The pandemic has disproportionately affected women. In our Women in the Workplace research last year, 1 in 4 of them said they were considering taking a step back in their careers or leaving the workforce entirely. A year after WHO declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, we began talking to several McKinsey women about how they’ve made it work—the surprising challenges, unexpected joys, and how the pandemic has shaped their outlook on life and work. Here, Gosia Gontarz, a client-capabilities hub director based in Wroclaw, talks about transitioning 300 colleagues to remote work, the power of strong sponsors, and learning to take care of herself during unprecedented times.
On the moment the pandemic felt real:
I recall it very clearly: Poland went into lockdown on a Friday, and we needed to—within literally hours—make a decision about closing down our office and getting our colleagues prepared to work remotely starting the following Monday—which we had never done before. It was a massive undertaking for our IT leader, but she handled it with incredible poise. Our office is one of McKinsey’s client capabilities hubs, comprising experts in around 30 capabilities supporting clients in everything from McKinsey Analytics to McKinsey Academy, so it was very important for us to still be able to deliver those skills to clients amid the lockdown.
When we first shut down, we had no idea how long it would be for. Weeks? Months? We didn’t know. Some people were excited about the pivot—they saw it as a real experiment. I’d say the first three months were most difficult. First, because lockdown was longer than we anticipated. And second, because some people didn’t have enough space at home to work effectively, and we also had colleagues who had to look after their parents and families. When summer came around, you could tell people really felt better. Let’s be honest: I think the sunshine offered some energy and hope, and the restrictions also eased up a little so people could travel. But also, we were able to open our office with appropriate COVID-19 restrictions and in accordance with local guidelines, so people who really needed the office space were able to have that.
On almost leaving her role—and the advice from a sponsor that changed her mind:
I am a working mother, and my partner also works. We have three small kids; the oldest one is six years old and the youngest is two and a half now. The beginning was really challenging because the entire support system—school, grandparents, childcare—that enabled us to do what we do suddenly disappeared. It was one of the hardest times I’ve faced in McKinsey, honestly. As the office leader, I felt I needed to be there for the community, to reassure and support those who were very afraid. But I was having the same struggles myself. There were moments when I thought I couldn’t do it anymore, and I reached out to my manager to tell him just that. He gave me probably the best advice I’ve heard: “You can’t help the others if you don’t look after yourself.” This was the “aha” moment for me. I realized I was absolutely not looking after myself in all of this. I was just looking after our office community, our people, and after my family. But there was no me in there. And this was the moment when I said, “Okay, I can’t do it anymore because I am not looking after myself. Let me figure out a plan for myself as well.” A big part of that plan was getting help from the team we’ve built in the office, which represents various cells. This team did a great job, and I couldn’t have done it without them.
On the practices that helped her through difficult moments—and that will come with her into the next normal:
First of all I realized that I don’t need to do everything over Zoom. You know, before the pandemic, we used to have phone calls as well. (Laughs.) So I try to pick up the phone when it’s not critical to have a face-to-face conversation, or if I don’t need to view documents at the same time. And you know what? There has not been a single time I’ve suggested a call that I didn’t hear a “thank you” from the other person. After my conversation with my manager, I started looking after my mental health more—looking at the moments when I was getting too much on my plate. Also, even though it’s still challenging to have a proper holiday, I do try and make sure I take time off every now and then to unplug, rest, and recharge.
I truly believe the more understanding we have, as organizations, about the challenges we’re all going through—as women, as mothers, as partners—the better we’ll be able to address them through empathy and creativity.