The New Workplace is Here, Get Ready for the Old Work/Life Problems to Come Back

Three HR leaders discussing strategies for a post-COVID workplace

One of the things I remember most vividly about the start of the pandemic was how fast it refocused us.

This was absolutely true in HR.  

One minute we were business as usual; the next we were answering a completely new set of problems. Decisions that once might have taken months (Should people work at home? How will we handle remote meetings?) were suddenly fast-tracked as we zigged and zagged to keep business moving while keeping people safe. 

Crisis mode is like that – old problems fade in the rearview mirror as you do what you have to do in the moment. You forget what life was like before. Even now, as cases tick down and vaccinations tick up, there’s a sense that all we need to do is pedal through the “right now” – the hardships the last 14 months have created – and all will be well. Everything will go back to normal. 

But is normal such a good thing?

Because here’s the other thing about crisis mode – when it’s over, old problems have a way of coming back. And that’s where we in HR find ourselves right now. Beyond breathing a sigh of relief that the worst is hopefully behind us, we need to ask – what did we learn from the last 14 months? And what do we do with that information?

People problems may have been different before the pandemic – but they were still there. We know, for example, that parents were struggling to balance families and jobs pre-COVID. Our very first Modern Family Index (MFI) showed that people feared just mentioning their families could get them fired. In MFIs since, parents have talked about conflicts, mental loads, and burnout relating to managing a family while keeping it under wraps. 

And consider this: in 2018, Slate estimated businesses were losing more than $4 billion annually from child care breakdowns – two years before the world shut down. Need more? While we talk about the number of mothers leaving the workforce because of the pandemic – 1.5 million at last count -- in 2016, almost 80% of new mothers told us family conflicts had them questioning whether they’d return to their jobs.  

That’s largely focused on new parents. What about school-age children? In normal times, the average school year has 180 days; the average work year has more than 260. That’s a lot of days unaccounted for; and a second grader is no more able to be home alone than a preschooler. Those are all issues that predate the pandemic; if we don’t do anything about them, they’ll continue long after. 

If there’s a positive side effect of the last year, it’s that people were paying attention. “With children popping up in Zoom meetings,” wrote the New York Times, “it’s impossible to hide that raising children is a round-the-clock responsibility.” As the country opens back up and children are no longer visible on screen, will parents’ struggles go back to being invisible, too? “Lots of working parents,” read a headline about a Bright Horizons study done in the U.K., “feel worried about a confrontation with employers.”

What can’t be said enough is that in the last 14 months, employers everywhere took on the challenge in profound ways, creating on-the-fly solutions to demonstrate a visible net -- a village – they constructed for parents. I’ve had the privilege of working with many of them.

But the old problems are still there.

As our economy continues to reopen, we need to move on from the new problems we faced looking back, and go back to solving the old ones that will reemerge as we go forward.

Group of colleagues sitting in a meeting together

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Written by: Maribeth Bearfield

May 21, 2021

About the Author

Maribeth Bearfield at Bright Horizons

Maribeth Bearfield joined Bright Horizons in 2017 as SVP, HR and Chief Human Resources Officer. Maribeth brings a background as an educator and more than 25 years of human resources experience to her writing. Prior to joining Bright Horizons, Maribeth served as CHRO at Kaseya Corporation and Hanover Insurance, and as Chief Talent Officer at State Street. Maribeth has also held positions at Cisco Systems, Oracle and GTE.