Ever since the coronavirus pandemic began keeping most of us sheltered at home, work has rapidly shifted from the cubicle to the kitchen table. A number of surveys indicate that about half of the American work force is now doing their work at home. Companies that may have once been resistant to letting employees off the in-person leash are finding that yes, work can still get done outside the confines of an office building.
That realization may last long after stay-at-home orders are lifted, leading to a permanent change in how we work. Silicon Valley is leading the way, with Twitter, Square and Facebook announcing that employees will be able to work remotely after the pandemic subsides. Companies in other white-collar industries are certain to follow. Nearly two-thirds of surveyed hiring managers say that their workforces will be more remote moving forward.
But offices are already starting to reopen, and it’s likely to be up to individual workers to decide whether to return. We may end up, then, in a world of haves and have-nots — those who have more ability to start commuting again and those who can’t, because they have increased health risks or they have children at home and no child-care options. And among heterosexual couples, it’s not hard to guess which parent will almost certainly be stuck at home longer until child-care options are open again. Will these employees be treated differently, even inadvertently?
It’s hard to predict just how these shifts will play out — but as things stand, women are in a poor position to benefit.
The rise in remote work represents an opportunity to shift the anachronistic view that the only good work that gets done happens in an office setting. To do so without sidelining some groups, however, we must also lift the stigma from working in untraditional ways. And that’s no easy lift.
Despite the existence for years of the technology to facilitate remote work — Zoom was founded in 2011, Slack was launched in 2013, email has been around for decades, telephones for more than a century — managers have, until the past few months, still placed a premium on face time.
Even those who allowed for flexible working arrangements often treated men and women differently. A 2014 survey found that far more men worked at home than women — 36 percent versus 23 percent of women. Men are also more likely to be granted flexible working hours. Female-dominated jobs are actually less likely to be flexible, despite the potentially greater need among women, who are still the default caretakers, to wedge caring for children and other family members into the confines of the typical workday.
Part of the problem is how employers view the need for flexibility. At the moment, we’re at home because we’re stuck there. But when we aren’t in the midst of a global health crisis, there are different reasons to want the ability to work remotely or outside of standard hours. Some might want to take on projects that don’t fit into traditional work arrangements but could advance their careers, such as writing a book. Others need it to stitch child care into the patchwork of their days.
But employers tend to grant the former and look down upon the latter. Employers are more likely to agree to flexible arrangements for high-status male employees who want it to advance their careers. Women are less likely to be granted the same privilege than men for any reason, whether to further their careers or something else. Employers seem to assume that women want flextime to care for children — regardless of whether that’s the real reason — and that such steps are just the beginning of a slow exit from the work force. Little wonder, then, that working remotely doesn’t close the gender wage gap or boost more women into top jobs.
Already, employers are offering remote work with a built-in penalty. Facebook will let employees work from home for good, but could cut their pay if they move to cheaper locations, no matter how much value they create for the company.
So even if the pandemic causes employers to wake up to the fact that work can still get done just as easily from home as from an office, their change of heart won’t usher in a gender-equal utopia. If we want it, we have to make it so.
One way to make any increase in working from home more gender neutral would be for men to do it too and for them to be more transparent about when it’s for family obligations. (That rests, of course, on men actually shouldering at least half of the home responsibilities.) If workplaces start asking people to return before schools are open and before child care centers are functioning, men have to raise their hands and ask to keep remote and flexible schedules so that they can help juggle caregiving and career; such transparency can help suck the gendered venom out of the request to work from home. If men do it too, then it can’t be seen as just something women do on their way to full-time motherhood.
In addition, employers have to modernize their expectations of employees. As author Brigid Schulte recently wrote, “remote workers are often more productive, more engaged, less stressed, more satisfied and less likely to quit than their in-office counterparts.” The pandemic has demonstrated that workers don’t have to be in an office building from 9 to 5 to get their jobs done; the danger is that employers forget and revert to the face-time premium once offices open back up.
Without a deliberate culture shift, any increase in our ability to work from home is going to play out the same way that all workplace policies do: Women will get penalized while men use them to get promoted. We can use this unique moment to do better, but such change won’t happen simply because we were forced to be remote this year. We have to work for it.
Bryce Covert is a contributor at The Nation and a contributing opinion writer.
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