Working from home during the past few months hasn’t been, well, remotely easy for many women. Women report handling more housework. With schools closed, moms have provided the bulk of child care, and are also more likely to have reduced their work hours and to have experienced some degree of psychological distress during the pandemic.
But what if businesses can use all of this as an opportunity to create more supportive office cultures?
“If we take what we’ve learned and not view it as just a response to a crisis but what good management and good organizations look like, we have a chance of leaving the pandemic stronger and more inclusive than we entered it,” said Lori Nishiura Mackenzie, co-founder of the Stanford VMware Women’s Leadership Innovation Lab and lead strategist for diversity, equity, and inclusion at Stanford Graduate School of Business.
In a survey conducted for nonprofit Catalyst in June, 71 percent of working people said they believe covid-19 will have a positive impact on gender equality in the workplace. In the same survey, 39 percent of people said they see their company “taking steps after the pandemic to enhance gender equity as a priority in the workplace.” One interpretation of those stats? It’s possible to incorporate inclusivity focused work-from-home revelations into office culture once things start returning to “normal,” but we need to be intentional about it.
Here are five ways the return to office life can be made better:
It’s ironic that employees are currently working from different locations but seeing more of each other’s personal lives than ever before. It can also be a good thing, because it means the problems of working parents are no longer abstract.
“Six months ago, if you had a child-care crisis or needed to leave for the pediatrician’s or wanted to make the school play, even in a supportive work environment, you may have skirted around that issue, or just left the office, or not mentioned to people where you were going, or been shy about it,” said Daisy Dowling, founder and chief executive of Workparent, a consulting firm focused on working parents. But now many people don’t have a choice but to be direct about what’s going on in their lives, because so much is no longer hideable. One employee might be bouncing her daughter on her knee during a Zoom meeting; another’s kid might be practicing piano in the background of a call.
In “making the personal professional,” as Mackenzie put it, we can build empathy and breed communication about what’s most helpful for each individual person on a team. And Dowling said managers can respectfully learn those insights by asking open-ended questions, such as, “Are there any ways in which I'd be helpful to you as you think about staying at this organization for the long-term?”
Companies moved to remote work during the pandemic to protect the health of their employees. (And it’s important to acknowledge here that numerous people have lost their jobs and/or don’t have the option of working from home right now.) But what started as a necessity may have also served as evidence for some organizations that working remotely is feasible for more people than they previously thought. In May, Twitter was ostensibly the first company to announce that many employees will never have to return to the office.
Vanessa Quigley co-founded photo book company Chatbooks back in 2014 with a mission “to strengthen families” through its products as well as its culture, she said. Before covid-19 hit, if a staffer needed to head out for a doctor’s appointment or school function, that was totally fine, and employees had unlimited paid time off. The company generally asked employees to work from its Provo, Utah, headquarters two days a week, with the option to work from two Utah satellite offices the other three days to cut down on commute times.
“At the time, that felt super flexible, super generous,” Quigley said. “But our definition of flexibility has completely changed over the last couple of months.”
Quigley said the company has realized that employees are completely capable of working productively from home. The company closed those satellite offices permanently in response to the pandemic, and when their headquarters eventually opens back up, the company will no longer have any sort of mandate on how many days per week people need to work from the office; instead, it will be a team-by-team decision.
That change will impact hiring, too, according to Quigley. While the company has worked hard to emphasize gender diversity — Chatbooks said 64 percent of leadership roles are held by women — there was an assumption “that racial diversity wasn’t possible because of where we live and because we believed in everyone working in the same office at least a couple of days a week,” Quigley said. “But now that we know we can work really productively remotely, it makes, for the first time, it feel possible to have true racial diversity and equality.”
Of course, flexibility doesn’t just mean working from home. It can also mean shifting work hours (for example, to better accommodate the difference between office hours and school hours, or the “child-care crisis between 3 and 5 p.m.,” as the Atlantic put it in 2018).
It can even mean a four-day workweek — something New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern floated back in May as one potential way to help her country’s tourism industry following the pandemic. Lorraine Hariton, president and chief executive of Catalyst, said that in addition to more than 50 percent of her organization working remotely pre-covid-19, Catalyst has a four-and-a-half day workweek.
“There’s a whole spectrum of what flexibility can be,” said Manon DeFelice, founder and chief executive of Inkwell, which matches executive candidates with companies open to flexibility. “And I think it’s up to the company to decide for each role what they’re willing to allow for in terms of flexibility and what those managers are willing to allow for that flexibility.”
Ideally — going back to that whole idea of directness — companies can ask their employees to share the changes they think would be helpful for them to be most efficient, Dowling said.
Swetha Sharma, who lives in Atlanta and now works as an editorial manager in the hospitality industry, gave birth to her second child in February 2019, while she was working in cable news. She returned to her job in May, and by August, she realized she couldn’t continue working for her manager and team. “I had to take time — 20 to 30 minutes — twice a day during my working hours to [pump],” she said. And while no one said anything explicitly about it, “there wasn’t always an understanding that that’s what I needed to do.” The workflow and meeting scheduling rarely gave her the time she needed.
Sharma quit her full-time job and then began working part-time for another department at the same company with managers who helped her to craft a schedule that worked best for her. “It was just a whole different environment and culture within the same company,” Sharma said, adding that even within a company that largely valued family life, individual managers make a big difference.
Mackenzie believes the past few months have placed even more emphasis on the important role managers hold, and she hopes companies invest in managerial training and support now and after we return to the office.
Through both focus groups and one-on-one conversations with professionals, Mackenzie and her team have found that managers are spending more time on employee care, in response to both the pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests. “Managers really opened their arms wider and tried to care for employees in ways that we might have ignored in an in-person workplace,” Mackenzie said. “So I’d love to see that open gate remain open and have managers view as part of their responsibility the care and development of their employees.”
When companies switched to remote work a few months back, some gave their employees a home office budget — money for a new chair or desktop monitor. That idea of a stipend could apply in other areas, too, DeFelice pointed out. For example, if they’re able to, companies could offer a child-care budget for parents worried about offices opening back up while schools remain closed.
“I do believe the sense of employee well-being, including all of what an employee deals with, is on the table in ways that it wasn’t on the table as much before covid,” Mackenzie said.