In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Tamara Robbins Griffith experienced what many working parents went through: the new work-from-home-plus-virtual-schooling routine wasn’t sustainable.
Robbins Griffith says she found herself sitting in the basement from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. in non-stop Zoom meetings while her husband upstairs tried his best to look over the couple’s two kids, then aged five and eight.
“I could hear chaos sometimes upstairs in my house … and I could hear banging or children crying and just feel like, ‘I can’t help you. I can’t do anything right now because I’m needed in this meeting,'” she says.
And at the end of a long work day, she recalls, “it would be like coming out … into the sunshine, like at dinner time, just to kind of briefly stretch your legs and see some other humans in real life.”
But as much as Robbins Griffith found herself scrambling to reconcile work and family needs when COVID-19 took away child care, she was hardly nostalgic for her pre-pandemic normal, she says.
“Pre-COVID I was often in my car for three hours a day, and I was often racing to pick my kids up from daycare or late and texting another parent, asking them to pick up my kids from daycare and ordering Uber Eats from the car to arrive at dinnertime so that we weren’t eating late,” says Robbins Griffith, who spent years working in marketing within the home furnishings retail industry.
That’s why she eventually decided to team up with a fellow mom she knew from her kids’ school and launch her own interior design company: Kerr + Field Interiors.
“For a while, I was looking for the perfect unicorn, like that incredible corporate job that would absolutely suit my skill set and experience, but also be very progressive and flexible,” she says. “And at some point I just thought, I’m not going to wait around for this unicorn. I’m just going to create it.”
Women's advocates call for default flexible work arrangements
Robbins Griffith is one of many Canadians who have left corporate jobs and embraced entrepreneurship in the pandemic, a move often prompted by the inability to find flexible work options.
It’s no wonder that working parents and caregivers, who are predominantly women, are pivoting to self-employment, says Allison Venditti, an HR professional and founder of Moms at Work and Ready to Return.
“Corporate work was is not designed for dual-income households,” she says. “It was designed at a time when one person went to work (and) someone stayed home full-time.”
In some ways, that arrangement continues to work best for success in the corporate world, Venditti adds. A 2019 study of U.S. households, for example, found that seven in 10 men with incomes high enough to put them in the top one per cent of earners had stay-at-home spouses.
Hard data on the number of Canadians leaving employee jobs to strike out on their own is hard to find. The number of new businesses opening every month soared in the summer of 2020 and was still elevated in the spring of 2021, numbers from Statistics Canada show. On the other hand, the number of self-employed Canadians remained 8.4 per cent (-241,000) below its pre-pandemic level in September, according to the latest jobs data.
Still, the fact that a number of mostly female employees are leaving the corporate world is concerning, Venditti says.
The worry is also about the future impact of Canada’s population aging, which will likely force women, usually the default caregivers of aging relatives, to once again make difficult choices about career and family responsibility, Venditti warns.
In the U.K., Parliament is currently debating a new Flexible Working Bill that, if passed, would mandate that employers offer flexible working options built into employment contracts from the outset. Companies would also have to advertise the flexible arrangements in their employment offers.
The bill would turn flexible working from a perk that employees have to ask for to a standard available to anyone, Venditti notes.
British MP Tulip Siddiq argues such a setup would benefit parents, caregivers, people of colour and those living with disabilities.
'I can decide what is best for my body on a given day'
For Amy Lockwood, the decision to become an entrepreneur was about taking control of both her career and her schedule.
When the pandemic hit, Lockwood, who’d been working for years in children’s media, found herself out of work and out of child care for her toddler son, who has multiple disabilities. But it was during the lengthy months of pandemic isolation that she says she discovered — by chance — a love for woodworking and power tools.
It all started when she tried to build some planter boxes from scratch with some scrap wood, old nails and a drill, she says.
“I picked up power tools that were easy to grasp with these big handles and big buttons. I found myself able to experience strength in a way my body had never allowed before, which was really thrilling and really empowering,” says Lockwood, who, like her son, lives with a genetic disorder that affects the joints and connective tissue.
Today, Lockwood runs her own eponymous company, Lockwood, which makes wooden toys that represent inclusion and accessibility.
The firm’s signature product is Big Wheel Little Wheel, which the website describes as “the classic wooden push car reimagined as a sleek, modern wheelchair toy.” It comes in maple, spalted maple, oak, walnut, willow and elm.
Lockwood says the company, which allocates parts of its proceeds to Toronto’s Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital, allowed her to achieve her long-held dream to create a platform focused on disability representation for children, a project she says she was never able to realize when working in TV.
The toy wheelchair can serve as a tool “as a great jumping-off point to start the conversation about disability for other parents and their children,” she says. “Because I find my son often becomes a prop in the conversation.”
But Lockwood says being her own boss also allows her to “decide what is best for my body on a given day,” she says.
If she’s in a lot of pain and experiencing brain fog, she can focus on woodworking instead of sitting at the computer, she says.
“I’ve designed the whole process to be one that doesn’t aggravate my joints,” she says.
And on days when her hands are sore, she can respond to emails, work on marketing and advertising, and package orders, she says.
“It’s been really amazing to be able to honour my body on a day-to-day basis and not have to answer to someone else who has expectations of someone who is more able-bodied.”
For Venditti, the HR expert, there’s an obvious upside to any uptick in the number of women-run businesses due to the pandemic.
“A lot of very successful women-run businesses who are going to hire other women,” she says.