Our New Attitudes About Work
For many professionals, Covid was a reckoning. The way we earn a living may never be the same again.
The pandemic triggered countless changes in how we live, but perhaps none as seismic as the way we work. After months of logging in from home—or reporting to jobs in the community under stressful, if not life-threatening, conditions—many of us began to reevaluate how we earn our livelihood and what we want most, besides a paycheck.
Old norms have been upended. Many have left office life forever. Remote work is here to stay. Suits and heels are gathering dust. Flexible hours are the new 401(k).
What’s more, the ladder-climbing compulsion to curry favor by clocking obscene hours is no longer the American way. A September Gallup poll found roughly half of U.S. workers “quiet quitting”—staying in the same job but working less, detaching emotionally and setting boundaries, such as refusing to check email in the evening or on weekends.
Entrepreneurship, meanwhile, is on the rise, with many finally acting on the dream of being their own boss. In Virginia, registrations for new limited liability corporations (LLCs) inched higher and higher with each year that the pandemic dragged on. In 2021, the Commonwealth processed more than 116,000 LLC registrations, up from about 95,000 in 2020 and about 72,000 in 2019, according to the State Corporation Commission.
In 2021, the Commonwealth of Virginia processed more than 116,000 LLC registrations, up from about 95,000 in 2020 and about 72,000 in 2019.
One of those freshly minted LLCs was emPOWER Kids, the business Arlington resident Jenni Hogan founded in November 2020, in part out of a desire to give back.
During the height of the pandemic, Hogan, a former Arlington County gymnastics coach, saw parents struggling to do their jobs from home while also caring for young children. Realizing that everyone needed a break, she started a company that offers gymnastics and mindfulness classes for kids (with Covid precautions). It was an unusual move at a time when most enrichment programs for children were virtual or closed.
“I think the mental health effects of Covid and not having socialization…was really taking a toll [on kids],” says Hogan. She thought youngsters could benefit from seeing their peers and also having “another caregiver that honored them and listened to them.”
At first, she rented space inside another fitness studio in Pentagon City, hosting small groups of kids while gym-goers worked out on the other side of the room. For safety, she opened up the studio’s retractable garage doors, spaced her young tumblers out on mats, and required masks, temperature checks and hand sanitizer. Parents jumped at the opportunity and classes filled up.
By September of 2021, Hogan’s enterprise had grown so successful that she was able to open her own studio on King Street in Alexandria. She’s been expanding ever since, hiring full-time employees and adding ninja and yoga classes, and summer camps.
Starting a business required some sacrifices—initially she was working seven days a week, and she didn’t take a salary the first year. But being self-employed also gave her the flexibility to do more things with her own children, such as volunteer for school field trips.
“My husband, Jim, and I talked about it, and [decided that] even if we ended up not making money, this is still a service to the community,” Hogan says. “This is still something that brings me joy.”
Amid The Great Resignation, employers scrambled to attract new workers and keep the ones they had. Though the latest economic indicators suggest a turnaround is afoot, workforce experts say the pandemic reshuffle will nevertheless result in a job market that’s forever changed.
“We have seen people not only thinking about what they’re doing, but who they’re doing it for. And really wanting to work for organizations that have a strong purpose—that are supporting the greater good,” says Elise Freedman, senior client partner at Korn Ferry, a global executive recruiting firm with offices in Reston and clients in Arlington.
The pandemic yielded an unprecedented period of self-reflection. For some workers, it became a time of desperation, unemployment or a struggle to care for family members. For others, it presented opportunity.
A record 47.4 million Americans voluntarily quit their jobs in 2021, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, continuing a trend that began well before Covid. With the exception of 2020, quit rates have risen steadily, by about one tenth of a percentage point per year, since 2009, according to a recent labor market analysis by Harvard Business School’s Project on Managing the Future of Work. By mid-2022, there were more job openings nationwide than there were workers to fill those positions, giving job seekers considerable leverage.
In June, Arlington’s unemployment rate was 2.1%—the lowest in the Commonwealth—with Falls Church a close second at 2.2%, according to the Virginia Employment Commission. To attract top candidates, employers have been rolling out the red carpet and upping the ante with higher compensation and more attractive benefits.
“It’s not that people don’t want the money or that it’s not important. What we’re finding is that it’s not enough.”
“There’s just such a war for that talent,” says Freedman. “If your company isn’t providing what they’re looking for and a great environment, they can easily go elsewhere.”
While some workers will jump ship for a higher salary, from what she’s seeing, that’s not what makes employees stay. “It’s not that people don’t want the money or that it’s not important. What we’re finding is that it’s not enough. If you don’t have a place where you respect and trust leadership, where the company thinks diversity and inclusion is important, if [employees] don’t have any say in how work is getting done—that’s where we’re seeing more and more turnover.”
Workers want to be in a place where they can grow and advance, and they want to know they’re being paid fairly and equitably, Freedman says. “Every client, even the biggest names that weren’t used to having to market for employees—people would come to them because of who they were—they’re having trouble attracting and retaining. It’s definitely a universal problem.”
Amazon’s arrival in Arlington, with the promise of 25,000 new jobs, has further intensified the talent war locally. The company has hired more than 5,000 so far, but it still has thousands of “roles for all kinds of backgrounds,” says PR manager Zoë Hoffmann, “and remains committed to providing competitive compensation, top-tier benefits and career advancement opportunities.”
Unlike other employers, the tech giant wasn’t hobbled by the labor shortage, according to Hoffmann. She says that on average, tenure across all Amazon locations stayed the same or increased during the pandemic. All full-time positions (from corporate and tech employees to warehouse workers and delivery drivers) come with up to 20 weeks of paid parental leave, free skills and career advancement training, health care and 401(k) plans. She says there are also opportunities for those with no formal qualifications to receive on-the-job training and education.
For Arlington resident Chrissy Bistline-Bonilla, the pandemic was a dark time that prompted her to completely rethink her life goals and what she had always considered her ideal job in academia.
The future seemed bright in March of 2020. She was in the middle of writing a nearly 300-page dissertation, working toward her Ph.D. in Spanish Linguistics at Georgetown University, and was earning a graduate student stipend for her work as a teaching assistant there.
She was also helping to manage the painting business she and her husband, Manny, had started a few months earlier, which gave him the flexibility to care for their two young children while she worked.
Then her lifelong dream came true: She accepted a job as a tenure-track professor at Colorado State University. Two days later, lockdown began.
“Covid hit and I could not concentrate for the life of me,” says Bistline-Bonilla, remembering the constant interruptions of her then 2-year-old and 6-month-old.
Soon that was the least of her problems. As quarantine dragged on, the painting jobs evaporated and her family was unable to pay their rent in Arlington. They moved in with her mother in Pennsylvania for a few months until she defended her Ph.D. by videoconference and they moved out to Colorado, where she started her new job.
That’s when they realized that transplanting the family painting business to a new market wasn’t going to work. People were fearful of Covid and reluctant to bring contractors inside their homes. And they were living in an area populated with students—not homeowners in need of painting jobs.
In the fall of 2020, Colorado State decided to resume in-person classes. Bistline-Bonilla says watching her students struggle was hard. She felt students and professors were not getting the support they needed. “I felt that [the university was] more concerned with their bottom line than with the health of their faculty, staff and students,” she says.
She began to reconsider the career she’d always thought she wanted. “In academia, I’m always replaceable. There are so many Ph.D.s out there—and so many Ph.D.s that can no longer get a job. More and more universities are hiring adjuncts. They’re trying to find ways to save money. And so my thought was, Where am I not replaceable? I’m not replaceable to the [painting] business.”
The unexpected discovery that she was pregnant with their third child might have been a financial hardship, but it ended up being a blessing in more ways than one. Bistline-Bonilla was able to get an exemption to teach remotely and the family moved back to Arlington, where they restarted their painting company. “You don’t really see too many people with a Ph.D. managing a painting business full time. That’s what I’m doing,” she says, in retrospect calling it the best decision she could have made.
Fast-forward to today and Handy Manny’s Painting is booming. They are hiring new employees. Bistline-Bonilla continues to teach, part time, as an adjunct professor of Spanish at George Washington University. The family has three young kids and they just bought their first house in Arlington. She says the pandemic helped her realize how she really wanted to live her life. “If it hadn’t been for Covid we would have never left Colorado.”
“You don’t really see too many people with a Ph.D. managing a painting business full time. That’s what I’m doing.”
Women bore the brunt of job losses and child-rearing challenges during the pandemic. Mothers made career adjustments that could shape the labor market for years to come. Many professional women do not plan on returning to pre-pandemic employment conditions, says Elizabeth Humphrey, VP at the McCormick Group, an executive search and consulting firm with offices in Rosslyn.
“We see people who are now starting to explore going back into the workforce, but it’s certainly more on their terms,” Humphrey says. “I think [women] want to make sure they’re coming back into an environment that’s flexible and welcoming and understands the challenges [they face].”
In a recent Pew Research study, six out of 10 workers with jobs that could be performed at home said they are now working from home all or most of the time. That’s many more than the 23% who worked from home before the coronavirus outbreak.
A January article in the Harvard Business Review, citing Gartner survey research, indicated that more than 90% of employers planned to adopt a hybrid model for their employees in 2022. “Flexibility around how, where, and when people work is no longer a differentiator, it’s now table stakes,” said the Gartner report, with employees expecting flexible work hours as much as they expect a 401(k).
Gartner noted that some companies are offering 20% compensation premiums to new hires, or the option of a shorter workweek. And employee wellness has become a priority, with 94% of companies making significant investments in well-being programs and 85% increasing support for mental health benefits.
Humphrey sees employers taking a closer look at their policies and using flexible work arrangements as a carrot: “Flexibility is the No. 1 thing that candidates are looking for,” she says. “I haven’t had one conversation with a potential candidate or employer where flexibility wasn’t discussed.”
Helping busy professional women evaluate and better their lives is something lawyer-turned-career-coach Daniela de la Piedra decided to focus on following her own career change-up.
De la Piedra spent 13 years as an attorney for the Legal Counsel for the Elderly, an affiliate of AARP. Then Covid arrived, and trying to work from home with her kids—then 2 and 4—proved both stressful and eye-opening. “I started realizing, something’s really got to change,” she says. “My job was a difficult job. It became even more difficult during the pandemic.”
Working from home made her realize that the frenzy of her daily commute had caused her to miss the little milestones and joys of her children. She hired a career coach and began reevaluating her job and life choices. In the process, she decided that being a life coach was something she wanted to do herself. She gave up her law career and completed a year-long certification program.
“It wasn’t until the pandemic that I was pushed to see things differently,” she says. “It was like [holding] a mirror to my face, [asking], ‘Is this really how you want to live the rest of your life now that you have kids?’ It was a real moment of reflection and getting clear with what my values are today—not what my values were 13 years ago when I started practicing as a single, childless attorney. If it weren’t for Covid, I would probably still be in that job.”
Today, de la Piedra guides others on their own paths of discovery. “Some clients have a side business and they want to scale it so that they can leave their corporate jobs,” she says. “And then I have clients who feel like they’re on that hamster wheel. They don’t necessarily want to leave a 9-to-5 kind of life, but they want to figure out, ‘How do I manage that? How do I set boundaries? How do I stop checking email when I’ve logged off and how do I use my weekends with more intention?’ ”
It’s a familiar trope: the office worker sitting in an airless cubicle farm, dreaming of one day opening a bakery or making bonbons for a living.
For years, Arlington business owner Jason Andelman was living that dream. A trained chef and graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, he was the founder and owner of Artisan Confections, a chocolate shop with storefronts in Clarendon and the Mosaic District.
But at the end of 2021, he switched gears—literally—and became a bike tour guide and backcountry ski trip chef, returning full circle to something he had done (and loved) fresh out of college in the mid-’90s, when he worked at a tourism office in Vail, Colorado, and for another ski-tourism outfit based in Arlington.
A confluence of pandemic factors gave him the opportunity to return to the great outdoors.
“I went through this period early on, in April 2020, just like everyone else, where you think, What do I really want to be doing?” says Andelman, who turned 50 during the pandemic. “To me, it was not making fancy chocolates. It was getting outside and just enjoying the things we have around us.”
With one of his children preparing to leave for college and the other in high school, he had already started to think in real terms about selling the business. Then the lockdown shuttered both of his retail stores for several weeks. When an opportunity arose at the end of 2020 to close the Mosaic District location and get out of the lease early, he took it.
At the same time, website improvements he’d made during Covid to facilitate online orders, curbside pickups and shipping from the Clarendon boutique proved fruitful. When the shop reopened fully, he found himself with both a busy retail shop and a booming online order business. Strong sales in the fall of 2021 helped make the business more sellable.
“It worked out well for me because I was able to finish the [holiday] season and finish the whole thing off on a high note,” he says. “When you tell people [you’re selling], they think it was Covid digging in, and that’s not the case here at all. The business was doing well. I felt like it was a good time to sell it because things were definitely improving. Had there been no Covid, I don’t know if it would have happened.”
After handing the keys to new owners in January, Andelman began contemplating his next move. “I kept asking myself, ‘What am I going to do?’ because this is all I know how to do.”
He went backcountry skiing with a group, staying in a small lodge after being helicoptered into a remote area of British Columbia. “There was a chef,” he says, “and he would cook breakfast for everybody and then go out and get a couple runs in and then come back and cook. And I thought, That’s awesome. I want to do that.”
“There was a chef. He would cook breakfast for everybody and then go out and get a couple [ski] runs in and then come back and cook. And I thought, That’s awesome. I want to do that.”
After putting out some inquiries, he found work as a chef for several ski trips over the winter. He also contacted a few bike tour companies, and in May began leading cycling tours for Wilderness Voyageurs, an outdoor adventures company based in Ohiopyle, Pennsylvania.
One of the tasks on each tour is to prepare a group lunch. He happily stepped up. “You can do pretty good stuff out of a Yeti cooler,” he says.
These days, Andelman is also doing travel planning for Wilderness Voyageurs—organizing trips and arranging logistics behind the scenes. It’s fun work that he can do mostly from his home in Arlington.
In June, the number of job openings nationwide, which had been rising steadily since the spring of 2020, decreased by 605,000 to 10.7 million, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, marking the largest drop since the onset of the pandemic. Labor market experts say a correction is underway, though even with that decline, there were still 1.8 job vacancies for every available worker.
“I think the ‘Big Quit’ is starting to slow down,” says Korn Ferry’s Elise Freedman. “Companies are starting to be more cautious in hiring and employees are being more thoughtful before just leaving their current jobs.”
Humphrey of the McCormick Group is watching the shift, but she does not believe things will ever go completely back to the way they were.
“There was no playbook for how to handle a pandemic in the workplace when Covid hit us,” she says. “We were forced to learn how to work in entirely new ways. For many people, especially women, this has been a great opportunity to address flexibility, better benefits and more equitable pay. The majority of people I talk to aren’t looking to not work; they are looking at ways to be more fulfilled in their careers.”
Helen Partridge is an Arlington-based freelance reporter and mother of three.