Crucial Wisdom for Those Looking to Get Back to Work

back to work

Today I’m talking with someone who helps people think about work in new ways all day, every day. And she knows a lot about how to counsel people who are making changes in their work lives. Tami Forman is the executive director of Path Forward, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to give people who’ve taken time away from work to care for their loved ones, the opportunity to reenter the workforce. I’m excited to hear Tami’s perspective on the great work reassessment that we are experiencing collectively in 2021.

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Tami, welcome to the podcast. It’s really great to have you here.  So help situate us in the realities of work and women in the U S right now, post pandemic, or mostly post pandemic. How many of us lost jobs and are they coming back?

Yeah, it’s not great. Right? Millions lost jobs. Of the last stat I saw showed that women’s workforce participation rates had fallen to their lowest level since I think 1988, something like that. So that’s, that’s kind of horrifying.

Are they coming back? Yes, with some caveats. Obviously there are sectors of the economy that were more severely affected directly by the pandemic. So you can think about things like travel, hospitality, that seems to be coming back online now. And I think we’ll see a real burst of economic energy coming into the fall. Broadway’s going to reopen, you’re going to start to see more live events. I think once kids under 12 are able to be vaccinated, you’re going to see a lot more activity across a lot of different sectors. So I think they’re going to continue to open up.

In the professional sector, we’re seeing hiring is back booming again. Right back to the levels we were seeing back in 2018 and 2019. So they’re coming back. There’s a lot of disconnects in the workforce right now. And one big one I think is people are kind of, sort of paying attention to, but not enough attention to, is childcare. Many schools are still closed either fully or partially. And of course, many schools are now closing for the summer. The summer camps are, some of them are open, some of them are not.

Because of some of the legislation that Biden’s signed when he came, New York City is now offering summer programming to any New York city public school student who wants it. This is the first time ever in New York city has offered basically free summer school to anyone. And it’s not really summer school. There’s some academic, but it’s really free summer camp. So that’s good. Those are some good signs, but that’s certainly not widespread at this point.

And then like childcare, younger childcare has been decimated, right? Daycares have closed all over the place. So families are really struggling to find what they need for caregiving, which of course is holding back women’s workforce. These things are related quite closely.

Right. It’s awfully hard to go to work if you don’t have any money to pay someone to take care of your three-year-old.

Yeah. Basically impossible.

Tami Forman of Path Forward discusses how to make work work better for you on the How to Be a Better Person podcast

So you touch on one thing already in answer to this question, but what kinds of things are we realizing that we need out of our jobs in our work lives? So part of that is care, right? But what other kinds of things are you hearing people talk about that are necessary going forward that we have to prioritize?

Well, I think that the great reassessment is a great way to say it and I don’t think there’s going to be one big moment and everybody’s going to make a decision. Right? All the employers are going to decide, okay, we’re doing it this way and then that’s going to be it. Like I think what you’re seeing even right now is companies come out and saying, we’re doing it this way. And then when half the highest ranking employees quit, they go, oh, well, maybe we don’t want to do that.

So I think there’s going to be bursts of policies and then reactions to those policies. And then I think it’s going to be very disruptive for the next year, frankly. I think there’s just going to be a lot of moving pieces. As companies make policies, see how those policies then affect their employees, both their retention, their recruiting efforts, right? All the things that they pay attention to and then make adjustments to those policies and then see how those adjustments work. So I think we’re going to see a lot of churn in terms of employer policies around work.

I think we have to be careful about how we’re interpreting some of the data about what people say they will do. If, right? If my company makes me do this, then I will quit. There’s a big difference between telling a researcher that you will quit your job if X, Y, Z, and actually quitting your job. There’s some space between those two things. But do I think high talent, high performing people, have suddenly seen a new world to which they can aspire? Yeah. And I think that is going to have a dramatic effect.

I think people are starting to see that I can have my job and my work-life balance too. And I want to find a place that’s going to support that. And as someone who is running a small but mighty organization, that itself is remote, I feel like your loss is my gain. I’m going to hire the people that you won’t let work from home, happily.

I hope you are not alone because I do think a lot of people who have not had to commute and not had to spend all day in the confines of a particular physical location that’s not their home are like, I kinda like it out here.

Yeah. What I hope also happens and we’ll see, is do men start also demanding some of that flexibility and requesting some of that flexibility? Because the other thing I worry about right now is there was a story in one of the major publications, why all these women are quitting their jobs and they’re so much happier. And I’m like, Hmm, could we be careful about that?  I think it becomes real easy for us to all get very comfortable with the idea that moms enjoy working for free at home. And that that’s so much more fulfilling than anything they could possibly be doing in the down and dirty work force.

So I think we have to be careful about how we think about that reassessment. And is that reassessment happening more broadly? And are we making space collectively for men to reassess the relationship they want to have with work, and the relationship they want to have with their family, and how they want to manage their lives as well. Cause that would be very welcome for a lot of people, right?

For sure. Yes. Let’s get more equal parenting. Or let’s make it less gendered. So for women who either need to or want to get back into the workforce for whatever reason–maybe they were out voluntarily, or maybe they got squeezed out by the pandemic–what’s your advice for them?

The thing I always tell individual women is that there are systemic challenges that you’re going to come up against and you can’t change systems by yourself. So you don’t have to try. But you can also control the story that you tell yourself. So you can tell yourself a story that says, no one’s ever gonna hire me because I’ve been out of work too long. And we work with people just to be clear, who often have been out of work for 5, 10, 15 years, right? A lot of people are coming back into the workforce now after six months, 12 months, 18 months, and that’s going to be challenging. But you can tell yourself a story that says, no one’s ever gonna hire me because it’s been too long.

Or you can tell yourself a story that says, I have a lot of value. I have a lot to offer. I need to figure out the best way to offer that value. And I’m going to do that in a consistent way. And I’m going to find people who are going to affirm that for me. So a lot of the basics. It’s things like networking. It’s reaching out to people you’ve worked with, it’s reaching out to people in your community. And it’s having those good conversations and recognizing that it is going to be a long game. I tell women all the time, job hunting is terrible for everybody. It’s full of projection and it’s hard.

And you can again use those rejections as affirmations of the story you were telling yourself, or you can use them as stepping stones along the way and say, okay, that’s one more no that’s on the way to yes. And take more of a sales approach where I have to have a hundred conversations to get to 50 meetings, to get to however many sales. But the great thing about job hunting is you only need one, right? You only need one yes. You sort of build that consistency into how you’re approaching it.

And the other thing I tell women particularly, and there’s interesting research about particularly how heterosexual families view the unemployment of mothers versus fathers,  and the way they prioritize the time that men need to find job in a way that they don’t do for women. So I tell women all the time, not that you need my permission, but I’m explicitly giving you permission to take the time you need to spend networking, sending out applications, having meetings, figuring out what you need to do. You can make this a priority for yourself. And the dishes can sit in the sink for another day and the laundry can sit in the pile for another day. And you can make this a priority because it is.

Fantastic. Does that advice change at all for women who have a job or men who currently have a job, but you know, post pandemic, they’re realizing it’s time to look for something different?

So I don’t think the advice changes so much. Look, I think for anybody who wants to make a switch for whatever reason, whether that’s purpose-driven, or whatever, I think there are people right now who are having conversations with themselves and their partners about financial security and what that looks like in the face of cataclysms and what happens. I think there’s all kinds of reasons why people might be thinking like, oh, maybe I need to look for something different, better, more stable, more flexible. There’s all kinds of things.

So I think that advice stays the same. It’s funny that I do the work I do, helping women who’ve taken who’ve left the workforce completely. Because when I’m talking to women, I always say, if you can find a way to stay in, stay in. It’s so much easier to shift within the workforce than it is to go back from scratch. If you are in a situation where you feel like this just isn’t working for me, can you look for something else that would work for you? Can you renegotiate? Or I work part time? Can you push for some work from home? What would make this particular situation better?

There’s kind of two main career axes that we can move on. Right? One axis is the work we do. The physical, like the tasks. I think of that as the task list. I do marketing, I do finance, I do coding, right? And the other axis like, where you do it. Which is like the company, the industry. It’s always easier to move along one axis at a time.

So if you like the work you do, but you don’t like where you’re doing it, look to do the same work at another company or in another industry. Or the best case scenario is I love this company, I just don’t like the work I’m doing anymore. Because then you can look within that company. Like, what are some other things that I could try? And I might need to move lateral or take a step back, but I could try something else within this organization.

It’s always easier to move on one of those at a time than try to do something completely different in a completely different industry.

That’s so interesting. I’ve never heard it explained that way, but I thank you for that visual, helpful metaphor. What are the opportunities of this particular point in time about making work better for people, especially for people who care for others? There always are possibilities even within cataclysms, as you called them. So what are the possibilities of right now?

I think at a very basic level, we’re seeing different corporate policies coming out from different types of companies. And I don’t know what to tell you if you want to work for a big investment bank, you’re making your bed. Like that’s got to be what it’s going to be. I don’t know. I think the world is much bigger. And I think the reflexive ‘you can’t possibly do that work from home’ has kind of gone away.

And I would say the best opportunities are going to be available to people who have some flexibility, like who are open to being in an office some amount of time. I don’t think it’s impossible to find remote only. And in fact, I think there’s probably more opportunities to find remote only work than there have ever been. And I think that’s only going to increase. I think there are going to be just more and more jobs that companies of all sizes are open to hiring remote.

But I think people who are interested in more of a hybrid approach for themselves, right from their point of view, are going to just have so much opportunity and be able to really leverage their skills and talents in whole new ways. The dam has burst on the idea that you can’t be productive that way.

Right. Excellent. So it sounds like we want places of employment to be more flexible and let us work from home more. But if we can kind of meet them halfway and say, yeah, I can come in sometimes that might make us stand out at that point in time. Is that what you mean?

Yeah. I worry sometimes about the macro impacts of these things. Like I worry we’re not going to be super happy with how the world looks if we wake up in five or 10 years and it’s everybody in the office is single guys and maybe a few dads who have stay-at-home wives. And they’re running the place cause they’re the ones who came in every day. That’s not going to be a great world either.

There’s ways to mitigate against that, that don’t mean all the women have to come in either. Do you know what I mean? There’s other things we could do, but I think human nature is what it is. And I think for for women thinking about how they navigate their career I just keep coming back to, I want to make a space where it’s okay for moms to say, I still get to be ambitious, and I still get to be driven, and I still get to want to advance in my career. And it’s okay. Just as it is okay to make some career sacrifices sometimes for the sake of my family, it’s actually okay for me sometimes to do the opposite.

And then I want men to have that same conversation, which is sometimes I’m going to make the career sacrifice for the sake of my family. And other times I’m not. So going back to what you said, it’s not so gendered. So women are figuring out in any given season of their life, like, Hey, this is a time when my kids are now teenagers. They’re not really paying attention to me anyway. Barely want to look at me without growling. So I want to turn the gas on a little bit. Like this is the time when I could actually spend a little more time at work because it’s a good outlet for me. And that’s going to offset some of the maybe steps back I had to take when they were quite little.

And so kind of finding ways to, in any given period of our lives, recognize that it can have ups and downs, but that we don’t have to be reflexive in a gendered way. In saying, well, I’m the one that’s going to make the sacrifice. The thing that’s bumming me out the most right now is just looking at the numbers and the way it’s just become so obvious that we women were just like, oh yeah, that’s it. I’ve got to stay home now. And I get it. I get why it was. School’s closed. Daycare’s closed.

Like, it didn’t feel like a choice I’m sure.

It was absolutely not a choice. But given that it’s 2021, we went back to the fifties pretty quick, right? Yeah.

Or even the mid eighties.

In terms of work. Yeah, absolutely mid eighties. Like this is not what the world looked like when I was in college. That’s sad to say.

Tami, thanks so much for sharing your perspective. For folks who want to hear more, where can they connect with you?

Yeah. They can find us at pathforward.org. We have career resources, we have webinars. If you’re looking for interview advice, resume advice, we got a lot LinkedIn guidance. We did a great webinar on LinkedIn, so we have lots of great stuff. If you want to email us, it’s hello@pathforward.org. I promise that does not go into a black hole. Literally everyone on our staff sees those emails. So hello@pathforward.org would be happy to connect with you and answer your questions.

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So if you have a job, I liked what Tami was saying about how maybe you could just renegotiate or rethink where you are. And how you only really want to be trying to change one of the axes of your work reality. So just think creatively, maybe even have a conversation with somebody that you trust at your office before you do anything official. There’s something you can do in your current company that would make you happier at work.

And if you’re trying to get into the workforce, still think about those two axes of work. Are you going to change your industry? Are you going to change the types of things that you do?  Choose one to focus on. That’s it. I hope that you will come back tomorrow. When I am talking about how to reach out to people and strengthen your network because the truth is 80% of jobs come through the grapevine.

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