.