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How The Pandemic Has Changed The Way We View Professionalism

by Momina Asif
Read Time: 10 minutes
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March 2020. 

It was the middle of the workday when we received communication that we would be working from home for at least the next week as the Coronavirus (not yet a pandemic) was slowly but surely wreaking havoc across the world. 

I was scared about the uncertainty but was also looking forward to working from home for a few days. 

Those few days turned into two frustrating and bleak years. I switched two jobs and then eventually jumped into full-time freelancing. 

Working from home led to long hours, an inability to log off from work, and burnout. Amongst all the trauma, a silver lining appeared — companies need to be more accomodating about mental health in the workplace. 

A shift in perspective — the importance of mental health 

By 2021, it was evident that employees needed better mental health support as pandemic fatigue, being stuck in endless Zoom meetings throughout the day, and failing to balance work and life led to employee burnout. 

Companies have responded with initiatives like mental health days, four-day workweeks, and counseling benefits or apps. 

But they aren't enough. 

There needs to be a cultural shift that focuses on work-life balance, prioritizes mental health and self-care, and actively encourages employees to have a life outside of work. 

According to Mind Share Partners' 2021 Mental Health at Work Report, 68% of Millennials and 81% of Gen Zers left roles for mental health reasons during the pandemic. 

Another research by McKinsey shows that the top two reasons why employees are leaving jobs are: 

  • Not feeling like their work was valued by the organization (54%) 
  • Feeling like they lacked a sense of belonging at work (51%) 

These researches show that the pandemic has fundamentally shifted people's priorities and has changed perspectives regarding work and professionalism. 

The new definition of professionalism

Professionalism isn't: 

  • Working late hours and missing out on family time; 
  • Sitting in front of a computer screen for 10 hours straight without having a proper lunch and some physical exercise;  
  • Not prioritizing your mental health because it might be used against you when you are up for a promotion.

No. In the post-pandemic era, employees (and employers) are changing what it means to be professionals.  

Let's have a look at the areas where and how the status quo is changing (for the better). 

Making room for mental health challenges 

Traditionally, there has been no room for any discussion about personal challenges at the office. This concept was based on the theory called Protestant Relational Ideology, which called for setting aside personal concerns to focus on the work. 

Up to 80% of people will experience a diagnosable mental health condition over the course of their lifetime. Still, there is a huge stigma for employees to talk about their mental health at work or disclose their struggles to their supervisors. 

According to a report by McKinsey, 75 percent of employers acknowledge the presence of stigma in their workplaces regarding mental health issues.

While not completely changing things, the pandemic has certainly encouraged people to discuss their mental health issues. Employees are now more likely to check up on their colleagues or talk about their own struggles. 

Hiba Amin, Senior Marketing Manager at TestBox, changed jobs during the pandemic because of her mental health. Being a one-person marketing team, she put everything she had into her previous company and continued to put work above her health. After getting burnt out, she decided to take a vacation and was completely unreachable. 

She says, "Coming back refreshed and actually in a good place mentally gave me the long-awaited clarity to really prioritize my health. That's when I made the decision to completely change my environment and start fresh at a new company: TestBox! Since joining TestBox, I've made it a habit to shut off after a certain time, to hold myself accountable for checking Slack notifications or emails up until the end of my workday, and to also really push myself not to feel pressure to respond to every person immediately." 

Providing space for diversity of emotions 

Your employees aren't the same. 

They are allowed to react differently to different situations based on their experiences, mental health issues, and disabilities. 

In Gartner's survey, conducted in January 2021, 47% of employees reported that they were experiencing stress higher than anything they'd previously experienced in their careers.  

In this new era of professionalism, it's essential for employers to provide a safe space for employees so they can express their feelings. Not everyone sees eye to eye on everything, and that's okay. 

Keep reinforcing that emotions are valid and that expressing them calmly and appropriately does not harm a workplace's ethics. 

Not sticking to a strict dress code 

This might be an unpopular opinion, but after about two years of working in sweatpants, it's hard to get employees back to the office in stiff suits, high heels, and pencil skirts.

Formal dressing is a bit uncomfortable. And post-pandemic, one thing your employees arent giving up on is comfort — of mind and body. 

According to a survey by Stitch Fix, at least 33% of respondents said they would take a 10% pay cut over having to get dressed for work every day.

Employees feel strongly about how they want to dress up, and they are unwilling to give up on comfort. People are changing how and which clothing is considered professional or not professional in the workplace. 

Ellie Middleton is a LinkedIn influencer who shares her experience navigating work and professionalism as a neurodivergent. 

Image Source: LinkedIn 

Not glamorizing overworking 

One thing the pandemic has changed forever — work boundaries. 

Employees are making it a point to stop working right at 5 pm and start spending the rest of the day with their families, doing things they love, and just recharging. 

It's not considered glamorous or heroic anymore to be working 12 hours a day and have no time for your personal life. 

Hollie Zeyher, Director of Digital Marketing at onPeak, shares how employees' expectations have changed due to the pandemic as they continue to look for more flexibility during the workday. She says, "From a hiring lens, candidates are looking for recognition that the standard 9 to 5 workday is simply not agile for living a productive life. I've had too many conversations with candidates that are truly exhausted and buried so deep in busy work or senseless meetings that they're overwhelmed and ready for change."

She continues that candidates are looking for fewer meetings, red tape, micromanagement, and more fluidity, self-investment, and proper direction and prioritization from leadership."

Creating a more inclusive workplace 

Being professional now means creating more inclusive workplaces and cultures to honor each other as we are. People are encouraging their colleagues to bring their unique experiences and perspectives to the table. 

Employees are redefining what it means to be professional as a neurodivergent person. Brittany Berger, the founder of Work Brighter Media, shares her experience as a neurodivergent and says, "Working from home and spending less time around neurotypical people has made me realize how most ideas of professionalism are neurotypical — from clothes that aren't sensory-friendly to the ability to sit still for 8 hours straight and more." 

Talking about her own definition of professionalism, she says, "Professionalism is your ability to perform your profession even if that means needing comfortable clothes or other accommodations." 

Embracing self-identity and expression 

Almost 50% of job seekers in the US say they are more likely to show up at a workplace as their true authentic self as compared to even a year ago. 

That shows that self-identity and expression are essential for employees, and they want to work at a place that accepts their true selves. 

Gender non-binary and queer people don't want to hide their true selves for fear of getting demoted, not getting a promotion, or being considered unprofessional. 

70% of job seekers believe it's important for hiring managers and recruiters to begin conversations and interviews by learning and being aware of their gender pronouns. 

These are the things that are changing our perspective on professionalism forever. 

Prioritizing physical health 

It was considered heroic not to take sick days and be productive while high on flu medication. 

Remote work added pressure for employees to work through the sickness. According to research by Beamery, 65% of people say working from home made it difficult to take sick days. 

But now, people are making it a point to prioritize their health after two years of constantly working and feeling burnt out. 

Morgan Ulrich, Digital Marketing Strategist, says she won't be compromising on her health anymore. She continues, "My health comes first — both physical and mental. I won't work 12 hours straight or go into an unsafe office during a pandemic. Sadly I had to learn the hard way! Sticking up for myself isn't unprofessional; it allows me to perform better and sustainably." 

Working from home  

Remote work existed before the pandemic, but it was not considered normal. Only 17% of employers gave the option of either hybrid or remote work models to their employees. 

The pandemic shifted our perspective when it came to working from home. Now, 44% of companies offer full-time remote positions, while 23% offer a hybrid schedule.  

Employees' perspective has hugely changed about working from home. Remote work for two years has shown them they can be the best at their job regardless of their location. 

A critical component of working from home is flexibility which employees now expect (and rightly so) from their companies. So much so that 41% of people reported policies around in-person vs. remote work were negatively impacting their mental health. 

Employees now expect proper work boundaries, autonomy over their work, and a better culture around communications, responsiveness, and urgency. 

Mariya Delano, a Content Marketer at Kalyna Marketing, shares her experience of how working remotely has completely changed what she views as professional now and says, "I don't bother to put on makeup or dress up for my calls. My only rules for myself are that I have to brush my hair and change out of pajamas. And if I don't feel like it, I just refuse to turn on the camera and acknowledge that on the call." 

A new era of professionalism is on the rise! 

The pandemic has changed certain things forever — how we view healthcare, our priorities as we navigate life, and most importantly, our perspective on work and what's professional. 

Now is the time to embrace these changes for the better and give employees the space and autonomy to perform work from where they feel the most comfortable and at their maximum productivity. 

Instead of pushing your own narratives of professionalism, it's important that employers take a step back and listen to what their employees want — whether it's more flexibility, autonomy over their work, or a safe space where they feel welcomed and included. 

This new era of professionalism, where employees are supported rather than expected to change everything about themselves to fit into the corporate world, is here to stay!