Nicole M. Coover
University of Maryland Robert H. Smith School of Management
The pandemic has changed the amount of time and energy people spend at work, raising concerns about work-life balance.
In my latest research project, my co-authors and I interviewed working mothers about their experiences during COVID. What we found: After the initial ruckus of seeing people put in extra hours to ensure the success of their organizations, people began to realize that the increased workload didn’t go away.
When I interviewed women in the spring and summer of 2021, that was just when the fatigue started to set in. What really matters? What values do they want their lives to reflect? They can only run at top speed for a long time.
The 2022 Women’s Workplace Report by LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Co. supports our findings. Women who shoulder disproportionate childcare and household responsibilities are leaving the workforce at the highest rate in years. Many people are changing jobs for new and better opportunities.
However, some are contemplating downshifting or even retiring entirely. According to the report, last year, 29% of women and 22% of men have considered working fewer hours, taking a less demanding job, or quitting their jobs altogether.
If you’re considering a move like this, there are a few big factors to consider first.
do a valuation. Think about what you want for your family in the long run. Know your non-negotiables. If a job opportunity doesn’t fit those values, and you can afford it, pass it on for better opportunities. Don’t go to a job that doesn’t give you the flexibility you need.
Perform a needs assessment. What do you and your family need right now? Not everyone can afford to quit their job, so it’s important to evaluate your options. Can you save money on childcare and other services you currently pay for (cleaning service, grocery delivery, yard service, etc.) by working less? Can you size down to one car?
Part-time is not a panacea. Working less may give you more time to balance family commitments, but consider the trade-offs carefully. In many cases, it depends on your role and career aspirations, and whether you can set clear boundaries with your employer about when to work. In the long run, it may pay off for the salary you can afford. However, as historically as it has been, there are many things we don’t know post-COVID.
defend yourself. We know from research that women who advocate for themselves are often punished, so we know to get involved. But negotiations aren’t always about money. Can you clarify responsibilities? Can you create a structure where expectations are clear and not “always on” (i.e. no need to respond to emails after a certain time, 3 afternoons a week? (e.g., you can leave work at 4 o’clock).
Promote structured flexibility. “Flexibility” is great if you need to work from home if your kids are sick or waiting for the plumber. But what you really need is structured flexibility—a predictable work schedule that works for your life. This means you’ll show up early some days and late some days, but it’s consistent from week to week so you can plan. Set clear boundaries with your boss. And if you’re in a management position, set expectations for yourself and stick to them.
See the big picture. When evaluating your time, look at the entire week. Instead of focusing on working five nights a week, you might be focusing on two nights a week when you work late and don’t have a chance to put your kids to bed. If you track your time and activity over the course of a week, does it align with your values?
If you do decide to downshift for now, use consulting or volunteering or the opportunity to complete a graduate degree to keep your professional skills up to date. , that is, aligned with your values and ready to take advantage of the opportunity to work for your family when it arises.
Nicole M. Coomber is Associate Dean of Alumni and Corporate Engagement at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. She is also a clinical professor of administration and organization.