At The Sound, we believe that while behaviors may change as a result of our situation, our motivations remain constant. We are no stranger to changing behaviors and have long grounded our research in understanding the motivations that underlie and drive what we do. In fact, foundational research has illuminated 12 motivation “areas” that encompass our unobservable needs, wants, interests, and desires, that energize and direct our behaviors, and can explain the solutions we choose.
When looking at human motivations for why we do what we do, Responsibility is one of the most significant. It’s one of the most extrinsically driven motivations, representing what society expects and the feeling of “I should.” Among all of the motivations, it’s also one of the most overwhelming to face, and least satisfying to solve because societal expectations are relentless. Everywhere you look, there’s someone or something telling you how to be a responsible adult, from the right way to parent (I should reduce my kid’s screen time), the right way to work (I should work around the clock to prove my value), the right way to exercise (I should run before 7 am for the best health benefits), etc.
During COVID-19, we saw that the pressure to be responsible only intensified as people took on additional roles and dealt with new situations. But over the last 6 months, as the danger of burnout loomed, there’s also been a fundamental shift in our relationship with responsibility.
The Sound collected hundreds of stories from people living in lockdown around the world and learned that the changes in our responsibilities created a pressure cooker situation and something had to give. Being unable to ‘do it all’ at the same level as before has caused many to adapt for survival and redefine what really matters.
By understanding how people view responsibility, as well as how they are adjusting to survive this period, we have a sense of what is situational and may be longer-lasting. Brands that understand this can stay relevant now and in a post-pandemic world.
From Outsourcing to Others to Relying on Self
Pre-pandemic, we had certain expectations about being able to purchase what we needed. If we wanted to buy something, it would be available. If we had the money, we could save time by hiring others to complete tasks. Enter COVID-19. When the lockdown hit, many people suddenly had to take on responsibilities that they typically outsourced to others, such as cooking, cleaning, child care, education, repairs. When there was a shortage of masks and sanitation supplies, many flocked to YouTube to learn how to sew their own masks and make their own hand sanitizer. Although many hired their cleaning service back and rushed to their favorite restaurant the minute they were allowed, a trend towards self-sufficiency and DIY remains even as the world opens up. For some, this stems from a genuine satisfaction with a new skill they developed (such as making their own bread) while others want to maintain financially responsible habits due to the uncertain economy. There’s also the desire to be more prepared for the next crisis, whatever it may be.
Perhaps especially because I live alone, and don’t have family in this city, or even family I feel like I could rely on in this country, I believe I need to be strong and responsible for myself. – Female, 32
Now we are doing all of the cooking and cleaning. With the cooking, I am honestly glad we were forced into getting better at it (and I am even enjoying it now- it’s definitely more satisfying when you cook something that actually tastes delicious). – Female, 30
From Me to (an Expanded) We
Previously, particularly in more independent cultures, we generally felt responsible for ourselves and our immediate family. During COVID-19, there’s been a growing collective consciousness and empathy for others who are experiencing this crisis with us, especially when there are so many who are struggling physically, financially, and mentally. Our sense of responsibility has expanded to a larger group of people, from checking in on neighbors to helping out older relatives, to reaching out to long lost friends. Beyond the people we know, many also feel accountable to our communities, making an effort to shop at local businesses and volunteer. This shift towards being more conscious about supporting others is likely to stick, as evidenced by a continued preference to shop locally this holiday season.
To be a responsible member of my community – volunteer to help others since I am young/fit/able to. To ensure my elderly parents are coping and taken care of and can work their tech. – Female, 56
I feel like I was fortunate in that my job wasn’t affected, and I was able to escape NYC fairly easily for a larger suburban house. A lot of people don’t have that luxury and I want to try to give back in whatever way I can. Donate to local charities (especially ones in my neighborhood), support small businesses, keep in touch with older relatives and help them if I can. – Male, 24
From Balancing Activities to Blurred Boundaries
People today were already very busy, juggling work, family fitness, hobbies, etc. But in the past, many of our responsibilities had clear boundaries – go to the gym at 7 am, drop kids off at school at 8 am, be at the office from 9-5, etc. – and felt more in control over our schedules. During the pandemic, many of these boundaries blurred, making it difficult to adhere to a clear routine (e.g. trying to schedule client calls around your boyfriend’s clients calls when you are both working from the living room, kids barging in your office because they are hungry during a presentation).
Work time blurred into the evening time. Professional life and school life blurred into home life. And it became much harder to manage all of our responsibilities and operate at the same level as before, making many of us feel guilty, and like we’re failing those who depend on us. Juggling is especially challenging for parents who suddenly are responsible for their kids’ wellbeing and education ALL THE TIME, whether overseeing virtual school or merely just having to entertain them (if you aren’t a parent, check out this painfully realistic pandemic parenting simulator by Smita Venkat).
With many companies adopting extended or permanent WFH practices and many schools already shutting down due to outbreaks just in this first month of the school year, it seems that these feelings of guilt and failure are here to stay – for as long as our boundaries blurred.
There is a need to protect your family from the virus, there is a need to keep your family happy and motivated, there’s a need to make sure your child is still learning in this new homeschool environment. You feel like you have a lot of balls up in the air and they’re all important and you don’t want to drop a single one. – Female, 51
From “I Should” to “I Want/I Need”
So, we are responsible for doing MORE ourselves, we are responsible for MORE people, and we’ve lost the boundaries that once made our responsibilities more manageable. To make matters worse, we are constantly bombarded by social media posts and news articles about people who are handling the “new normal” beautifully, with Instagrammable home-cooked meals, magazine-worthy home office setups, color-coded homeschool schedules for multiple children, etc. It’s no surprise that many have been on the verge of burning out.
In response, people have been adapting in order to survive and pushing up against the pressure to do it all perfectly. To cope, some have left the “I shoulds” in the rearview mirror and have instead focused on doing what’s essential. This looks like…
Letting go of the expectation of being a ‘perfect parent’ by plopping kids down in front of the screen so you can be more productive with their own work
Opting to get more work done so you can have lunch with your partner vs. spending time doing the perfect hair and makeup and setting up an aesthetically pleasing background for your zoom call
Ultimately, we are prioritizing being responsible for keeping ourselves and our families safe and happy and getting our work done. And this may not always look beautiful or adhere to the perfect way to do something, but that’s okay. Lately, people are being more honest about their reality vs putting in the effort to pretend and encouraging others to do the same.
Letting go of societal expectations of what it means to be a perfect [Parent, Wife, Friend, Boss, Employee, etc.] may have been necessitated by the situation, but it is likely that the freedom people feel from prioritizing what they want/need will result in a longer-term shift.
We have a young child who is now at home all day, every day. He needs to be watched for most of the day. I’d actually like to cut out responsibilities that aren’t essential. – Female, 37
BP (before pandemic) I thought I had lots of responsibilities to myself and others. Really I was just caught up in the culture of busyness. This time has taught me to go back to basics. My main responsibility now is keeping my brain and body well. -Female, 30
What Brands Need to Consider as the World Opens Up
As people are struggling to manage their increased responsibilities, home entertainment brands have the opportunity to ease the pressure valve to help people feel they don’t need to be perfect in an imperfect situation, and in the long run, form meaningful connections with consumers who are sick of “I shoulds.”
To win during the big pause, brands and companies need to ask themselves…
How can we make it easier for people to share in the responsibility of supporting their communities?
For example, Shopify created a local section on their Shop app, so shoppers can easily discover, follow, and buy from locally-owned businesses.
Nextdoor partnered with Walmart to create “Neighbors Helping Neighbors” which enables neighbors to connect and coordinate groceries, medications, etc. contact-free.
How can we ease the pressure valve for parents, knowing that even though people may have adapted and reprioritized responsibilities, there may still be residual feelings of guilt and failure weighing them down?
For example, KiwiCo offers a monthly subscription of STEAM activities that are exciting for kids to get in the mail, fun to do, and occupy them for hours. It’s screen-free (and educational!) entertainment that parents can feel good about. The subscription model also means parents don’t have to bear the mental load of researching and planning an activity – it just arrives at the doorstep.
YouTube launched Learn With Me featuring a mix of live-streamed content for all ages, from math skills to writing prompts, to film discussions, to workouts, dance breaks. It’s screen time parents don’t have to feel guilty about.
Walmart’s list of toys for the 2020 holiday session helps you find gifts that parents will appreciate as much as kids. Instead of the usual categories, you can browse “Energy-Burning Outdoor Toys and, “Screen-Free Indoor Entertainment.
How can we ease the pressure valve for our employees, who are struggling to manage blurred home/work boundaries, and potentially feeling less effective?
For example, GitLab embraces the blurred boundaries and encourages employees to bring their whole selves to work. They are flexible with nonlinear workdays, state that ‘meetings are not about the background’ in their employee handbook, and invite children to take over for their parents and say hi to each other if a meeting ends early. They also host Juice Box Chats during which team members and their children, grandchildren, or family members get to know each other, focusing on a topic such as Legos or camping.
This summer, Twitter launched “Camp Twitter,” an eight-week virtual program offering live and on-demand classes to keep children occupied so parents could focus on work. Topics ranged from cooking to yoga to music to art.
How can you encourage authenticity vs, perfection, and shift societal expectations as we look towards the long-term effects of the freedom people feel from letting go of “I shoulds”?
For example, a recent Kraft Mac & Cheese ad featured user-shot home footage of kids screaming and running around, disrupting a peaceful morning and told parents that it’s okay to serve mac & cheese for breakfast because “you 100 percent need a break.”