When I first started writing about remote work almost three years ago, a lot of the content at the time was concerned with conveying the benefits. Having experienced the joys of flexibility for themselves, advocates were trying to be taken seriously in the world of work and enthusiastically encouraging anyone who might listen that this really was the future.
Increased productivity was one of the favorite arguments. Perhaps in a bid to appeal to decision-makers, stats from the famous Stanford call center study were repeated everywhere, from Forbes and HBR to company blogs, medium articles, and LinkedIn posts. Of course, we also heard about the lack of commute, extra time at home, and more flexibility to plan your day how you pleased. Then there were the nomad workers, loudly proclaiming remote work meant you could work from anywhere despite real risks to compliant employment, but that’s another article.
Amid all this early research and fact-finding, I distinctly remember watching a conference recording of Laurel Farrer. She talked about the potential remote work had for a more equitable future, which instantly piqued my interest. She spoke about teams filled with talent from all over the world, the revival of small towns previously dying out without local industry, and opportunities for groups who previously had limited access to work, such as disabled folks, people with caring responsibilities, or single parents. While much of this ‘future’ felt far away, I still remember the feeling of excitement and hope I had while watching.
Fast forward three years and a worldwide pandemic, the future Laurel spoke of seems both closer than ever and impossibly far. Many of the office workers of the world can now attest to their increased productivity, more time in the mornings and the benefits of flexibility. Still, even after the prominent race discussions of 2020, I wonder whether there have been any significant changes to the accessibility and subsequent diversity of our workforce.
In this article, I’ll be asking whether remote work really makes a difference or not and, if so, how we can make this more widespread.
Was working from home during the pandemic worse for women?
Working mothers have long been used as an example of the kinds of employees remote work benefits. And not without reason. At Shield, we have many examples of moms (and Dads!) who can now do school drop-offs or pick-ups because they don’t commute and love that they’re more able to be there for school activities, sports games, or even when their kids are sick.
However, the pandemic has drastically changed the experience of mother’s working from home.
Women have reported higher rates of stress, depression, and sheer hours worked — especially if they have kids. And, according to McKinsey, women’s experience of the pandemic has been harder than that of men. They found 79% of men had a positive work-from-home experience during the pandemic, compared with just 37% of women. In addition, one in four women and one in three mothers revealed they were thinking about downshifting their careers or stepping out of the workforce entirely due to their experience working from home during the last 18 months.
In an article she wrote for Recode, Rani Molla guesses that much of this disparity in experience between men and women comes down to the disproportionate responsibility of running a household.
Women have almost always been doing what sociologists describe as the “second shift,” whereby they complete much of the households chore and caregiving tasks in addition to their paid work.
“The pandemic has made things even worse,” Rani wrote. “Since much of the infrastructure that helps alleviate those tasks — schools, daycare, elder care, cleaning services — has been off-limits.”
The McKinsey study backs this up, finding that during the pandemic, mothers have been twice as likely as fathers in a dual-career couple to do an extra five hours of domestic chores per day.
“[Men and women] were not having the same experience,” Alexis Krivkovich, a senior partner in McKinsey & Company’s Bay Area office and co-author of “Women in the Workplace,” a report about the female corporate workforce in 2020, told Recode. “The double shift turned into the double-double.”
Of course, we know that in many ways working from home during the pandemic is nothing like working from home during any other time.
Many of those same parents I wrote about earlier who have loved the flexibility to be there for their children while they were in school found the extra strain of supporting homeschooling while maintaining an entire workday completely unsustainable.
And yet, this example can teach us a lot about the needs of working mothers.
The cultural and structural systems that affect mothers are longstanding and deeply entrenched. Simply offering remote work as a solution is too limited to provide high-level change. However, that’s not to say it can’t play its part.
“Remote work is central to allowing people with caregiving responsibilities the flexibility and control over their schedules that they need to provide that care,”says Caitlyn Collins, an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Washington University in St. Louis.
Rani agrees, writing, “Child care and other domestic work have been more obviously demanding during the pandemic, but they’ve always been demanding. Remote work just makes an untenable situation more possible.”
It’s also important to remember the benefits that remote work affords women, even during the pandemic.
In addition to all the regular stuff (increased productivity, no commute, etc.), studies have found access to remote work diminished rates of burnout. It’s also more likely to keep women in the workforce. A Catalyst study found that women with childcare responsibilities who could work remotely were 32 percent less likely to say they would leave their job in the next year than those who couldn’t work from home.
Remote work certainly has the potential to be incredibly helpful to women. However, it requires care and attention to ensure that happens.
As Rani puts it, “It’s not that remote work itself is inequitable to women. Rather, the situation in which we’re performing remote work is unjust.”
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Has the greater accessibility of remote work actually led to more hires of people with disabilities?
When we talk about opening up our talent pool to anyone regardless of location, this usually means having a way with the dreaded commute. For many of us, commuting to our city’s centre is a drag. It’s inconvenient, full of crowds, and more often than not feels like a waste of time. But for those with mobility issues, sensory conditions, or other medical requirements, a long commute can be a barrier to access that means they may not be able to work at all.
In her article for The Guardian, Angela Lashbrook shared how her prosopagnosia, or face blindness, made working in an office challenging to manage.
“When I worked at an office, I inadvertently offended colleagues who did not understand why I struggled to place who they were,” she says.
“Working from home, as I have for the past three years, has made a positive difference in my ability to be a successful, confident journalist, and a happier person overall.”
This isn’t a unique story.
Ruby Jones, a disability activist who works for the University of Exeter’s Student Union and lives with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, recently created the hashtag #MyAccessiblePandemic on Twitter after noticing how the pandemic improved her accessibility to work.
She tweeted: “I’m starting a hashtag to highlight how the pandemic has improved accessibility for disabled people. I’ll start: Working from home means I am able to work a full-time job without exhausting myself to the point of hospitalization.”
She later spoke with the BBC, saying, “I’ve done meetings from my bed with members of university senior management and I wouldn’t have been in that room if it wasn’t for the digital access.”
“In our research, what we found was that working from home was amongst the most required accommodations or support that people with all types of disabilities reported needing,” says Arif Jetha, part of a team of researchers who study workplace accessibility issues at the University of Toronto’s Institute for Work and Health. This essential accommodation request “was also one of the most unmet needs” by employers, Jetha says.
And while it may seem that the growing popularity of remote work would combat this issue. Like many things, it’s not that simple.
Angela wrote, “A 2020 analysis of job market data shows that, although people with physical or mental impairments can benefit greatly from workplaces with flexible remote work policies, we’re more likely to be denied such jobs, and instead find employment in precarious, inflexible service work and other blue-collar jobs.”
Unfortunately, this kind of discrimination rings true. In Australia, complaints about disability discrimination are the largest category reported to the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC).
In many cases, “employers incorrectly assumed that the costs of employing people with disability were higher than they are, or were unaware of government programs to offset the costs of reasonable adjustments in the workplace,” the ABC reports.
Hiring practices were often biassed and discounted applicants’ abilities or dismissed their needs for assistive technology such as screen reading software or hearing loops.
How to make remote work more accessible and inclusive
In both of these instances, while remote work was beneficial, it wasn’t enough in and of itself.
Just because remote work is more accessible to groups of people who may find commuting more difficult, it doesn’t automatically guarantee your team will be full of underrepresented groups as soon as you decide to go remote. Employers and hiring managers need to be intentional in how they recruit new talent and how they support them once they’re hired.
Utilize the ‘return phase’ of the pandemic
As companies assess their next moves and weigh up whether to return to the office or offer hybrid solutions, there is an opportunity to implement new policies, set new goals and change our priorities.
It’s much easier to turn a moving vehicle than one at a complete stop, so use the momentum of change already upon us to create a pathway for a more diverse future.
Understand your team is full of individuals
The examples above showcased how different all of our experiences of the same events can be — and I only share two scenarios. Seeing your team as individuals with their own needs and experiences sets you up to listen to their stories, hear their requests and not try to find solutions that suit everyone.
In your information gathering, utilize both external data and statistics and internal tools such as surveys, 1:1 meetings, anonymous questions etc.
You are not the expert in every situation
As the old adage goes, if you always do what you’ve always done, you always get what you’ve always gotten. Bringing in support, whether that be an audit of your current hiring process, a consultant to help develop more supportive wellbeing policies for working mothers or anti-discrimination training may help get you further than you can on your own. If we want to change the way we operate, we’ll need some directions along the way.
Treat the problem at hand
If the working mothers on your team are overworked and burned out, assess your own policies. Do you offer paid parental leave to all parents, regardless of their gender? Do you offer subsidized childcare? Do you compensate women equally? Are you promoting those who work from home at the same rate as those in the office? I’m not saying all of these are necessary, but if one or more of these could reduce the likelihood of burnout for an entire group of people, surely they are worth considering?
— Bree Caggiati