For many, 2020 was the year from hell. The pandemic shuttered agency offices, forcing staffers to learn how to work remotely all while maintaining a work-life balance. And for working parents, that line was all the more blurry. Still, on the heels of 2020, some agencies continued with annual performance reviews despite the unusually taxing year. In the latest edition of our Confessions series, in which we exchange anonymity for candor, an account executive and working mom at that agency talks corporate expectations during a global pandemic.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
What was your 2020 experience and how did it impact work-life balance for you?
[It was] a very exhausting season of parenthood magnified by an exhausting pandemic and all that comes with that. We did the best we could. Advertising is already definitely not a 9-5. Everyone knows that, but it seems like most of the work started to feel like it was getting done between 6 and 8 p.m. at night. This time that I used to preserve for my family was suddenly de-prioritized because everyone was online from 6-8 p.m. It made it really challenging to hold a boundary. I recognize that when no one has boundaries on how much they’re giving to work, they can’t see or appreciate the boundaries that other people are trying to maintain.
Did the agency ever try to help enforce those boundaries?
No. They were good at acknowledging taking breaks or days off. They were trying to give us permission in a lot of ways for the first six months and then it faded.
Talk to me about performance reviews and how the events of 2020 played into that?
Spring 2021 was the first opportunity where the hiring freeze was starting to lift, the ability to promote people who were long overdue and to give compensation bumps was opening back up. I don’t know how you look at a person’s [tenure and] overall performance and say ‘you don’t get an inflation bump this year because your review over the past six months has room for improvement’. Because so many review cycles had been skipped [during the pandemic], it’s not a fair evaluation to say the fall/winter of 2020 is representative of what you’re owed after years at the company.
How did that make you feel and how do you think the agency should have handled it?
In evaluating my performance, this person was put in charge of my review and the only visibility they had is when things were on fire. It was extremely frustrating to have the feedback be so isolated and negative when there was so much other context disregarded. None of the wins from my previous review were acknowledged. It was almost like a 180. Maybe we should acknowledge that everyone’s hitting a wall. There is Zoom fatigue. There is ineffectiveness in how we work remotely. I can’t be the only one not performing at the very top of their game right now, when we’re hitting the one-year anniversary of working remotely and there [are] ways that that breaks down [communication and collaboration], especially in a creative industry.
What do you think a response like this says to working parents and others trying to maintain a work-life balance in the industry?
Supporting working moms is lip service because they were either put in a position where they had to leave, they were laid off, or where they’re hanging on and doing the best they can. When a company is able to reward hard work, coming off of the hardest year of any individual’s career, [but] not acknowledging when people bust their ass, it feels terrible.
It’s not just on leadership to recognize all that working moms balance. It’s about junior members of the team recognizing that people in my position are paving the way to make it better and more balanced for them. People who really want families are discouraged in this industry. What’s hard is that everyone is struggling in their own unique ways this year and so the ability to be empathetic and truly see other people when you work remote isn’t there.