By Sarra Bejaoui
As it turned out, the radical redrawing of the office environment enforced by coronavirus didn’t instantly deliver the work-life balance which advocates of the idea had long promised.
An overdue jolt was felt, certainly. Acceleration toward virtual employment using the benefits of technology and broadband demanded a cultural shift. Bravo, Covid! Especially for women though, 2020 catalysed progress but unexpected hurdles still lurk.
Juggling career and family would be simplicity itself, they said, if we could only turn our kitchens into corporate headquarters and Zoom into a post-modern water cooler. Except the screen froze on a regular basis. And proximity to the pantry has weighty downsides too.
Yet as this most unusual of years nears its end, let’s remind ourselves not to throw out the baby steps taken during multiple lockdowns with the vaccinated bathwater. Retaining the flexibility of splitting the week between office and wherever we choose has a tremendous and enduring upside. For some of us, that was already normal. For others, it was a breath of fresh air.
Becoming a high achiever from the confines of our own house brings the potential for enormous liberty. For businesses large and small, the idea that two jabs in the arm should bring everyone flooding back to their desks of old is unthinkable. The world has moved on. Resources permanently reallocated. Remote working, and the operational and financial efficiencies it brings, must not be tossed aside in harking back to a pre-Covid past.
Where the rebalancing revolution remains incomplete is in our heads and our hearts. As a young female, it was preached to me that I could eventually have it all. Kids and an entrepreneurial empire. They hadn’t met my three-year-old, clearly. He asserts his priorities. I too insist that I ask a lot of myself. To look after my employees. To drive profits. To accurately name each member of the Paw Patrol. And all of Peppa’s friends too.
By my own standards, I had a taxing lockdown. Equilibrium went out the living room window. Attempts at juggling proved trickier than I could ever have imagined. All I could hear were thuds as I dropped the ball. I wasn’t alone. Others in my network of inspirational businesswomen with toddlers in tow were similarly out of sync. A genuine mass trauma ensued.
It took a frank conversation to becalm the nerves. A harsh talking to - from myself. To realise that I couldn’t be all-in, all the time. That no matter how much we tell ourselves to drink from the mythical cup, it is fruitless if the pot is running empty. Being responsible for others can be a weighty burden when livelihoods and well-being are on the line. Retaining enough resilience to keep the bottom line in rude health has rarely been more challenging for so many. But nothing is accomplished without oxygen. I ordered myself to breath, and exhale.
Because we all have our limitations. Looking down the recently-published Forbes list of The World’s Most Powerful Women, I spotted no obvious robots. No matter how forcefully we drive ourselves, we are all human at the end of each day. We laugh, we cry, we bleed, we fall and then pick ourselves up once again. Stronger and wiser for the occasional bump in the road.
In time, hopefully that’s how we can view this present strange era. A blip that stress tested us further than we could even have wished, an economic pothole that burst a few types but saw road and vehicle speedily repaired.
Vaccines have brought optimism. There were always opportunities ahead amid the worrisome threats. To move on and turn the page rather than regress. To keep being kinder to each other. And to ourselves, most of all.
Shuttling between home and office now feels normal again. Different too, in truth. Colleagues and partners have expanded their horizons in this altered universe where we can choose our own workplaces and smarter methodologies. Zoom has been through a few necessary upgrades. The novelty of easy access to the pantry has, thankfully, worn thin.
I still have a small boy to parent. A career that satisfies. An unstoppable drive to conquer my industry from within. Life. Work. The Universe. Everything. The ideal balance may always remain tantalisingly out of reach for any working mother. But liberation has drawn closer.
And recognising that the best way to have it all is to give myself the freedom to fall short on occasion may be the most priceless gift I receive this year.
This column first appeared in The Times on 14 December 2020.