After a year and a half hiatus, many offices were on track to open up in the coming months. While the current rise of the Delta variant of the COVID-19 virus has scuttled some of those return to the office plans, many companies are pushing ahead and getting ready to welcome their workforce, ready or not, and get things back to normal. However, the new normal for many may not include long commutes, dry cleaning bills, desk drive-bys, and meetings for meetings’ sake. Instead, it may include a newfound work-life balance, the flexibility that many have come to depend on and the decreased need for childcare, not to mention increased personal time, money and time savings, and an improved quality of life.
According to recent surveys by Deloitte and McKinsey, as many as 1 in 4 corporate women have said they are considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce altogether. Deloitte also found that nearly 3 in 5 women planned to leave their employers in two years or less, and they cited a lack of work-life balance as their top reason for wanting out.
That lack of balance is further supported in a new study by Perceptyx, an employee listening and people analytics platform, which found that compared to six months ago, 48% of women are less likely to want to return to their physical workplace full-time. The study also reported that women are not alone. In fact, roughly 24% of both women and men would prefer to adopt a hybrid working arrangement after COVID-19. Men, however, intend to spend 3-4 days per week in the physical workplace, whereas women intend to spend only 2-3 days per week. In addition, recent Gallup data shows that 10 million Americans are projected to be seriously considering the move to freelance to hold on to their newfound flexibility.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that work from home is not only possible, it’s preferable for many of us. Productivity stayed high, and in many instances improved. In fact, one study estimates the work-from-home boom will lift productivity in the U.S. economy by 5%, mostly because of savings in commuting time. That means, when it comes to returning to work, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. A hybrid approach may be exactly what’s needed to appeal to those on the fence and serve as a way for employers to stop talent loss and improve their bottom lines. In a recent survey of 1,000 adults conducted in February by the workplace technology company Envoy, 48 percent of those surveyed said they wanted a hybrid schedule, of in-person and remote work, with 41 percent saying they were even willing to take a small pay cut to make that happen.
While the hybrid approach may serve to keep some women in the workplace or entice those that have left to return, it could also have an impact on women’s progress. Susan Lund, a partner at McKinsey and leader of the McKinsey Global Institute recently told NPR that, “for companies going down this hybrid approach, there are a lot of pitfalls to watch out for. And one is that you end up with a two-tier workforce, that the people – it’s always the same people in the room making the decisions and other people are on Zoom or video conference, and that those on video conference end up being passed over for promotion, not considered for different opportunities because they’re not there. So companies are being thoughtful. The ones who are pursuing some kind of hybrid approach are thinking through these issues. And how do we avoid that to keep a level playing field?”
SHRM reports that Prudential Financial, Citigroup, Google and many others have been paying attention to what their employees want, and are not only looking at the hybrid model, but also looking at other work-practice changes meant to support a healthier work-life balance. These changes, especially coupled with access to paid leave and childcare, can go a long way towards keeping women in the workplace full-time, rather than dropping to part-time or leaving the workforce entirely.
A successful hybrid model is, however, a balancing act, and will require a lot of attention and communication, especially in the initial stages. Tsedal Neeley, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School and the author of Remove Work Revolution: Succeeding from Anywhere, is optimistic, and recently discussed the many issues that are coming up as the nature of work changes with Recode and said, “Guidelines and the policies will settle. Competencies around flexible workplaces will rise. Individual managers will level up to figure out how to lead a distributed workforce. People will be more agile with using digital tools, so things like tech exhaustion will go away. After people experience the hybrid format, they will settle into a rhythm that really works for them. And I think that we’ll see more remote than in-person days.”
Ultimately, we need to make work work for women and make a return doable. Those who plan to continue working from home, whether in a hybrid or full-time capacity, must be proactive and regularly connect with management, as well as sponsors and mentors. They also need to establish clear performance expectations and understand measures necessary in the new-normal to achieve advancement and promotions. Collectively taking action on every level is crucial to get and keep women employed and in the pipeline for advancement, and if a hybrid model is how we make that happen, we need to look for ways to define and embrace it. Study after study shows that having more women in the workforce is good for women’s equality and their company’s bottom line. It’s time for women and our male allies to come together like never before and find solutions that will redefine the workplace now, and after this crisis passes.