A lot has been written about how COVID-19 has changed work for the millions of people fortunate enough to do a job that can be mostly fulfilled remotely. Zoom, Slack, partial office reopenings, no office, hotelling — you name it, and people have said it or written about it.
But what the Future of Work discussion misses is that it’s about the future of life, not work. It was a trend already in motion, ushered in by Millennials who let employers know that they prioritized values-driven organizations that cared about their happiness over earning a few more dollars in a job that expected 60-hour weeks and scant time off.
It said that work wouldn’t define a person’s perceived self-worth or sense of a fulfilled life, but was instead a means to enable their passions outside of work, in the moment, like traveling, family, friends, hobbies, etc. It was a big shift in thinking.
When I started my career, I was a younger GenXer who entered the workforce during peak client-server but pre-cloud and VPN, so the only option to work was in the office itself at my PC. With 8:30 a.m. - 6:00 p.m. expected office hours and about 2.5 hours of commuting time per day on average, I spent at least 12 hours per day, five days per week doing something other than seeing my young kids, wife, family and friends. The introduction of VPNs and Blackberries didn’t help work become less intrusive in life: it made it even more so by opening up nights and weekends to the corporate network and email. My employer at the time was certainly not to blame — we had a good culture and better than most — but it was a sign of the times and a reality. There were no boundaries.
This is not meant to be a, “In my day, I walked uphill both ways in the snow to school” type of post. It is meant to explain why an entire generation of GenX founders and executives understand the life-work bias of younger generations and want to create it. And this is especially true in a high-burnout industry like PR where clients and your people feel the impact of turnover more acutely than other industries.
Again, this trend had already started but like digital transformation, it got turbocharged by the pandemic. People have experienced the joy of a commute-free day and the extra time it gives them to go for walks, work out, eat dinner and breakfast at a sane time, and, well, sleep. It’ll be even better when parents can send their kids back to school and daycare to quiet down the workday, and our evening pursuits can be more than Doordash and Netflix.
The pandemic ramped up empathy for our colleagues and clients, giving us a more personal view into how they live, work, and the challenges they face just to get work done. It created a new appreciation for travel, family time, social outings with colleagues and friends, and everything else that is possible in a post-COVID world with way less stress or guilt.
COVID shines a light on the need for more paid family leave and better paid sick support for PR professionals and people in every industry. It showed us that it is not our job that makes us who we are, but our impact on the people around us and the life experiences, moments, and memories we create with them.
I’ve had two jobs since I graduated in 1998. There are times when that could have been three, four or more, but I’ve always seen work as a means to fuel fulfillment in my personal life and not defining my life. My two jobs have allowed me to do that. Some might consider me a reminder of a bygone era when tenure at a job was considered the ultimate virtue and a sense of pride, but I see it as a virtuous sign that if you find a good company that cares as much about you as a person as they do about your productivity, that’s a great reason to stay. That care might be something that has to be earned — but it is worth a lot more to you and the people you work with than most things.
The future of work is about life. It’s about providing you with the means to have few regrets when you retire or die. As I look back at 45, I don’t regret being at the same title for almost three years during the dotcom recession or not taking a position that paid me more to start. I regret that this trend of prioritizing employee happiness and wellness wasn’t there sooner — for Boomers, the Greatest Generation, and me when my kids were little.
We do a lot of good as a society when we think about leaving the world a better place for future generations. Work is not life, but it is a big part. So let’s make the future of work about the future of life, and leave work a better place than we found it too.
Jason is president of Inkhouse and leads operations from the firm's San Francisco office. His singular mission is to debunk the myth that people can't be happy long term on the agency side of PR where he has spent more than 20 years working with companies in technology and consumer.