Report from the Bank of America Institute for Women’s Entrepreneurship at Cornell University– Dr. Deborah Streeter (Faculty Director) and Kirsten Barker (Program Director)
Recently we reached out to the Institute participants and asked about how everyone is coping with what psychotherapist Esther Perel calls “working with home” in a recent podcast. (See full text of our email at the end of the article.) We asked three questions:
- How are you managing your work with home?
- How have you experienced a rearrangement of priorities due to the pandemic?
- For you, during the pandemic, what has been the “light shining through the cracks” in terms of relationships and your business?”
We received more than 100 responses and the comments were wide-ranging and heartfelt. For example, Sherley* responded, “This pandemic is strange,” reflecting the dismay many feel at this time in our country’s history. Cydney echoed the feelings of many when she responded, “Life is not the same for any of us.” Even though she expressed a certain powerlessness (“I have invited work into my home not by choice but by circumstance”), she also acknowledged the privilege of being able to work from home. Many answers were nuanced, describing both the good and the bad outcomes these entrepreneurs are experiencing. Veonne characterized the ambiguity this way: “[It’s] a mixture of greatness…and frustration,” bringing both gifts and burdens. There were expressions of joy and also of deep sadness. A common theme was the frustration and guilt arising from the conflicting roles women face as they try to balance home and work responsibilities. Elle admits that although she is coping, “Neither my kids nor my job are getting 100% from me.”
In this report, we do our best to capture the variety and intensity of various answers, focusing on three themes: 1) the benefits and costs of working with home, 2) the specific coping strategies people are employing and 3) the sources of “light shining through the cracks,” — what/who is providing hope and support during the pandemic.
Working with Home – Positive or negative?
1. The Downside
Perhaps the most devastating effect of the pandemic has been the loss of family and friends due to the COVID-19 virus. Another difficult outcome for some has been the disruption in business and loss of income. In fact, for many, work has been challenging or non-existent. Limitation in travel, interruptions in service-based businesses and declining revenues have hit small businesses very hard. Even for companies like Erica’s (Accent Group Solutions) who were designated “essential businesses” and received government relief (PPP), there were hard choices. For example, Erica faced difficult decisions regarding “right sizing our team, dramatically cutting expenses, and re-evaluating our remaining revenue.”
Another frequently mentioned problem was the extension of the workday. Many entrepreneurs reported struggling with priorities, noting that it was easier to prioritize when working outside the home. As Rehana put it, because of the circumstances of the pandemic “work requires a lot more hours.” Sherley found herself working 10-12 hours in the early stages of the pandemic, trying to “meet the expectations of a demanding and unappreciative boss.” By June she reached a breaking point and pushed back her hours. Many, especially single parents, mentioned exhaustion of managing work life and home responsibilities, such as taking care of infants, homeschooling kids or grandkids and/or caring for senior parents. Danielle said she is “basically up all day with the baby and all night working on my business. Some days, it’s beyond exhausting.” This conflict in role can create difficult choices. Elle, as a caregiver of both a chronically ill child and an elderly mother, noted that sometimes “personal work tasks get pushed to the back burner” and that it is “painful to turn down jobs.” And Dallisa notes that being single presents its own challenges. She notes that “nobody but me is holding me accountable to the amount of work I do and I tend to overwork…it has been lonesome at times.”
Fatigue was mentioned by many respondents, who reported headaches and eyestrain as a result of hours spent online and in Zoom meetings. Some reported “locked-in” syndrome, especially early on during more restrictive stay-at-home policies. Krishula always thought of her home as her “detox space and peace of mind after work” but during those early days there was a constant blurring between her business and home settings.
Working with home creates a lot of conflicts between the different roles that women play. With spouses and children all vying for internet bandwidth and quiet workspaces, some found it very difficult to be productive. The added burden of guiding children through online schooling also created difficulty in setting priorities and getting work done. Self-care, many reported often falls to the bottom of the list or doesn’t happen at all.
2. The Upside
Many reflections on the pandemic included gratitude for unintended consequences that have arisen from difficulties caused by the pandemic. For some, who characterized themselves as introverts or were already working at home, the change has been fairly straightforward. For example, for Laurat, said, “Home is safe, quiet, peaceful and a place to nurture and implement new ideas. For that reason I’ve launched new projects, ideas and partnerships.” For Christina, “the pandemic has offered me the ability to make all meetings remote meetings. I get nervous in person, but I’m very used to talking into a computer mic due to all the online games I played in college.”
By far the most often mentioned benefit was that people feel closer to family and friends. Mira said that instead of always giving priority to her clients’ needs, the pandemic forced her and others to hit the “pause” button. In doing so, she realized “that family, friendships and health should always take priority.” In a similar way, Beth said the situation has allowed her to “build better bonds with friends and family.” With more calls, emails and facetime sessions with family, respondents felt they had a strong support network. As Sheila put it, “We comfort one another, we love one another, we laugh and cry together.”
The dramatic impact of COVID seems to have had a way of clarifying personal decisions about relationships. In some cases, this has accelerated the end of a waning or unhealthy relationship. Natosha’s “personal relationship hit a rock and cracked wide open, I was in something that no longer served me…I won’t tolerate what I don’t need.” For others, like Danielle, “6 months working from home together was bound to have an effect on my marriage! Luckily, it was a good one. If anything, the pandemic has reminded me why we got married in the first place.” For Kara and her relationships, she was able to make distinctions: “Ones that I thought were lacking have grown stronger and those that I needed to let go of I have.” Carmella said she has attained a deeper understanding of self because she could “sit, think & reflect… and this has rolled over into my business as well… I’ve been able to deeply define my ‘why’ and found my motivation again.”
Other outcomes included the push toward more efficient organization and decision-making. In many cases, working at home was reported to have eliminated what used to be a long commute, and provided time to de-clutter and prioritize. Frequently, respondents mentioned that the heightened state of urgency caused by COVID-19 had resulted in the streamlining of decision-making. For example, Natasha shared that she felt a resurgence of creativity, because the pandemic “has allowed for an embrace of change and transition…in really quick span of time” and that as a result she “can no longer put things off or wait for the perfect time.” This feeling of being forced to prioritize was echoed by many other comments, such as Thien-Kim’s remark that she is “more ruthless about what is a priority and what can be done later.” Kimberly said that because of the threat of the virus, she has prioritized her health more and she is “[e]ating and exercising on a regular schedule for the first time in a decade.” Often comments reflected a feeling of slowing down and a re-examination of the stressful pace of business and personal life. With great emphasis, Kim said she has realized “WHY DO I NEED TO RUSH ANYTHING?” Connie reported that “[e]very priority shifted. I went from is this a need or a want? On the scale of 1-10 how important is this or that?” Charita commented that she feels “empowered to decline requests without feeling guilty so that I don’t have to juggle so much.” By admitting the situation is “a one-wheeled wagon,” Kate allows herself “to ride the wave of the day without guilt.”
The pandemic seems to have brought awareness to many about what is important in their lives. For example, Erin relays that she has “made some bold choices because of it. I decided to pivot my business, go back to school, and reach out to someone I dated a long time ago and had never forgotten (and we’re happily together again… she hadn’t forgotten either) because the pandemic just gave me such clarity: this is our one and only life… we don’t know how long we get.” Her advice: “send the letter, decide boldly, and live and work like you don’t get a second chance.” Likewise, Sheila reports “Because of the world stopping dead in its tracks, I have experienced a rearrangement in my priorities. I have decided to take a step back from my role [with a client] over the course of the next few months, and focus on expanding my business. I believe that if things had stayed the same and there had been no pandemic, I would not have considered this option.” For others, the situation has helped them make difficult decisions. Bernetta has seen this as a time to re-set, and to ask the question whether her business is really needed and where she really wants to do it. Michelle found her business hard hit and decided to refocus “on home, studying for a personal lifelong goal of passing the CPA exam, and pivoted my nonprofit to focusing on families in the community.” For Shubhra, her sustainable clothing business ground to a halt, forcing her to pivot towards building a consulting business.
Many expressed a renewed appreciation of the kindness of others. Rehana notes that everyone has been able to connect with people on a deeper level since they have more opportunities to reflect on the importance of relationships: “I think we’re much more aware of how fragile things can be since the pandemic has caused deaths and long-term illnesses in those who have recovered.” She notes that “people were usually ‘nice’ before, but people seem more ‘kind’ these days and genuine. Given the heightened emotions, we’re all giving each other more leeway, and I hope we also do that for ourselves.” Paris echoed this: “Friends are more present. The people around me are more focused on nourishing their relationships with one another & making those a priority over things that used to be so important like money. While money has great value, it is not as valuable as the bonds we make in this life. “
Surprisingly, there have also been some very positive business outcomes for some participants during this COVID-19 chaos. Aniya reported that she has been “able to better connect with clients over the internet and work on projects that I wasn’t able to before the pandemic took place.” Many respondents noted that current environment has driven them to expand the virtual side of their businesses, with good results. For example, Thien-Kim (Bawdy Bookworms) has found her business booming. Moniquea (LBE Business Solutions) and others have found the transition to increased online buying has meant her “opportunities have expanded and my business has grown!” Cassandra (The Stocks & Stilettos Society) was surprised by “an explosive growth spurt” resulting in an expansion in her staff. Tonya (Accented Glory) also found her business starting to thrive specifically because of changes in the current climate: “My sales have doubled and I attribute that to my marketing strategy, increase in online shopping, and movement to support black owned businesses. Some folks are choosing to protest social injustices with their dollars and supporting black brands.”
Strategies for surviving work with home
Whether on the positive or negative side of the ledger when it comes to dealing with COVID-19, respondents offered an abundance of good advice for surviving this time.
Respondents responded with many strategies for dealing with the stress of the current situation. To combat the isolation, Dara employs a strict schedule, punctuated with “random dance breaks.” Other types of strategies were mentioned, including Carmella’s “breaks for naps, stretching and eating,” and Kim’s creation of a “meditation space…an area that is sacred to me,” to make sure she maintains balance. In a similar vein, Kassy starts each day by taking three deep breaths and then proceeds to “journal my 3 things that I’m going to do with my business, 3 things I’ll do for my well-being or self, 3 things that I’m grateful for.” This helps her activate a “mindset shift…I get to prioritize what matters.” Christina, who has had to deal with not only the pandemic but also Hurricane Laura and Tropical Storm Beta, is using extra time to pursue hobbies as a distraction and stress relief strategy.
Organizing space and creating schedules were two frequently mentioned coping strategies. Many used the opportunity to upgrade their working/home spaces, like Connie who reported, “I really begin to rearrange everything including the furniture in my home. Seeing everything around me shift, I knew there needed to be a shift in me also.” Danielle has taken small steps to organize all parts of her home, including family, kitchen and work spaces, admitting that “[b]efore the pandemic I thought I was organized, but…I’ve realized how many things we kept the same even though they weren’t really working…our home is a lot more optimized for our everyday lives, and a lot prettier for us to look at!” Several people mentioned setting boundaries for how spaces are used, including Kassy’s rule that she and her husband will “work at our work stations and not inside our bedroom” in order to “declutter and set an intention to where you’re working.”
Some, like Kate, have found it important to rough out a schedule every morning, starting with a 4:30 am wake up time and including a chance “rest or collapse (your choice) at 9:20 for about 30 minutes.” Others also reported using a daily to-do list approach, with phone alerts at transition times. For example, Lesley emphasizes the importance of setting an alarm so you know when to “turn off”” because otherwise “before I know it , it’s 4 and I haven’t had lunch or it’s 9 and I’m still working.” For Erin it is important to set “self-care ‘non-negotiables’ like yoga, enough water, sleeping well, breaks during the day (this is hardest for me!), shutting off at a reasonable time (because working late into the night *seems* like a good idea, but wrecks mental health…).” Some of these strategies are difficult to employ if you are in a small space. Courtney notes that since she is in a small condo, “it’s difficult to completely separate the ‘home’ part of my home, and the ‘work’ area. I’ve failed miserably the past week, but my plan was to never turn on the tv during working hours.”
Many mentioned that they set priorities more carefully, continually questioning “what matters?” Natosha is explicit: “I don’t do anything that makes me unhappy. I’ve started a garden, sewing, purging my home and making sure I spend quality time with my children and family.” Some, like Tricia, “set specific office hours” to establish a consistent response time. Others, like Shakira, have rules such as “no emails after 6:00 pm.” Other time management ideas include: avoiding a commitment to too many tasks outside work, outsourcing tasks that are not in your core competence, and limiting meetings with friends to those you care about. Shamarla stated, “My priorities are simple now: I just want family and I to stay alive.” Many echoed this, stating that family and loved ones are the number one priority now. Jera is being “scrupulous about what I bring back into my life in terms of commitments and standing activities. Even with my business, if the project is too complicated, this is not the right time to take on that addition.” Paris sums this up: “Things that used to be important no longer are, the bigger picture is clearer.”
There were also many comments that suggested help in terms of managing family pressures. For example, some are scheduling buffer times between tasks to check in with kids who need emotional or logistical support, creating checklists for home care tasks, taking shifts with partners, and grocery shopping during the week to avoid the crowds. Sheena puts it well: “There is no blueprint on how to deal with a pandemic raising a family with small children or even running your business from home….we are all human and that is our super power.”
3. Attitude Adjustments
Women who responded to these questions often observed internal changes they are feeling. Often this was described as a sort of call for empathy. Pandemic mantras were offered up, such as Danielle’s (“be kind”) and Toni‘s (“Balance, Grace, and Humanity”). With a similar theme, Cydney says we all should “extend amounts of grace to one another no matter where you fall on hierarchical ladder in your company. Life is not the same for any of us and…[this is a] gentle reminder that I have an option of how I do my job from home.” In a related vein, Ashley said she was focusing on giving herself the “grace to grow through the uncertainty. I’ve learned to loosen the reigns and be okay with a new rhythm.” Deepening her understanding of herself because of the opportunity sit, think and reflect,” Carmella has been able to “deeply define my ‘why’ and found my motivation again… I don’t feel like I’m in a rat race anymore… the extra time has helped me to take time to see and fully understand the bigger picture at hand.” Perhaps Toni sums it up best by saying. “This pandemic…is a gift in the form of a reset button wrapped in very ugly holiday paper… there is beauty in this moment but you have got to shut out the noise to see it.”
Some are finding that the pandemic has helped them evolve and grow in confidence. Keisha has greatly enjoyed her “time away from outside influences and energies” and Natasha says “I can no longer be worried or concerned with what I perceive others will think or say about me stepping out on my own to own my own business. I can no longer create limitations to my ability.” Likewise, Bethany confides that on a deeper level, “fear has been holding back my creativity.” Courtney says “I always wanted to be a creative person…it took a life-changing pandemic to expose that part of my life” resulting in writing and self-publishing a book.
Light Shining Through the Cracks
In commenting on the current state of the world in a podcast, Psychotherapist Esther Perel comments: “In the relational sense…a pandemic, a disaster, often will highlight the cracks and it will also highlight the light that shines through the cracks.”
Respondents identified many sources of light shining through the difficulties they are dealing with during this crisis. (One even said that the Institute courses were helpful!) The number one source they identified: Family. As Niharika put it, she feels support from “[an] understanding partner, smiles from my child, stability of work and home.” For Kim, as result of living in such close quarters, “[w]e all talk more and make time to really let each other know how we appreciate each other.” She has lost several family and friends during COVID times and because of it, “this it has made all of us really place value on the important things. Not stuff but PEACE.” Sheena pointed out, “we all share a commonality of being home. We are all making the best of what we are currently in and it helps in terms of encouraging each other.” Husbands, partners, fathers, mothers, children, and other relatives – all were mentioned in various comments as important sources of hope.
Entrepreneurs are also deriving strength from their clients. For example, Natalya says, “the light that has been shining all these months is the emotional support of my existing patients who want my business to survive and flourish.” This support has made her “really appreciate the bonds” that she established with them over time. Tonika echoed this, calling the pandemic “an experience like none other and one that I hope will never occur again.” She expresses thankfulness for ongoing client work, noting, “I have chosen to give my time to listen, laugh and learn. This has proven to aid in maintaining the normalcy that I need to thrive…I have given myself grace and been more than forgiving when I need to take a break.“ Mych’layla pointed out “[p]eople want hope…they need hope,” and added that the virtual setting for her meetings has allowed her clients to reach out to her despite the need for social distance: “The pandemic has strengthened my business relationships as well as those in my home.“
There were also expressions of hope for the future. Kimberly expressed this optimism: “[the pandemic] has been an unplanned sabbatical which is filling me back up so I can be more present in the future.” Talking about both the cracks and the light, Tonika addressed the “gaping hole” that has been revealed: “So many things have been revealed about our country- its politics, infrastructure, healthcare, racism, etc. ” As a result, she pointed out, there is the new level of awareness and an opportunity to change what had blindly been accepted as the norm. “The light has always been present but there has been apprehension to allow it to shine. In this time, I have seen the light and it shines brightly for me. I feel its warmth and I am renewed. I have honored this time despite the disruption it has caused to my former way of living…I have paused and acknowledged how I am feeling and what I can control.” Echoing many others, she goes on: “For me this has created an opportunity to connect and reconnect with family and friends in ways that I had not thought about. Things are not ideal but the power that is found in speaking the truth about pain, worry, and hope has fortified me. That power has been fuel to move my business forward and I am growing professionally.” She ends by saying “Today I am thankful that I see the light and the light is exactly what I need.”
*We have opted to use only first names in this report. Where we have permission, we occasionally mention company names.
This is the question that we asked participants which led to these thoughtful responses: Today is the first day of fall, typically a time of new beginnings, most clearly symbolized by the start of a new school year. But in 2020, instead of feeling like a fresh start, fall has been characterized by chaos in school openings, tragic weather events and a tense political environment. As a result, today we are reaching out to hear about how this has been impacting each of you. A recent episode of the Ted Radio Hour podcast featured Psychotherapist and New York Times bestselling author Esther Perel. The discussion is focused on ideas about how to create lasting bonds in romance, family, and at work. Towards the end of the episode, the hosts asks Esther how she sees the pandemic impacting the world of relationships at work. Here are a few excerpts that caught our attention: “I don’t think we are working from home, I think we are working with home…[we] are inhabiting all our roles at the same time…it’s all happening in the same chair in the kitchen.” “What a pandemic does, for work and for personal, it rearranges your priorities…[like other disasters, it] is an accelerator because it bring loss to the forefront. At that moment, you say “What am I waiting for? I’m going to do what is important… I don’t want to accept things that the brevity of life doesn’t allow me to accept anymore.” Esther predicts a burst of creativity as a result of the pandemic because “there is a rearrangements of priorities and a reaching for the essence.” In her experience, people are having “much deeper conversations…there is a level of depth that is resurfacing that is very beautiful.” And finally, she comments: “In the relational sense…a pandemic, a disaster, often will highlight the cracks and it will also highlight the light that shines through the cracks.” Now it’s your turn. Please share your thoughts on any/all of these three questions: 1) How are you managing your work with home? 2) How have you experienced a rearrangement of priorities due to the pandemic? 3) For you, during the pandemic, what has been the “light shining through the cracks” in terms of relationships and your business?”