The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The covid-era workplace: Hard questions, no easy answers

The pandemic has been a stress test for us all, but the results can tell us what needs to be fixed.

(Stefan Wermuth/Bloomberg News)

When the going’s been tough and the outlook is bleak, it helps to look back at past challenges as a reminder of how far we’ve come. That’s why I like to check in with former advice seekers to see how they’ve overcome their obstacles, faced their fears and moved on to better things.

Let’s start with the mom whose boss was tired of her bringing her daughter to work when schools shut down because of covid:

I am still at my job, and I continued taking my daughter to work until school opened in October. I don’t have the stress of getting her online while at work anymore, but I still have to do schoolwork with her when she gets home. I pray schools won’t close again.

I am looking for different kinds of things that I can do from home. I am starting my own side business, and I also obtained my commission to be a notary public. If I had known all this would happen, I would have started setting up my side business a long time ago.

I didn’t make it’ A Walt Disney World waitress struggles to hold on to her middle-class life amid a pandemic and catastrophic layoff

Okay, not exactly a happy ending neatly tied off with a bow. How about the nonprofit employee who was hoping to get reimbursed for the expense of setting up a work space at home?

Shortly after I wrote you, our CEO suddenly resigned and we lost another executive, so our organization has been working through the pandemic without a full management team. Since there are only a few of us remote employees out of several-hundred staff, we are likely going to have to eat the costs of working from home because we are afraid to bring it up with our already strained leadership team.

Clearly, 2020 does not want to work with me on this.

Then again, maybe it’s a bit premature to be looking for happy endings. The pandemic has been the ultimate stress test on us and on our nation, and it doesn’t hew to human timelines. The best we can do is look at what the results so far are showing us about what’s working right, and get started trying to fix what isn’t.

On the national level, this crisis has made clear the things we seem to be doing well — technology, adaptability, scientific advancement — while demonstrating the devastating effects in areas where we’re falling short: equal access to the fruits of all those achievements. At an individual level, it’s highlighted how certain jobs and career paths aren’t serving our needs — while denying us the usual outlets and distractions that keep those problems back of mind.

Top Workplaces 2020: How the concept of work has shifted.

Of course, the ability to forget and minimize discomfort is a basic human adaptation. But if we can sustain some of the urgency we’re feeling now, mid-crisis, and stay focused on implementing long-term solutions for the flaws we’ve unsuccessfully tried to bury under layers of patches, then we may actually work our way toward something like a happy outcome.

For workers, that can mean rewriting that résumé or signing up for training, or digging in to uproot personal obstacles that are holding us back. It can mean getting involved in efforts to organize or advocate for large-scale change with managers, employers, elected officials. It can mean contributing time, money or expertise to those who can use a boost at work or in the community.

I know — all easier said than done, when we’re all feeling beaten down and stuck in place. But even a small move toward something a little better and a little brighter can get you that much closer to being unstuck.

This year has revealed the leaks, gaps, faults and rotted stairsteps in our workplaces, economy, education, public-health systems and social safety nets.

But, with apologies to Leonard Cohen, those cracks are how the light gets in.