Correction: An earlier version of this article included an incorrect spelling of Emma Zang’s name.
The hour between 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. used to be Chan Téi DuRant’s least favorite hour of the day.
Within minutes of leaving her D.C. office, she would be in bumper-to-bumper traffic, inching along the interstate as she stared at the clock, picturing her 9-year-old daughter alone on the playground with the only teacher who hadn’t yet gone home for the day. By the time she arrived at her daughter’s school, 25 miles away, DuRant, a single mom, would be frustrated and exhausted. She already would be dreading the frenzied sequence of tasks that awaited them: homework, dinner, shower, lay out tomorrow’s clothes, brush teeth, bed.
Then, wake up and repeat.
When her office started working remotely last March, DuRant said, she immediately noticed changes in her body: Her shoulders softened and she started sleeping more deeply. She had time to dance around the living room with her daughter on a Tuesday and work out six days a week.
DuRant, who works in government communications, has been eagerly awaiting an announcement from her employer: Once everyone in her office has been vaccinated against the coronavirus, she wants to know if she will be expected to return.
Only 7 percent of Americans worked remotely before the pandemic. As of January, over half of all American workers were logging in to their jobs from home. Disproportionately White and affluent, members of the remote labor force have settled into their new routines, investing in home printers and office chairs, using their commute time to do something for themselves: extra sleep, a workout routine, a walk around the block. As more Americans are vaccinated, employers are reevaluating their policies, asking themselves: If our employees are just as productive at home — and we can save money on office space — why not allow them to choose where they work?
While this kind of flexibility would be overwhelmingly popular, especially with parents, experts warn it could do even more harm to working women, millions of whom left the workforce during the pandemic. More men than women worked from home before the pandemic, with 36 percent of men conducting most of their work remotely compared with 23 percent of women, according to a 2014 survey from remote work consulting firm Flex+Strategy Group. This is likely because more men are offered flexibility, said Jennifer Glass, a professor of sociology who specializes in work and families at the University of Texas at Austin. When men and women are offered flexibility in equal measure, Glass said, mothers are more likely to choose to work from home than fathers or employees without children.
If more women work remotely, even for a few days each week, experts warn, the practice could be stigmatized as an accommodation for mothers, as it was at many companies before the pandemic. Men also could end up with more professional opportunities, benefiting from serendipitous water cooler conversations and face time with colleagues and management. The solution, experts say, is to make sure remote work policies are utilized equally for all — but that could be difficult to enforce.
Going forward, companies will deploy a host of different remote-work policies, said Cali Yost, founder and chief executive of Flex+Strategy Group. Some companies, like Twitter and Square, announced that all employees will be eligible for permanent remote work, with Twitter announcing this shift just a few months into the pandemic. Yost expects most companies will opt for a less extreme “hybrid” model, allowing employees to work from home a few days each week.
DuRant thinks these benefits would come with professional consequences. Even with the changes to work culture caused by the pandemic, she said, it’s hard to imagine she could work from home and still score a major promotion.
She isn’t too concerned. Recently, she has reevaluated her priorities: Quality of life is more important than climbing the career ladder, she has decided.
“I would be happy never going back into the office again,” she said. “I don’t ever want to have to give this up.”
The concept of flexible work became popular in the early 1990s as a corporate retention strategy for working mothers, Yost said. With new mothers leaving the workforce, several major think tanks began heralding the benefits of flexible work policies as a way to slow the exodus. There was a recognition, she said, that “the traditional model of work did not align with the reality of parents’ lives, but mostly women’s lives.”
But these policies failed to fundamentally change the underlying culture at the companies that adopted them, Yost said, instead contributing to the idea of remote work as a special accommodation for women who couldn’t handle the simultaneous demands of a job and a family. The vast majority of people continued to work in the office full-time. People who took advantage of the policies — in many cases, mothers — were often seen as less committed to their jobs.
At many companies, these stereotypes stuck around until the pandemic. A single mom and human resources director at a large company in New York City, Loren Arcaria used to commute an hour and a half each way every day from her home in Long Island. When she asked to work from home one day a week in 2015, she said, her manager quickly agreed.
“I was always running, running, running with no time to breathe,” said Arcaria, who has two sons, now ages 10 and 12. It was a relief, she said, to have permission to work from home on Fridays.
Then the “left-handed comments” began. While no one directly criticized her from working from home, Arcaria said, colleagues, managers and people in executive leadership regularly implied that she was falling short of her responsibilities. While no one directly told Arcaria that her Fridays at home had hurt her career prospects, she felt certain the new accommodations were holding her back.
“It was statements like, ‘Well, I know you have the kids,’ and, ‘I know it’s hard as a mom.’”
Arcaria quit that job in 2017, accepting a similar position at a company with offices 15 minutes from her home. “I said to myself, ‘You know what, I am not going anywhere in this company. I am not viewed in the way I want to be viewed,’” she said.
“I think they genuinely wanted to support women, but there was a price to pay for flexibility,” Arcaria said.
Arcaria’s former employer did not respond to a request for comment.
Before the pandemic, remote work policies were a way for a company to “virtue signal,” Glass said. She suspects men were granted flexibility more often than women because companies didn’t actually want their employees to use the benefits. They offered them to “look good,” she said.
The pandemic has obliterated all the stereotypes around working from home. With entire companies working remotely — mothers, fathers, people without children — the practice has become “reason neutral,” Yost said. Remote work is also less stigmatized now, she added, because companies have seen how productive employees can be at home.
“Covid became the great equalizer,” said Jeanette Prochazka, who has a 10-year-old daughter and is general counsel at Arcaria’s former company. Once offices reopen, she worries that employees who choose to return will be treated like “heroes.”
“That’s my fear,” she said. Even if you only work remotely a few days each week, “they’ll think you must be doing your laundry if you stay home.”
It can be hard to quantify the professional benefits you get from being physically present in an office, said Sian Beilock, the president of Barnard College who has written about gender and remote work for The Washington Post: What is lost when you don’t run into colleagues on the elevator, or when you can’t get to know someone over lunch? During the pandemic, those losses presented less of a problem because everyone was in the same position, Beilock said. But if more men come into the office than women, she added, they will benefit from the deals and relationships that happen organically when colleagues come together.
Whatever companies say, managers are more likely to give opportunities to someone they know well, rather than someone “who has stellar performance reviews but you don’t have a basis of trust with,” Glass said — and it’s hard to build trust over Zoom.
There could also be consequences at home. When they work remotely, moms end up spending significantly more time on housework and child care than dads do, according to a Yale study published in July 2020 based on data collected before the pandemic. Women tend to face more disruptions at home than their male partners, said Emma Zang, a professor of sociology at Yale and a co-author of the study. The same dynamic played out in many U.S. homes throughout the pandemic: The man went into his home office and closed the door. The woman set up shop at the kitchen table, available for anything the kids might need.
Isaura Carreño never got to potty train her 7-year-old. She helped for a few days one weekend, she said, but his babysitter and grandmother handled the rest. A project coordinator at a consulting firm in New York City, she had to be in the office every day, allotting 90 minutes for her commute each way from her home in White Plains, N.Y.
With her second child, it was different. The potty training happened in the pandemic — and she got to be there every step of the way.
“I can wholeheartedly say, ‘I did that,’” Carreño said. “I was actually the one who potty-trained my 3-year-old.”
The pandemic allowed Carreño to build deeper relationships with her kids, she said. She taught her 3-year-old how to differentiate between colors and trace his name. Her 7-year-old started opening up to her about problems with friends and school. While Carreño’s employer hasn’t said anything official about their remote-work policy, she said, she is hopeful that she will be able to stay at home for good.
Before the pandemic, Carreño was able to strike a balance between work and family, she said — but she had to make sacrifices, missing milestones as her kids grew up. If she can do her job just as effectively from home, without having to make those compromises, she said, she should be able to.
Arcaria worked remotely for three days each week during the coronavirus pandemic. During that time, she said, she has been able to integrate her home life with her work. Her two sons used to have no idea what she did every day, she said. Now they know the names of her co-workers. When she used to call her manager at 2:30 p.m. each afternoon, she said, her younger son would sometimes ask, “How’s Pete?”
Companies should absolutely give parents the option to work from home, said Beilock, of Barnard. “I’m not advocating for taking the decision out of individual hands,” she said. Families should be able to decide what’s best for them.
The onus is on the company to establish “guardrails,” Beilock said. Employers need to anticipate the gendered consequences that could arise from allowing employees to permanently work from home, she said — and monitor how often men and women take advantage of the benefit. They could also conduct a self-study, she said, surveying employees to gauge what professional opportunities might be lost when they work from home, then figure out some way to make up for those losses. If remote workers lose out on face time with the boss, for example, schedule a one-on-one Zoom session each week, she said.
Whatever the company’s policy on remote work, it must be enforced consistently across divisions, Yost said. Before the pandemic, work-from-home policies were often implemented “at random,” with certain managers more comfortable with remote work than others and exceptions made for particular employees. In the future, Yost said, “it needs to be positioned upfront: This is the way we all work.” That message should come from executive leadership, she said, and be reinforced through lower-level managers, who should set an example by working remotely themselves.
“Then all of a sudden, women are just part of a whole.” They won’t be “singled out” for choosing to work from home, Yost said.
In 2015, Arcaria was one of the first employees at her company to work from home part of the time. After two years of offhand comments implying that she couldn’t do her job as effectively as her colleagues because she was a mom, she started to doubt herself, she said: Maybe she wasn’t that good at her job. Maybe she did spend too much time at home.
The pandemic changed everything, Arcaria said. If her new employer doesn’t end up allowing everyone to work from home, at least part-time, she plans to ask for more flexibility. A year ago, she would have been hesitant to make that request, she said, afraid of the stigma she experienced at her old job. Not anymore, she said.
“We’ve proven to the world that we can do our jobs effectively from home.”