Since the pandemic shut everything down, “face time” at my day job means conducting business through narrow digital tunnels.
When speaking, I’ve learned to fix my gaze on the tiny glass eye at the top edge of my monitor, not my listener’s face, to look like I’m making eye contact. When not speaking, I glance furtively at my profile window: Does my smile look like a smirk? Does my “church face” look attentive or hostile? Wait, who’s talking now? Nonverbal cues are flattened, muted or delayed, so my reactions are perpetually slightly out of sync with everyone else’s.
By the time the call ends, I’m in a flop sweat from trying to communicate while also self-monitoring every voluntary and involuntary movement of my face and body. An hour of this leaves me both amped up and depleted, like an empty-calorie snack.
The popular name for this condition is “Zoom fatigue,” but to people with sensory processing differences, attention-deficit disorder or autism, it’s Tuesday. Interviewing neurodiversity experts and advocates, I learn about adaptations that help neurodiverse individuals navigate daily interactions — rules for engagement, pre-reads, defined agendas, follow-ups for clarity — and how they can also keep virtual meeting participants on track and engaged. In having to consciously adapt to an uncomfortable new-to-me experience, I’ve learned a more effective and efficient way to work. Accessibility advocates call this the curb-cut effect: An accommodation designed for a minority becomes a ubiquitous feature everyone can benefit from.
To illustrate the post-pandemic workplace, I could interview HR and real estate experts about reconfigured office space, real estate footprints, telework. After decades of open-plan enthusiasts touting the benefits of wide-open workplaces — Synergy! Flat organization! The air crackling with spontaneous interfacing! — the novel coronavirus had us backpedaling seemingly overnight. Employers embraced telecommuting, installed barriers and started giving employees a little more personal space.
I could joke about how complaints in my inbox about co-workers’ noise and smells and distractingly low-cut shirts have been replaced by complaints about open-mouth chewers on videoconferences and co-workers with noses protruding outside their masks.
I could discuss how the crisis burned away needless workplace constructs and principles from bygone eras. Like the wide-eyed, pajama-clad professional in the Emily Flake New Yorker cartoon, many of us came to the startling epiphany that those meetings really could all have been emails.
I could fret about the threats to employee privacy presented by temperature screenings and contact-tracing apps. I might speculate whether having coronavirus antibodies will become a factor in deciding who gets certain high-profile client assignments and travel opportunities. (It sounds dystopian, but there’s a reason we had to enact a law called the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act. Like Dr. Seuss’s “Sneetches,” we can turn any personal feature into an excuse to discriminate.)
But what I’m really interested in are the less visible changes the pandemic has wrought. Being forced into uncomfortable, new-to-us situations has given many of us an opening to reconsider how we think about ourselves as workers, the value we place on different kinds of work and the kinds of working conditions we’re willing to accept going forward. It’s also created incentive to listen more closely to the voices that had been calling for change all along.
Outrage burns hot, fueled by injustice — and in 2020, dry tinder is everywhere to be found. In the workplace context, the lowest-paid workers turned out to be some of the most essential ones, and the ones at greatest risk, when the shutdowns began. They were stocking the shelves and driving the trucks and delivering the supplies we needed to survive. They were running double shifts at hospitals and going into full-time quarantine at nursing homes with their vulnerable charges. Not surprisingly, a disproportionate number of those workers were also low on the privilege ladder in terms of race and citizenship status. Black, Native American, Latino and immigrant communities suffered disproportionate loss of life because medical resources were out of reach and staying at home without pay was simply not an option.
And when workers like these were rewarded in inverse proportion to the importance of their work — when they were ordered back to their jobs without proper sanitation or PPE; when they were fired for refusing to expose themselves or for raising their voices in protest; when they were stiffed on promised tips and hazard pay — we were outraged.
The problem with outrage is that it usually burns hot, then quickly cools into ashy indifference. But occasionally, something keeps the coals of that outrage banked and smoldering: empathy.
The pandemic has forced empathy on us; it has pinched our noses shut and forced us to hold those coals in our mouths.
Pre-pandemic, although I endorsed the idea of mental health days, I seldom admitted to taking them. But over the spring, as the news cycle unfurled fresh hell by the minute like a fractal of horrors, I was forced to accept that every two or three functional days would be followed by a day of recovery. Allostatic overload, the term for what happens to a brain processing stress signals nonstop, was consuming my mental and physical resources faster than I could replenish them.
At my day job, colleagues and I joked about scheduling our respective breakdowns so we could cover for each other. Discussing our emotional state became the norm; the “function, function, collapse” cycle was something we all could empathize with.
As a mom with a full-time day job and a fulfilling but challenging side gig, I’ve long been used to robbing Mary to pay Peter and Paul. I was already intimately familiar with the concept of what Brigid Schulte in her book “Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time” calls “time confetti”— where blocks of productive time are fragmented and disrupted by the overlapping demands of work, family and the effort required — usually from mothers — to manage it all.
Coronavirus shredded that time confetti down to its atomic components and blasted it with a leaf blower. When schools and summer camps closed, like every other parent, I suddenly had an additional full-time gig. Every task and email and meeting had to be trimmed and shimmed and sanded to fit alongside overseeing classwork, fixing meals and refereeing conflicts. TV and iPads bought me more time than I care to admit, but granting screen time is like feeding a Mogwai after dark: While I banged out emails, my brain was constantly keeping track of how many minutes were left until the figurative midnight stroke when my docile critters would transform into feral, overstimulated Gremlins.
Still, I was lucky; from day one of the pandemic, my managers, parents or not, encouraged us all to take care of family first. And shortly thereafter when I moved into my own place as a divorced co-parent, I began alternating my “time confetti” custodial weeks with weeks of what felt like superhuman productivity, when I only had my one-and-a-half paying jobs to focus on. But I’ve never quite been able to shake off the low-level anxiety familiar to most working parents: Will I be penalized, subtly if not overtly, for taking advantage of emergency benefits or asking others to work around my needs?
My fears are stoked by stories like the one from a worker who was fired because she couldn’t prevent her preschooler and infant from being heard in the background on client calls and the successful business owner who shuttered her small company because her husband — “on a break” from his own career — couldn’t manage looking after their 3-year-old. Working-mom empathy keeps my outrage for them alive. I can too easily imagine myself in their place.
Now that … what’s next?
It feels ghoulish to think of an apocalyptic event like the coronavirus pandemic in terms of opportunity. But I can’t help believing that the pandemic has stripped away the official excuses for denying living wages, paid leave and flexible, inclusive workplaces. Within weeks, paid leave and supplemental income laws that had always been deemed too expensive and complicated to implement were hastily kludged together — patchwork parachutes and duct-tape tourniquets to slow our fall and keep us alive until the crisis waned. Accommodations that had been broadly denied as burdensome or damaging to productivity suddenly became standard operating procedure. Now that we’ve seen how vital these protections are, how do we go back to not having them at all?
And on an individual level, the pandemic has stripped away our excuses for refusing to understand other people’s struggles.
Now that we’ve experienced a fraction of the financial and existential vertigo many people live with daily, how can we deny them a stronger safety net?
Now that we’ve recognized the essential nature of the work performed in many of our lowest-paid professions, will we support those workers accordingly with adequate wages and protections against abuse, exploitation and xenophobia?
More specifically, has the anti-racist outrage burning across our country generated enough light to also expose the societal and economic inequities that compel Black, Brown and immigrant workers to literally work themselves to death? Will that outrage generate enough heat to cook up some answers?
Will the millions of workers who were set adrift by the virus but buoyed up by accessible unemployment benefits enter voting booths determined to build more lifeboats?
Will accommodations such as telework and flexible schedules, often grudgingly granted to comply with disability law, become the curb cuts of the workplace?
Now that more of us have an idea what it’s like trying to perform when our traumatized minds and cortisol-saturated bodies refuse to cooperate, can we eliminate stigma against seeking treatment and accommodating mental health needs?
Now that many of us have faced the terrible choice between keeping our job and protecting our family — Do I dare go to the office and risk becoming a vector? Do I invite a potentially infectious caretaker into our home, or allow my children to enter someone else’s? Can I afford to school the kids at home? Can I afford not to? — can we agree to make safe, reliable, accessible care systems a priority?
Now that many of us have had months to settle into our own most productive rhythms and work habits, can we cultivate patience toward those who gravitate to different schedules and ways of working?
Now that many of us have experienced what it’s like having to work and educate future workers through unprecedented turmoil, often relying on neighbors and underfunded systems for support, can we spare a thought for people whose daily lives and educational opportunities have long hampered by chaos and lack of resources, technology, infrastructure, community?
For someone who’s used to coming up with workplace solutions, all I’ve got are questions. But I hope that whatever long-term answers we find in the wake of this national trauma, even if ignited by outrage, will be sustained by empathy.
Karla L. Miller writes the Work Advice column in Sunday Business. Illustrations by Jenn Liv.