‘The future of work’ is here, experts say: Here’s how companies can make sure everyone benefits

Working mothers face more challenges while working from home, but company policies can help.

Euralis Weekes/Grow

Andrea Samacicia Mullan, the founder and CEO of Victory Public Relations, started her own business so she could achieve professional success and have the family life she envisioned for herself. She made flexibility a core value from the start by giving her employees the space to prioritize their families when they needed to.

In addition to being remote, Victory employees have always been able to work the hours that best fit their families' schedules. Mullan prioritized allowing her employees to determine when they could get their work done without micromanaging them.

"When people hear flexibility, especially 10 years ago when work-life balance wasn't really discussed the way it is today, there was a misconception that we just didn't want to work as hard," Mullan says. People thought "we wanted flexibility because we wanted to work less, when really it's about working harder."

These days, the policies Mullan implemented a decade ago aren't so unusual. In 2010, roughly 4% of workers telecommuted, according to Census data. By 2019, that number had crept up to just 5%. But in May of last year, during lockdowns, 35% of the workforce was working at home every day, according to a survey from the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.

For many companies, what began as a contingency plan has become the norm. "This is something that's going to have a life long after Covid, long after the vaccine," says Jill Chapman, a senior performance consultant with human resources provider Insperity. "Remote working and the idea of flexibility, it's not like we weren't talking about that before the pandemic." It's that the pandemic has forced companies to adjust.

As Chapman puts it, "It's like the future of work just showed up one day and that day was March 14." Now many employers are trying to be more intentional about their policies so that more employees can actually benefit.

Lockdowns forced companies to embrace flexibility

The shift to "the future of work" was brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, which forced many office workers to do their jobs from home. That wasn't an uncomplicated transition, though: Some found themselves working from the kitchen table or sharing limited internet bandwidth with other members of the household.

And for parents, particularly mothers, the challenges have been even greater. Working from home has often meant juggling the responsibilities of the office with taking care of children and managing their remote learning. This pressure is one reason why more than 2 million women have left the labor force since last February and why they accounted for all 140,000 jobs lost in December.

Andrea Samacicia Mullan, far right, with employees of Victory Public Relations.
Photo by Catherine Mekovetz

In order to accommodate the needs of their employees, many companies have embraced the idea of flexibility the way Victory has since the beginning. Chapman says the companies she works with have begun to focus on the results their employees deliver, not the "number of hours they put in, or what those hours are."

Companies have also learned that they can succeed with a remote workforce, something Chapman says a lot of them didn't think was possible before the pandemic. The success they've found has led many executives to plan for long-term remote work. Four in five company leaders surveyed in July said they would continue to allow employees to work remotely at least some of the time after their offices reopen, and tech companies including Twitter and Dropbox announced last year that they would allow their employees to work from home forever.

The potential drawbacks of increased flexibility

The perks of remote work include eliminating commutes and increasing schedule flexibility, but the opportunity does not benefit everyone equally. Since American women are responsible for the majority of child care, it might seem like remote work would most benefit working mothers. While flexibility can be helpful for female employees, it isn't always, as millions of frustrated women, and particularly moms, learned in 2020. Overall, women are more likely than men to face distractions at home that could negatively affect their work and are more likely to be perceived as distracted even if they are not working any less than men.

Among couples working from home during the pandemic, men were more likely to work in an separate office while women were more likely to work from a common space such as the kitchen table, where they can be more easily interrupted, a Morning Consult survey for The New York Times found. It's no surprise then that 67% of men reported being more productive working from home while just 41% of women said the same in another recent survey.

More than half of men (57%) said that working from home during the pandemic has positively affected their careers, compared to just 29% of women.

Will office spaces look the same after coronavirus?

Video by Courtney Stith

Working mothers are also at a heightened risk of being stigmatized during the pandemic, according to Marianne Cooper, a sociologist at Stanford University, and a co-author of the 2020 Women in the Workplace Report. The report found that mothers are twice as likely as fathers to worry that their performance will be judged negatively due to caretaking responsibilities.

"Working mothers are right to worry," Cooper wrote in The Atlantic. They have long faced additional stigma when taking advantage of flexible work arrangements and are often perceived as prioritizing familial responsibilities over work. Fathers, on the other hand, are often viewed positively for helping out at home while still delivering at work, she wrote.

Because of how visible their caretaking responsibilities have become, she concluded, "working mothers are at extraordinary risk of being penalized during the pandemic." 

The nature of remote work contributes to this perception. "What's more, social-science research shows that bias gets amplified under conditions of ambiguity — such as working remotely — when it's harder to see what employees are contributing. When visibility is limited, people are more likely to rely on stereotypes to fill in the gaps," Cooper wrote.

Even at Victory, Mullan felt the pressure of these stereotypes. Prior to the pandemic, her team would always take meetings with clients outside their homes and away from their children in order to appear as professional as possible. Now, she says, it doesn't matter. Their clients have seen that they can maintain a high degree of professionalism even with their children in the background.

"It's not that professionalism has gone out the window," she says, "but we do not have to hide the fact that we are working mothers to our clients anymore."

How companies can make new arrangements work for more people

Support from company leadership can help mitigate these issues for their employees. According to the Women in the Workplace report, workers who believe that senior leaders are supportive of their flexibility needs are less likely to consider downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce.

The impact the pandemic is having on working mothers could be lessened "if companies made work sustainable for working parents, and implemented measures to prevent mothers from being unfairly judged," Cooper wrote. Examples of policies she says would help include adjusting productivity targets, creating firm boundaries between personal time and work time, and implementing better paid-leave policies.

Photo by Catherine Mekovetz

For Mullan, implementing paid maternity leave from the beginning was crucial to setting the tone for how working mothers would be treated at Victory. Even though "it seemed crazy" when they did it the first time, she says, it's been beneficial for the employees and the company.

"Everyone believed it when I said that mothers would be treated with respect, given autonomy, and held to high standards, but if I hadn't funded maternity leave, I don't think it would have felt like that was a true statement," she says.

The realities of the pandemic have pushed some companies to implement these kinds of policies to support their workers. Greenleaf Trust, a Michigan-based wealth management firm, instituted a Covid relief fund last summer to help employees bridge the gap for increased expenses, according to Senior Vice President Sarah Johansson. And since September, full-time employees have been eligible for child-care reimbursements, a benefit Johansson used to hire a community college student to tutor her own kids.

The support she's received, she says, has allowed her to feel like she can both work and parent successfully.

When visibility is limited, people are more likely to rely on stereotypes to fill in the gaps.
Marianne Cooper
Sociologist, Stanford University

More trainings can also help flexible environments work for everyone. American Water, a utility company that operates in 46 states, introduced unconscious bias training last year as part of their initiatives during the pandemic, according to Chief Inclusion Officer Valoria Armstrong. All employees received the training, which didn't just focus on issues of race, but also on the LGBTQ community, military veterans, and working mothers.

American Water also used its established companywide podcast to open up the discussion on bias and inclusion and keep employees informed about resources available to them through the employee assistance program. Podcast town halls where senior leadership share personal stories about balancing work and family have helped employees learn they are not alone in their struggles, says Armstrong.

At Insperity, the human resources company, the focus has been on reducing the stress of their workers so they can be more engaged employees, according to Chapman. An internal communications system that allows employees to connect for services like babysitting and tutoring, and a program that sends workers meal kits, has helped take some of the pressure off the workforce.

For Chapman, working through the pandemic has boiled down to two words: agility and flexibility. "We don't have to be married to the things that we have done for the last 50 years," she says. "In 2020, we threw out the playbook and now everything is up for discussion."

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