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Female Leadership Through the Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced sweeping disruptions to the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industry, shifting how we communicate with one another and clients, altering work routines, and creating a more isolating work environment reliant on technology and safety protocols. Luckily, the AEC industry has adapted quickly and dynamically to the demands of the pandemic, taking unprecedented measures to preserve essential work while protecting the health of employees. Behind the success and flexibility of the industry during COVID-19 are individuals, you and me, who have been living through the pandemic via unique and complicated experiences. As a female wellness manager in this industry, I became interested in these individual pandemic experiences, particularly of women in this industry. Bringing their insights, strengths, and resiliency to the industry forefront, I interviewed 17 female AEC students and employees working from home in California and Georgia. Through their diverse voices, this article delves into how the pandemic re-shaped work routines, daily activities, and general outlooks for the future.

I began by asking the women how they have been taking care of themselves during the pandemic. It quickly became clear that the pandemic has been jarring for most of them, jolting them out of autopilot and prompting them to be more aware of their daily habits and actions. The pandemic simultaneously exposes the fragility and importance of health and, as cases continue to rise, bring tragic stories closer to home. No longer do thousands of miles and computer screens separate us from COVID-19, but rather our everyday and unremarkable choices. This sentiment seems to put a pause on routine and shifts focus onto physical and mental well-being. In fact, many of the women interviewed indicated that being confined to their homes provided them with the time and flexibility to pursue new healthy habits or increase frequency of old ones. They reported that they were taking more walks throughout the day, experimenting with home workouts, practicing yoga, and even joining in on their child’s virtual PE classes. To improve mental wellbeing, some of the women were focused on establishing a new schedule; breaking up the workday with meditation, gardening, house projects, bible study, and other hobbies that promoted relaxation. One woman shared that she “(took) a hybrid approach regarding office versus remote work in order to try and maintain somewhat of a routine schedule” to help her mentally. Despite her physical location, she tried to “be very cognizant of taking breaks and stepping away from the computer.” These breaks and healthy habits proved vital to productivity and health during the pandemic, providing those interviewed with structure and control over their lives.

Connecting with loved ones virtually was equally as important for overall well-being. Talking to friends and family throughout the day eased feelings of isolation and created a sense of normalcy, giving the women the time and space to discuss struggles, worries, and triumphs. Above all, women reported that they were being kind and patient with themselves. A few discussed how some days their motivation wavered, and wellness looked like stepping away from their computers and taking a break. It seemed as though each day a new definition of health emerged depending on how the women were feeling or how busy their schedules were, leading to more mindful actions and routines.

Increased awareness and concern about health is perhaps one of the more predictable outcomes of a global pandemic. Similarly, COVID-19’s interference on work routines comes with little surprise. All women participating in this project were either teleworking full-time or were only stopping by the office a few days a week at the time of their interviews. I wondered how this shift in schedule changed productivity and communication, and how women were managing the abrupt fusion of personal and professional life. Many of the women spoke about how teleworking blurred the lines between work and home life, phone calls from coworkers extending past work hours and family demands inadvertently interrupting meetings. One woman noted that she “doesn’t have established work hours; my boss can call at any time and expect me to work.” To address the challenges of living in their workspace, many women set boundaries for themselves, aiming to have the same structure in a workday as they would have in their office. For others, juggling new home demands with work made it nearly impossible to establish any sense of routine. Some of the women were moms whose children needed to be homeschooled during the day, leaving only nights, early mornings, and intermittent moments of down time to complete the bulk of their work. Each person’s discrete teleworking schedules and home demands posed further challenges on the already difficult task of communicating with coworkers and clients virtually.

Almost all women discussed how the lack of face-to-face contact modified client interactions and responses, in some cases slowing down the progress of projects. What might have been a quick check-in with a client or coworker now had to be planned and could be complicated by technical difficulties or unreliable schedules. Surprisingly, a few women discussed how teleworking had improved communication within their companies and that “participation for meetings and reviews” was higher than prior to the pandemic. One woman noted that people were more responsive because now “work speaks for itself” and was not just about “physically being in the office but being intentional about producing timely work.” Despite sudden changes in work routine, and regardless of its effects on productivity, project participants adapted efficiently to their evolving circumstances and largely seemed unfazed by the transition to teleworking.

Prior to the pandemic, most people could count on the rhythm and routine of the office. The office was first and foremost a space to get work done, however it also served as a social atmosphere that was collaborative and supportive for many people. The abrupt shift to teleworking not only left work routines in disarray, but disconnected people from an environment they had grown accustomed to. I wondered in what ways management and coworkers had translated office culture online and if they were taking any steps to foster a supportive work environment during the pandemic. Almost everyone reported that their bosses, teachers, or coworkers more frequently checked in on them on a personal level. Meeting and class discussions frequently pivoted to the health of family members, how people were adjusting to social distancing, and the general concern for each other’s wellbeing. Some companies took a more structured approach and scheduled zoom cocktail hours, virtual lunches, and activities to connect employees. One woman indicated that she sent out positive emails to coworkers to thank them for all they have done and tried to create an online supportive environment. Another noted that the pandemic brought team members closer together, reporting that working from home broke down professional barriers by allowing coworkers to view each other through different lenses. Coworkers supported each other by “understanding that each person’s work from home is different” and that they “have gotten to know each other better because life interrupts zoom meetings with children, dogs, spouses, etc.” For some project participants, teleworking provided an intimate perspective into a coworker’s life, humanizing them to an unparalleled degree and creating a more flexible and patient work environment. It seemed that there was more of the sense “we are all in this together,” and that it fostered a supportive space that helped the women adjust to working from home.

While inconvenient and challenging, changes to work routine and environment don’t illustrate the breadth of effects the pandemic has inflicted upon the individual. To varying degrees, the pandemic has influenced our daily lives and the lives of the people we love, making this the most “real” global emergency many of us have experienced. Pandemic consequences – and fear of them – seem to loom over each day. Despite global fear and anxiety over COVID-19, the women who participated in this project overwhelmingly had positive outlooks, acknowledging what the pandemic had taken from them but hopeful looking towards the future. A few of those participating in the project lost a loved one during the pandemic. They never expected to say their last goodbyes over the phone, or to have no goodbyes at all. Even in the face of tragedy, these women strove to stay grateful for their own health and that of other family members. Others were separated from parents, grandchildren, and good friends and felt isolated; one woman stated, “not being able to spend time with my family has been the hardest. I have 3 sons, a grandson, two daughter-in-laws and two stepchildren. I miss being able to feed them all and give them hugs. I miss chatting with strangers in the store and just smiling at them.” Despite all that she missed, she continued to keep “in the forefront of (her) mind, that life is so very short and that every day truly is a gift.” Others shared this mindset, realizing that they had taken their every-day activities for granted. Many of the women discovered, in the absence of their seemingly mundane pre-pandemic routine, that these small moments were something to be cherished. Larger moments that seemed guaranteed prior to the pandemic, such as graduations, weddings, proms, and birthdays, were also sorely missed. These life milestones were cancelled or modified, leading to bittersweet or delayed celebrations. Some women interviewed, however, discussed how the disruption to their routine made them realize that their lives had been overbooked, and that they enjoyed the slower pace of their new schedules. This rang especially true for the mothers who participated in this project. With no sports practice or music lessons, and school online, they saw their children more than they had in years. One mother discussed how she much she had enjoyed getting to know her kids as students, a side she had never seen of them before. Pleasantly surprised by the increase in family time, some of the moms planned on slowing down life even after social distancing is no longer necessary.

At the time this article is being written, COVID-19 has been persisting for over six months. By now, people across the industry have likely fallen into a pandemic rhythm and are adjusting to their “new normal.” Although it is unclear how long this new normal will persist, the future of the AEC industry is built upon the individuals who live and work in it each day. If the resiliency of the women interviewed in this project are any indication of its fate, it is clear that it has the wherewithal to withstand whatever the COVID-19 pandemic throws at it. We can learn from AEC women the ability to stay positive and grateful despite tragedy, adversity, and inconvenience; becoming more deliberate about our time and priorities. These interviews are a testament to the fortitude and dedication of women and remind us that in the face of unpredictability and difficulty, there is always a light at the end of the tunnel.

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