This article was updated on June 8 with additional reporting.
Working from home for more than a year hasn’t been, well, remotely easy for many women. Women report handling more housework. Moms report providing the bulk of child care, as well as higher rates of anxiety and depressive disorder. So many women have left the labor force since the pandemic began — as of May, a net 1.79 million, according to a June analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data from the National Women’s Law Center — that some have referred to the past year as a “she-cession.”
But what if businesses ultimately respond to this moment by creating 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.
As some companies start bringing workers back to the office, experts say it’s possible to incorporate inclusivity focused work-from-home revelations into corporate culture. And in order to make sure these options help women rather than create new professional hurdles, they say, we need to be intentional about it.
Here are five ways they say returning to office life can be made better.
It’s ironic that employees have been 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.
“[Before the pandemic], 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, author of “Workparent: The Complete Guide to Succeeding on the Job, Staying True to Yourself, and Raising Happy Kids” and founder and chief executive of Workparent, a consulting firm focused on working parents. But throughout the pandemic, many people didn’t have a choice but to be direct about what was going on in their lives. Many have seen a co-worker bounce their daughter on her knee during a Zoom meeting, for example; others have heard a kid 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?”
In May 2020, Twitter was ostensibly the first company to announce that many employees will never have to return to the office. Over the past few months, many companies have shared plans for a hybrid model made up of some days of office work and some days of remote work.
Vanessa Quigley co-founded the 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, Quigley said, 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 in July 2020. But the pandemic “completely changed” the company’s “definition of flexibility,” she added.
Quigley said the company realized that employees are absolutely capable of working productively from home. The company closed those satellite offices permanently in response to the pandemic, swapped its Provo headquarters for a smaller, more centrally located space in Lehi, Utah, and no longer has any sort of mandate on how many days per week employees need to work from the office.
When Quigley spoke about the pandemic’s effects last year, she said that change would impact hiring, too. While the company had worked hard to emphasize gender diversity — Chatbooks said 65 percent of leadership roles currently 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 at the time. “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.”
Since March 2020, Chatbooks, which has about 170 total employees, said it’s hired 22 people in about 20 different states.
In order to make sure no employee feels like they’re at a disadvantage based on their location, Chatbooks has “really embraced asynchronous work,” Quigley said in May. When meetings are necessary, the company employs something called the “one face per square rule”: “If you’re having a meeting and anybody is remote — which is, you know, every meeting somebody is remote — then even if you have a group of people in the office, everyone needs to be on Zoom: one face per square,” Quigley explained.
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 Bloomberg Businessweek reports that companies in other parts of the world, from Germany to New Zealand, are testing out. Lorraine Hariton, president and chief executive of Catalyst, a nonprofit focused on advancing women in the workplace, said that in addition to more than 50 percent of her organization working completely remotely pre-covid, Catalyst had a four-and-a-half day workweek.
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 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 last summer. And while no one said anything explicitly about it, “there wasn’t always an understanding that that’s what I needed to do.”
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 pandemic has 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 her lab’s focus groups, one-on-one conversations and community forums at the nonprofit Watermark, where she’s on the board of directors, Mackenzie has found that considerate managers have spent more time on employee care in response to the pandemic, as well as to last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests after George Floyd’s murder and the recent wave of violence against the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. She said she also noticed more support for working moms after data showed how the pandemic disproportionately impacted them.
“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 at the beginning of the pandemic, 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; for example, a recent Catalyst report pointed out that companies could offer child-care stipends or programming for parents. (In April, the Biden administration revealed its “American Families Plan,” which, if it were to pass, would eventually offer help with child care, parental leave and more at the federal level.)
“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.