The COVID-19 crisis has not only changed the ways we live, work, and play, it has changed the way we earn, learn, and interact with one another. With states opening up, some business leaders are grappling with ways to keep everyone safe, while others are recognizing the benefits of keeping their workforce at home. As everyone adjusts to this current normal, the door is open to create flexibility in our workplaces that makes professional opportunities and work environments more equitable to women and men, and a more profitable new normal for business.
Big business is waking up to work-from-home opportunities. Walmart announced that tech workers don’t have to return to the office anytime soon — or potentially, ever. The decision follows Twitter, which recently told employees that they can continue to work from home “forever” if they’re in a role that allows it. Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg also said the company is ramping up hiring remote workers and predicts that 50 percent of its employees could be working remotely within the next five to 10 years. Google has also announced that workers who don’t need to be onsite can extend their work-from-home arrangement until the end of the year.
The work-from-home forever response to COVID isn’t limited to the tech sector. Studies find that as many as half of those employed before the pandemic shifted to working remotely and at companies where remote work is possible, many now expect it to continue for quite some time. So, whether your desk doubles as the dining room table for the rest of the summer or beyond, at three months and counting, remote work isn’t going anywhere, anytime soon.
This is fortunate as many are thriving in the current workplace setup and are hesitant to return to the office. According to Gallup, three in five U.S. workers who have been doing their jobs from home during the coronavirus pandemic would prefer to continue to work remotely as much as possible, once public health restrictions are lifted. In contrast, 41% would prefer to return to their workplace or office to work, as they did before the crisis.
What Do These Changes Mean for Women?
While many women have long wanted the flexibility that included part or full-time work-from-home, the COVID-19 version isn’t an option they would choose but is one they must endure. Work-from-home coupled with the continued dangers of the pandemic is isolating and hard on those who live alone. Those with children also find it more difficult because of COVID-19, as their supports are shut down and they’re juggling work, childcare, home schooling, and more.
New evidence from Lean In found that since the shutdown, more than half of all women are struggling with sleep issues. Far more women than men with full-time jobs and families say they have more to do than they can possibly handle. This is resulting in increased stress in women’s personal and professional lives. However, men are noticing. While women are juggling as fast as they can, men’s COVID experience of balancing unpaid work with paid work is eye-opening. In fact, a recent study on working parents found that twice as many fathers as mothers described caregiving during the lockdown as extremely difficult and 38% very strongly agreed that they should be doing more of the unpaid work at home.
Harvard Business Review predicts how this might play out for women’s equity, “Because men vastly outnumber women in senior leadership roles in most organizations, this is a golden opportunity for men-as-allies to purposefully leverage their newfound experience balancing teleworking and domestic partnership to truly move the needle on full gender equity. As organizational change agents, male leaders must demonstrate vision, courage, and genuine collaboration with women to rework policies, practices, and systems in order to create a new normal in our post-pandemic workplace, as well as in society more broadly.”
It’s time for these male leaders to become our allies and partner with us to advocate for change and flexibility. These past weeks have proven that work-from-home options are not only viable, but preferable for many, and with the return of societal supports, could be exactly what women need to shake up the traditional five-day-at-work model that comes with the “Motherhood Penalty” we’ve tried to eliminate for so long. We need equitable sick leave, and for our male counterparts to do their fair share when it comes to taking sick kids to the doctor or staying home with them. Of course, we still need affordable childcare too.
This time of great change creates an ideal opportunity for us to level the playing field and make gender equality a key feature of the new normal. Moving forward, women and men need to work together, and employers need to seek ways that blend work and family to maintain high-performing employees, economize of the cost of high turnover and physical office space, and reap the rewards of talent in the right places. We’re all in this together and if we all want to benefit from these difficult times, we need to support one another, be clear with our intentions and look for ways to change crisis into the kind of opportunity in which everyone wins.