Making It Work: An associate on the first days of the outbreak—and what she’s learned 15 months later

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. More than a year after WHO declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, we’re talking to several McKinsey women about how they’ve made it work over the last year—the surprising challenges, unexpected joys, and how the pandemic has shaped their outlook on life and work. Here, Lucille Chen, an associate based in Shanghai, talks about missing family, navigating quarantine across different locations, and learning to appreciate the small joys of life.

On the first days of the virus outbreak:

I was on a client study and still remember learning about the pandemic outbreak in real time. It seemed serious, but I had already made plans to go back to Taiwan to visit my parents for Chinese New Year. Because of the outbreak, we had an additional week off of work after the New Year break, and I went to Japan during it, before returning to Taiwan. The virus spread was growing, but at that time, I didn’t feel like the outbreak would affect me personally. Of course, looking back, that sounds so silly.

On navigating the pivot to remote work:

After Chinese New Year, life was still relatively normal in Taiwan—large events and gatherings were canceled, but people were able to go out with a mask on. Because we were working remotely anyway, I ended up staying in Taiwan until last June, when I finally went back to Shanghai. During that time, I did my first remote study, which was a huge departure from the way we typically work with clients. But because everyone—the team, our client—was aware of the situation, we all rallied to make it work. And learned a lot along the way, like how to problem solve and communicate remotely.

On not being able to visit her parents because of travel restrictions and quarantine guidelines:

I haven’t been able to visit my parents in almost a year, and it’s been quite tough. Even when travel has been allowed, the two-week mandatory quarantine in both locations means I need to take a month off for a trip. Before the pandemic, I would go back once a month, so it has been a big change. Luckily, we’re able to use social apps to video chat, but at the end of every call they ask, “When are you coming back to visit?” And I always say: “I don’t know.”

On the unexpected challenges and lessons from the pandemic—and how it’s changed her outlook on life:

Lucille Chen after completing quarantine in Taiwan
Lucille after completing quarantine in Taiwan.
Lucille Chen after completing quarantine in Taiwan

Like many people, I could have never predicted that the impact of the virus outbreak would be so huge—and global. I was pretty lucky in that Taiwan was mostly open when I was there for the first part of the pandemic, and Shanghai was relatively back to normal when I got back. But even the two-week quarantines I went through were tough. It’s lonely, and you start to feel a little depressed. I have lots of friends who’ve spent the last year in lockdown, and they have certainly felt depressed at times, too.

During lockdown, I reflected on what really matters in life and decided to freeze my eggs in Taiwan last year. I’m single and realized it was something I needed to do before it was too late. I’ve had lots of friends who had difficulty getting pregnant when they finally wanted to start a family. These days I treasure time more than ever—even just the chance to have dinner with friends, it’s so special to me now. You never know when that can be taken away again.

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