Work-life balance shifts in response to pandemic

When the Colorado Women of Influence had a Zoom Girlfriends & Wine weekly session in mid-May, the 17 members attending pondered work-life balance in pandemic times — plus, they wanted to make a social connection.

“Before the pandemic, we were crazy busy running around like idiots. We were rushing for meetings, events, clients and get-togethers,” said Ann Clarke, founder of Colorado Women of Influence, a group that holds social and networking events.

Now, the members feel they can be more efficient in how they utilize their workdays, meeting virtually instead of in person and saving on driving time, Clarke said.

“The forced isolation forced us to look at how we’re living our lives,” Clarke said, adding that in their busyness, the members ignored important stuff like being part of nature, exercising outside of the gym, cooking and enjoying their homes and yards. “Especially in Colorado, we have an amazing lifestyle available to us, and we weren’t taking advantage of it. We’ve come to realize we can do a lot of business from home.”

The 86 members of Colorado Women of Influence are not alone in the cultural shift in the work-life balance and the changes in priorities brought on by the COVID-19 crisis.

The term “work-life balance,” however, no longer seems fitting and should be replaced by something like “work-life integration,” said Carrie Pinsky, career counselor and principal of Pink Sky Career Counseling in Fort Collins. 

Using “balance” brings up the image of struggling to walk a tightrope about to fall, while “integration” points to work and life fitting well together, Pinsky said. Before the pandemic, the average person didn’t achieve that integration, working a long workweek and struggling to take care of the self, she said. After, the new normal means more time to cook, go on walks and be with family and less time on long commutes and traveling, she said.

But that normal also presents some challenges, such as creating a work-from-home office with the right equipment and support, Pinsky said. Though for some working from home is ideal, others find it to be socially isolating and difficult to self-manage, keep a regular schedule and juggle family and pet needs with work tasks, she said. 

“All the rules have changed for all of us; nothing is the same. How do we navigate that for ourselves and make the decisions that are best for us?” Pinsky said.

Some of Pinsky’s clients have had time to reflect on their lives and are considering career changes, realizing that what they did before wasn’t working for them. Some of the habits they have recently created, such as running before work and taking lunch-hour walks, may be something employees can bring into the workplace. 

At the same time, employers can place less pressure on employees to work when they’re not feeling well or allow for a gradual return to work, such as working in the office a couple of days a week. They also can allow for remote work if possible, realizing that one-size-doesn’t fit all and policies can be sensitive to individual needs, she said.

“Whatever your reality is there is going to be an adjustment period,” Pinsky said, adding that ideally, people will think about what they learned from the stay-at-home and safer-at-home orders and carry the best parts forward. “Maybe there are some benefits we can hold onto and not go back to business as usual.”

Part of not returning to the old normal is shedding the arrogance of knowing what’s going to happen next, something that the pandemic has made uncertain with all of the safety precautions and social measures, said Jessica Hartung, founder of Integrated Work in Boulder and author of “The Conscious Professional: Transform Your Life at Work,” published in 2019. 

“I think the real question is — we’re all going through this — how many are growing through this, before, during and after?” Hartung said. “We need to make sure we’re open to learning together as we go and that we are actually in communication about what problems need to be solved and what possibilities exist to make the future better.”

Employers can increase that communication by checking in with how staff members are doing and making sure they have what they need to do their work from home, Hartung said. Meetings can be scheduled around family needs, such as outside of breaks or lunch time, she said. And employees can be given time for learning and renewal instead of solely focusing on project completion, she said.

“Taking into account the whole person is one of the pieces that will be emerging from this experience,” Hartung said. “Priorities changed in that they must actually be priorities. Managers and leaders are not prioritizing, saying they need it all.”

Instead, they can identify what’s essential and most important and let go of the rest, Hartung said.

“I don’t think we’re looking for balance anymore but stability of work and life that work together,” Hartung said.

Before the pandemic, work was left at work and split from home life with clearer boundaries, said Abbie Miller, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist and behavioral medicine specialist at the Kaiser Permanente medical offices in Loveland, Fort Collins and Greeley.

Those working from home struggle to split their time between both and also integrate the time they have available with their other duties, like providing home schooling and caring for older family members.

“We even expanded the jobs we have, and we are doing it all in the same environment,” Miller said. 

Work hours have shifted outside the normal 9-to-5, and there is a need for multitasking, or working while doing other things, and increased flexibility and creativity to juggle the different responsibilities, Miller said. 

“We are being challenged in many ways,” Miller said. “It would be odd if you didn’t feel stress in this. … There has been a ton of change that happened rather abruptly for us.”

To manage the stress, Miller recommends daily check-ins of stress levels, engaging in mindfulness, allowing time for enjoyment activities and staying connected with others, as well as avoiding setting too high of expectations. 

“There’s increased stress and more responsibility and fewer outlets to recover and take care of ourselves,” Miller said. “Reach out to your support system. That’s really important we check in with each other about that stuff.”

Clarke sees several of her members who are company leaders checking in with their staffs on a regular basis. They are engaging in more team building and showing appreciation for their employees by bringing in lunch or coffee or saying thank-you.

“The employers, they came to realize how valuable their employees are and are more appreciative,” Clarke said. “They are not looking at numbers but looking at each individual.” 

For small business owner Whitedove Gannon, work-life balance shifted from a set schedule of meetings separated from family time to a more harmonious existence between personal and business life with more fluidity between the two.

“It was so easy to know what’s next,” said Gannon, coach and mentor for impact-focused business owners and founder and host of the FEMnation Postcast and of the Female Entrepreneur Movement in Longmont.

Home and life schedules followed a routine during the school year and summer months, becoming a part of what Gannon calls “rolling life,” but then the pandemic hit and “almost froze time,” bringing with it a large number of uncertainties, she said. Personally, she couldn’t meet clients in person and had to engage in online meetings and work entirely from home, sharing her office space with the family.

“Not everyone has a shiny office at home,” Gannon said. “Nobody is critical of that. … It’s a lot more open-minded and accepting.”

Madisen Golden, WomenGive membership manager, found a clearer delineation between her home life and her work life when she worked in an office, which now is in her kitchen. With working at home, she finds that she takes more breaks during the day and works later into the evenings since she’s already at home. 

“It definitely blends together more so than it did before,” Golden said, adding that working at home also presents some challenges, such as staying focused and avoiding distractions. 

Golden tries to establish set work hours, to get up at the same time each day and to exercise to address long periods of sitting. 

“Definitely move your body when you can and try to keep your normal practices and habits in place,” Golden said.

Lisa Downer, founder of #NOCOStrong and owner of Fruition Media and Marketing, has found that she had to scale back her work to provide home schooling for her three children. She often works in the evenings and in her spare time with the result that she has to be more efficient with her time. 

“Other women I’ve talked to who work from home have had to put their work aside until the kids are out of school,” Downer said. 

Those who are still able to work have had to be more creative in how they conduct business, such as by engaging in more virtual meetings instead of meeting in person, though it does remove some of the interpersonal communications, Downer said. 

“We’re also probably working more hours because it’s in front of us all the time,” Downer said. “That happens when you’re at home, you never turn it off because it’s at your access.”

Ann Baron, chief executive officer and organizer of Northern Colorado Community, shifted from in-person meetings to more phone calls, emails and Zoom chats. She hosts a weekly Zoom session for the 70 members of her networking group and a weekly lunch ’n learn, also on Zoom. She wants to make sure her members are doing OK and to offer them encouragement and support. She also shows her appreciation for them by sending out one thank-you card a day.

“Most of us meet people in networking situations,” Baron said, adding that during the stay-at-home and safer-at-home orders, “it’s challenging to meet new professionals if you’re trying to meet other people you haven’t met or networked with before.”