3 things we should unlearn from COVID-19

Finger clicking on a button that has the inscription “31 December 2019”.

Figure adapted by Patricia Gestoso from this image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay .

(7 min read)

Imagine you go into a one-week change management training with the expectation is that when you are back to work you’ll reassure everybody that there is no need to change. How does that sound?

Actually, this is what’s happening right now. We’ve been in a change management boot camp for 3 months now, at the cost of $2-4 trillion US$ (UNCTAD, Asian Development Bank), but most leaders keep using sentences such as “back to normal” and “resume”, or simply they have gone hiding. Do they really believe we can all go backwards in time to 31 December 2019? Are they lacking the creativity and energy to be the catalyst for a different future miles away from their vision four months ago? Or are they simply patronizing their citizens and employees by thinking that if they keep insisting on going forward to the past, we’ll all close our eyes to our individual and collective experiences during this crisis?

If it’s the latest, it’s not working.

One of the positive aspects of physical distancing for me has been the possibility to attend panels, connect with people, and participate in meetings well beyond my physical reach and that focus on outgroups (women, people with disabilities, non-white individuals) that discuss issues those communities are experiencing. Surprisingly, so far nobody has said “Before COVID-19, everything was wonderful, let’s go back as soon as possible”. Actually, attendees and host of the virtual events I’ve been in are adamant to see the pandemic as catalyst for change in business, in health, in financial independence, in education, in workplaces, in products, in access to power… In summary, as a transition from being an “economy” to being a “society” [source].

These groups are full of energetic, resilient, and creative people. However, the system is holding them back. As an example, last week I joined a meeting of women in business, mostly owners of MSME (Micro Small or Medium Enterprises). In spite of MSME accounting for 60% of employment and 52% turnover in UK [source], they were very vocal about the lack of clarity surrounding the help provided by the government and the messages of “sit tight” and “back to normal” coming from the top. More and more people agrees that that kind of messaging is counterproductive and that instead leaders should be prompting the exploration of new business models.

And what about employees? What I’m hearing it’s that actually this denial of acknowledging there is no way back is one of their main source of stress. The reality is that we cannot wipe out these months and that there is no “one solution fits all”. Some employees have found that they love working from home and they are concerned it goes away in the future. Others are now sure they want to work from an office but they are worried that their employer closes all offices and makes it a requirement to work from home. There are also people that will like to work from home but because the current challenges they are experiencing – such as home schooling and caregiving – are concerned they won’t be allowed to do so in the future.

Are all those individuals naive in thinking that a better future is possible? Do we have any other options than waiting to know the exact date the world will be reset back to 1st January 2020?

Change management is both about learning new things and unlearning old things.

Claire-Marie Boggiano

Business Change Expert and Coach, Lurig Change & Development

What about if in addition (or instead) of learning about COVID-19, we reflect about what we can unlearn from it?

I have three suggestions:

Unlearning #1: Stop the systemic minimization of women’s work and professions that are stereotyped as female

When Hugo Chavez fired 18,000 employees of Petroleos of Venezuela in 2002-2003 and replaced them with employees loyal to his government [source], nationals got acquainted with a slogan that loosely translates as “give a chavista – a Chavez supporter – a manual and he’ll be able to accomplish anything”. This deeply resonates with how history and recent events see the work of women: Anything done by a women can be seamless handed over to somebody else without experience.

For example, let’s take the construction of the UK National Health Service (NHS) Nightingale hospital in London to tackle COVID-19. An incredible human and financial effort aiming to treat up to 4,000 patients simultaneously that was opened on 7 April. People treated up to 20 April? Only 41 due to their inability to admit patients. One of the main reasons? Whilst they have almost 4,000 beds and doctors, they don’t have enough critical care nurses [source1, source2]. Who would have suspected that nurses actually do a specialized job that cannot be randomly assigned to a doctor, a janitor or an anesthetist?

What about home schooling? Most countries have assumed that during the lockdown parents and internet can take over education and then effortless handed it over to classrooms without losing a beat. Should the students fail, let’s collectively blame both the parents – who dropped the ball – and the teachers – who didn’t do a good job at “virtualizing” a material that was never intended to be delivered any other way than face to face. Again, if we really valued the amount of knowledge and experience needed to teach, we wouldn’t be asking parents to do it on-the-fly. As daughter, granddaughter, and niece of teachers, former assistant lecturer at the university, and head of training for a software company,  I’m keenly aware of the level of specialization and skill required to teach different topics to different audiences. However, as a society, we appear to believe that teaching children – a stereotypical female job – can be pulled off on a whim.

Will this pandemic finally succeed on making us treat stereotypical female jobs with the respect they deserve?

Unlearning #2: Women bodies are different that the “standard” male body

We keep design the world for men. This is disguised with words such as: standard, normal, unisex, one size. As Caroline Criado Perez details in her book “Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men” [source], the male body has been consistently used as the baseline for providing healthcare, building cities, passing safety tests, or creating voice recognition systems, to mention a few. For women, this has led to subpar experiences at best and death at worst.

Unfortunately, that unisex default extends to the workplace. In 2016, Spanish military police consistently failed to provide female officers with bulletproof jackets specifically designed for women to the extent of penalizing those women that dared to buy their own (£430) and use it [source]. Well-fitted protection bulletproof jackets are not a nice to have, they can be the difference between live and injury or death.

Latest example? The UK female healthcare staff being provided with “unisex” Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) designed for a male face and body [source]. We salute health workers every Thursday at 8 pm but, by giving them subpar equipment, we fail to ensure that they are safe whilst saving our lives. Given that 75% of the workers in the UK health system have a female body, is it too  much to ask for their PPE needs become the “standard” rather than the exception?  

Now that, in spite of failing to systematically to record gender desegregated data, we are aware that more men than women are dying from COVID-19 [source], will we finally acknowledge that women and male bodies are different?

Unlearning #3: Unpaid care work is work

Unpaid care work makes the world turn. Household duties; parenting; caring for the sick, elderly and people with disabilities; emotional support for friends, family and colleagues; arranging birthday parties at work [source]… the list goes on. However, we make it invisible. The effort and time spent on it is not accounted for. It’s not paid. It doesn’t qualify towards retirement. In summary, we assume that care work (a) it’s not “real” work, and (b) it’s  “undertaken out of affection or a sense of responsibility for other people, with no expectation of immediate pecuniary reward.” [source].

Does that mean that we should only paid employees that are demotivated and despise their colleagues?

Whilst the benefits of care work are widespread, the burden is not. Women perform more than three times the unpaid care work that men perform [source]. This has impact on the short term – the double duty for women working both at home and outside – and long term – the years of loss of earnings. I think about my mother and the time she dedicated 100% to caring for the house and the family when I was a toddler. Those years never counted towards her retirement. Once she started working, the additional hours she dedicated to household chores, helping me with the homework, caring for me when I was sick… those didn’t count either. The solution? Keep working outside home additional years after the legal retirement date to make up for the difference. Too many women spent their lives caring for all of those around them to end without any money of their own. The reason, “they didn’t work”.

COVID-19 is having a disproportionate effect on the responsibilities of caregivers at home – mainly women – increasing their unpaid care work, impacting their career prospects, and reducing their leisure time [source]. We may not be able to act on it right now, but we can record the impact to inform future decisions. This may sound trivial in the great scheme of things, but we’ve consistently failed to learn from other outbreaks such as Ebola and Zika because we stubbornly adopted a gender-neutral approach to gather data.

In her book “Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice”, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha highlights the dichotomy of care work. Whilst it’s absolutely necessary for keeping the world running, unpaid caregiving is taken for granted, and most care workers are expected to have limitless capacity to give. She also details how keeping a record of the free caregiving she was providing helped her to clarify what kinds of carework were rewarding and which ones were draining.

Are you tired to see your unpaid caregiver efforts minimized or taken for granted? Wondering what your caregiving week looks like?

Only what gets measured gets managed! Start recording it. If a piece of paper or a spreadsheet looks unappealing, try the Fair Care Tracker, a free desktop online tool aimed to caregivers that want to (a) record the unpaid work they perform, (b) assess the value they get in return, (c) reflect on the skills they develop, and (d) quantify the uncollected revenue.

Fair Care Tracker user interface screenshot by Patricia Gestoso (c).

Fair Care Tracker user interface screenshot by Patricia Gestoso ©.

Whatever the tool you use, commit to record your care work time for a week, who you do it for, and what you get out of it. The data may help to re-negotiate some of it, realize you need help, or take stock of all the different ways in which you contribute to the well-being of those around you.

My hope is this pandemic makes us finally abandon the business and political messiahs that promise to take us back to glorious past times or anchor us in the present, who thrive on the fear of the unknown and the difference. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that for those leaders winter is coming.

Are you looking to “go back” or “go forwards”?

How does this article resonate with you?