What will the pandemic do to your working life?

Let’s start by asking what has the pandemic done so far?  That’s an easy question to answer, because we feel its regressive effects every day: the pandemic has changed everyone’s working life, and not usually for the better.

Although we may not be commuting, we seem to be spending longer days sitting in front of a computer screen. Although we may not have any teaching experience, some of us are trying to run a home school, while working full-time.  Although the whole family may be at home, the work of running the home is not always evenly allocated, and women often find themselves carrying an increased workload as a result.

The global picture

If this your situation, you are not alone.  A recent UN survey (World Economic Forum December 2020 set out data from 38 countries indicating that the pandemic has particularly affected women’s lives.  As we go through this global storm in our different boats, there is evidence that the burden of unpaid caring responsibilities, whether for children, relatives, or neighbours has once again fallen heavily on women. Depressingly, the report finds that the traditional social and gender norms are being reinforced.  The report also notes that “All but a small fraction of men acknowledge that their wives or partners are doing more around the house”.

Changes ahead – maybe

But the past is not necessarily a guide to the future.  The turbulence of the past year has taught us to be careful about predictions, so let’s talk about what the pandemic might do to working lives in future.  And there are reasons to be cheerful.  Many people are looking forward to a hybrid working life, with opportunity to choose where they work, at home or in the office. The ability to build a working day around their other responsibilities will make it easier for many of us, both men and women. That flexibility may open up new roles which were previously only possible if you could be present in the office every day as a full-time employee. The pandemic has overturned a number of assumptions about work which could bring some benefits.

Upsides come with downsides

The “new normal” is not guaranteed to be better, though. Imagine just one scenario: these new flexible working arrangements might result in more women choosing to work from home, while men may typically choose to be present in the office. Junior staff with no space to work from home might have to go into the office, while more senior staff work from their home office.   What will that do to organizational culture and informal learning?  If you are a new graduate who has just started your first job, how will you find out how things really get done in your company? What will the effects on promotions be, if some people are regularly in the room for key meetings and some are almost always on screen?

There may be trouble ahead – and if we are not to go backwards as we come out of the pandemic, we all have some thinking and preparing to do.

Get ready

These winter months of hibernation could be a time of preparation for your own future working life. What choices will you make about how and where to work? How will that fit in with your home life? These are the obvious and important questions, although it’s not clear what the options might be.  That’s why this is a good time to come up with a strategy, rather than a plan: because the future is uncertain, but you want to be ready to respond.  A plan maybe too rigid given the corona-coaster that we still find ourselves on. But a strategy will help you to set your direction and still allow you to respond to the opportunities which may suddenly arise.

In late January, the Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford offered a webinar to the Rising Star winners from We Are The City to help them to think about these issues. We looked at the research on women’s working lives and in particular, the idea of owning your career. This implies a degree of active self-management – which can be easier if you have a strategy, a sense of direction.  In our webinar discussions, it became clear that many participants want to use the year ahead to make some of their own changes proactively, rather than simply reacting to what happens.

These conversations reminded everyone that our networks have always been useful, but will be vital in future.  When we are not in the office every day, when we can’t have serendipitous corridor conversations, our network connections offer the chance to talk about new ideas and to learn from each other.

A sense of purpose

The ending of the pandemic will bring some choices for people who work in organizations, even if it’s only to choose how many days we come into the office. But there may some bigger choices, too: for example, you could choose to take on a new role in a distant city because you only need to be physically present once a week.  Making those choices in uncertain times can be doubly difficult – but if you can develop a sense of your purpose, it will help in making your decisions. It’s not always easy to articulate your purpose, to describe why you do what you do, but it is worth the effort.  Businesses use their purpose statement as an organizing principle and it works that way for individuals, too. It can serve as the foundation of your strategy for your own career. It will be a touchstone to help you to prioritize, to decide how to respond to the changes ahead.

Turbulence brings opportunity

The one prediction we can make about the year ahead is that it is likely to be unsettled. We don’t know when constraints will ease and it won’t be clear how organizations will respond.  Things will be fluid for a while. And so we’ll need to navigate carefully to keep working lives heading in the right direction and in balance with our home lives.  This idea of actively owning your career will be useful as never before, to help you to decide what happens to your working life in a post-pandemic world.

Kathryn BishopAbout the author

Kathryn Bishop is an Associate Fellow at the Saïd Business School and at Green Templeton College. Her book on women’s working lives  – Make Your Own Map: Career Success Strategy for Women – is published on 3 February 2021 by Kogan Page.


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