COVID-19 has changed many of our workplaces, and undeniably, for those of us fortunate enough to be able to work from home, our work-life balance. For parents, this brings certain pleasures and certain pressures. As a relatively new father of a 20-month-old, it pained me when I would have to leave my daughter to go to work each morning. Being able to stay home with her each day is now one of my greatest pleasures.
One of my greatest pressures, however, is now playing different roles simultaneously, without geographic separation. Before COVID-19, I could compartmentalize my life. I could be a husband and father at home, and a professional at work. Now, these lines have blurred.
You’ve probably seen the viral clip of a college professor being interviewed by the BBC as his young daughter enters his office, followed by her younger brother, and finally followed by their frantic, completely embarrassed mom. Throughout it all, Dr. Kelly tries to maintain his professional demeanor. We feel for Dr. Kelly because we’ve all been there, perhaps not in front of millions of viewers, but still, we, as parents, can empathize. Now, Dr. Kelly’s reality has become our reality too. For me, that’s not such a bad thing.
Watching my daughter dance around in her tutu pretending to be Daniella Ballerina (from her favorite Youtube show) reminds me of how comfortable children are playing make-believe. They love to dress up, play the role of superhero, princess, or invite their stuffed animals to a pretend tea party. The tea is always perfect, and the conversation fascinating. And, when the make-believe stops, they put their tea away, take off their costumes or masks and become themselves again.
As we get older, we play make-believe far less frequently, but invest far more time wearing masks. I wear the masks of father, husband and professional, among others. Each mask designates certain standards of behavior – behaviors that will get us the outcomes we want. We learn the behaviors necessary to become top students and get into top schools, and we learn the behaviors to become revered professionals. We don each mask in order to succeed in each role, but it may be that we’re accomplishing exactly the opposite.
Now that we are physically separated, I find that we’re far more connected than before. Through the power of technology, we’re letting our coworkers and colleagues into our living spaces. And our relationships are growing as a result.
My daughter doesn't care that I'm on a team chat; she just knows that I'm behind a closed door and the only way she stops crying is if she gets to sit on my lap and be on the chat too. My co-worker’s husband shares the home office with her, so he's on the chat too, and occasionally brings some good insights. Another co-worker has painted pink walls, "that need to be updated" she says. Dogs are scolded, beards are emerging, t-shirts are the norm, hair is still wet from the morning shower, and a coffee mug that says, “I’m kind of a big deal,” makes an appearance.
Removing our masks reveals our true selves, and it’s our true selves that others fall in love with, that allow us to make real connections, that creates unparalleled collaboration and transforms us into leaders in uncertain times.
When you were a kindergartner on the playground, playing make-believe, it didn’t matter what you were pretending to be. The result was that you were connecting authentically in real life. And some of these connections, lasting a lifetime.
As we grow older and take on different roles, we lose this childlike authenticity little by little – the authenticity that I see so pure and true in my daughter. And we usually don’t notice it, falling into the routine of being who we need to be in different situations, so much so that our authentic self becomes blurred and distant.
Dr. Kelly’s crashed BBC interview became a viral sensation not just because it was funny, but because it was honest and vulnerable.
My challenge for each of you is to call out and identify the masks you wear and ask yourself, "does this mask serve me?" It probably doesn’t. Once you shed one mask and realize it's possible, you start finding other masks to let go.
Only when we take the first scary step and reveal what’s really underneath, flaws and all, can we be fully present, and devote all of ourselves to everything we do – to our families, our careers and most importantly, to ourselves.
This is one of the silver linings of the COVID crisis. And I'm grateful for it. My co-workers and my team have no choice but to invite each other into our homes, into our lives, into our stories. And we'll never be the same. We’re bonded. The masks are gone, and we're not going back.