Do we ever want to go back to our life before the pandemic?

work life balance

“Do we ever want to go back to our life before the pandemic?”

We ask ourselves on an especially snowy evening. It was a question that would not leave us alone and came up increasingly more often with a greater sense of urgency every time. Fast forward a year later – we have left our jobs, moved across the country to a tiny town on the ocean, with a population smaller than our office building, and are taking a year off. This is our story. 

As we were embarked on this journey and talked to colleagues and friends, we realize that we are not alone in this soul search. Many are realizing the dysfunction of our daily lives that we never thought about or questioned before. So this is not just our story, but in so many ways, it is your story too.

I lost my father early in life. My enduring memory of him is how hard he worked. He was gone before we woke, and back after we went to bed, putting in 16-18 hours everyday. After he died, they had to hire 4 people for the job he was doing single handed. As a low income family, both my parents sacrificed so much to give us a better life. He had no choice. 

The pandemic helped us realize how privileged we are to be able to do our jobs from home. It also made us realize that we act as though we have no choice, but we do have a choice.

We hit 40 at breakneck speed, a blur of education, roles, countries, continents and companies. As we chose increasingly all consuming roles of ever greater complexity, it got harder to pause and reflect, and easier to ignore the questions; what is our purpose? is this all there is to life? what does a life well lived mean? what brings us joy and how can we do more of it? what is meaningful work? is there a way to have greater impact, to help those in need, who could use our skills? 

We have a lot of questions and not a lot of answers. Our hope is to take time to reflect, invest in ourselves, help others, be curious, be inspired, be uncomfortable and have fun.

We walked a long way just to be able to stand still.

Is this your story too?

This is what our friends and colleagues told us…

There is one clear theme that emerged, from the many conversations, over the last few months and that is; the search for meaning and purpose. It was so hopeful, and inspiring to see that so many are asking the same questions on impact and what matters most; and yet so heartbreaking that those are the questions that we often put on the back burner. 

There are 3 other interrelated questions that are critical.
  • How does work fit into your life?
  • What does meaningful work mean? More importantly, what is not meaningful and yet, we spend valuable time on it?
  • Are you happy?

How does work fit into your life? 

Working from home for a year, led to reflection and soul searching for many of us. It is the first time we realized the full extent of what we were missing and what we were giving up in life, to serve our organizations. Sitting in traffic for hours, traveling incessantly, living away from family and friends, compromising on health and quality of life…to what end?

Perhaps starting with the industrial revolution (in the 1750s), the philosophy of work-centered human life crept into our world and became ubiquitous over time. At its core, it suggests that our lives are less important than the work we do, and consequently we spend the most hours, and certainly the most valuable hours, at work. 

The pandemic stopped us in our tracks, and forced us to reflect. The world won’t ever be the same again. We want different things now that we have experienced it. We want a lot more of who and what we love, and what we love to do in our lives. Because life is short.

What implication does this have for the future of work?

We have heard so many inspiring stories during the pandemic of people striving for a more balanced life, doing the work they love, from a place they love. 

Unfortunately, companies are increasingly disconnected from what people actually want more of, in their lives. Most companies haven’t figured out how to create the space for an individual to truly LIVE their lives while working in a company. 

We need to see people as people, as complete human beings, at work. People are capable of incredible things. Companies who are able to build a talent ecosystem* through human centered design, that unlocks human potential, by creating a diverse suite of offerings and customizing them for their employees, are the ones who will thrive.

What does meaningful work mean? More importantly, what is not meaningful and yet, we spend valuable time on it?

A very talented colleague asked me; “What if our patient was in this room, what would they think of us?”. She was sharing a story of an unproductive meeting, replete with politics, siloed thinking, finger pointing and navel gazing. 

She is not alone in her frustration. Large companies often struggle to make their effort : impact ratio work. 

Effort : impact ratio is how much effort you need to put in, in order to achieve the desired outcome, and feel a sense of fulfillment or achievement. Simply put, how hard is it to get things done in your organization?

Large companies make it very difficult to be productive. It can feel like you are running a marathon in quicksand! The politics, crippling bureaucracy, illogical matrices, fragmentation of work, lack of alignment of decisions to purpose and values, resistance to change, often gets in the way of any real sense of achievement or fulfillment for an employee. Many choose to work with start ups, or become entrepreneurs in the hope of connecting to their purpose and getting better value for their time.

What implication does this have for the future of work?

People will decide what level of effort they are willing to put in, and what is the impact they want to see. Work is more than a livelihood, and people want to see the tangible difference they are making (not just to the bottomline).

Organizations will have to prioritize meaningful work, especially the effort : impact ratio, if they want to keep their people engaged. 

Are you happy?

We thought we were happy. And then, in the weeks before we quit, and ever since then; first our family, then our friends and colleagues, started telling us that we looked different, we looked happy, and had a “lighter spirit”. It was so weird, and yet so true!

Do you have a ‘I’ll be happy when ___’ list or a ‘Someday…’ list?

Do you glance at it wistfully every so often, usually with a sigh, and wonder ‘what if’ or ‘if only’?

We certainly did. Relegated to the corner, they gathered dust. 

It made us wonder, why do we pin all our hopes of happiness on tangible external things? Why do we chase after things we don’t really want? Why do we think of happiness as a destination and not a journey?

When people are asked if they have regrets, they are quick to reply ‘no regrets’ as if on autopilot, taught by millions of movies that that is the thing to say. Is it though? Do we not need to take stock of our lives and reflect on whether we are on the right track? 

Many were initially surprised at our decision to take a year off. They were shocked that people with our “talent and ambition” at the stage of career where we are up for the ‘largest roles’ are wanting time away.  

Isn’t that the exact problem? The world expects high potential, ambitious, driven, people to be uni-dimensional. And we spend our whole lives denying other aspects of ourselves, trying to fit in to the uni-dimensional mold. 

What implication does this have for the future of work?

As one of our colleagues says; “In the past, companies told employees what work to do and where. In future, our people will tell us what work they want to do and where they will do it out of. Companies who can adapt to this new reality will thrive, and those who can’t will perish” 

As we dust the cobwebs off our ‘someday list’, all we can say is:

Hello Life!

Let me leave you with a question a friend asked me:

What would you do if you weren’t afraid? 

Want to know if we wake up in the middle of the night in panic, wondering if we have lost our minds (more than likely!)? Come, follow our journey.

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