When F, a 37-year-old media strategist, started working at a tech company based in Austin in June 2019, she negotiated a flexible schedule. She would work from home Tuesdays and Thursdays so that she could spend more time throughout the day with her 15-month-old son.
This was pre-Covid 19, and F was the only person on the marketing team at her 30-person company who chose to work from home a few days a week. With a child that young, her priorities were different than those of many of her colleagues, who preferred not just to work together all day but also to socialize together afterwards. “I’m not going to be in an office from 8:30 to 5, and then [go to] happy hours and drinking party boats,” said F, who asked for anonymity to speak openly about her former employer.
In hindsight there were red flags. Her colleagues told her they thought it was “fascinating” she had children, she recalled. “The thing haunting [me] was, they kept saying, ‘We really want an adult in the room,’” she said. That “adult” was supposed to be her.
After a few months, it was clear something was off. She’d come into the office on a Friday and find out about a new direction for the business that everyone else already knew about. When she asked why she hadn’t been told, they’d say, “‘If you were here, you would know,’” F said.
When everyone started working from home during the pandemic, she was relieved. If the whole company was remote, then she’d finally be on equal footing. But things somehow got worse. She was left off team emails or excluded from Slack messages. It felt like gaslighting, she said; there was a lot of “I could’ve sworn I sent that to you.” Then deadlines became unmanageable, she said, with requests for work to be completed by the next day coming in at around 4:00 p.m.
F says she thinks that she never shook the remote work penalty — the sense from her coworkers that she wasn’t a “real” member of the team because she was less physically present; and possibly because her status as a mother also set her apart culturally. This fall, F left the company and is now doing consulting work.
F’s experience began before the pandemic, but almost two years later, the problems she encountered are urgent as employers consider their post-Covid workplaces. F’s schedule, with some remote days and some in-office days, has become known as the “hybrid” model, and it is being hailed by business publications and consultants as the future of white-collar work.
But what happened to F suggests the hybrid workplace of the future is full of potential problems. And these downsides could very likely hit women hardest.
Take a spin through “future of work” articles on the Internet, and you’ll find many calling the shift to hybrid work a positive gamechanger for women in particular. Women, after all, are more interested than men in working remotely at least part of the time. One survey, from LinkedIn, found women were 26 percent more likely than men to apply to remote jobs. And it’s easy to see why: Women are disproportionately burdened with caregiving responsibilities, either for children or elderly relatives. Since the Covid-19 pandemic shuttered schools and other childcare facilities, women have found it increasingly difficult to juggle those responsibilities with work, which — along with punishing job losses in sectors where women make up the majority of workers — has caused an exodus of women from the workforce. Women have lost 2.4 million jobs since February 2020, according to an analysis from the National Women’s Law Center. And female participation in the workforce is hovering at a level last seen in the 1980s.
If more companies let women work from home several days a week, helping them better juggle work and family, isn’t that a good thing?
Maybe not. As this long-term hybrid future comes into view, a group of academics, executives, gender-equality advocates and women themselves are increasingly worried that it might start to harden around new norms that hurt women rather than help them. Their fear is that women will take advantage of the hybrid benefit more than men, choosing to work more days at home, while companies subtly — or not so subtly — continue to favor employees who come into the office more often. Even if they say they won’t, employers will use frequent time with bosses and long hours in-person as the basis for advancing. Less formally, workers not in the office might miss impromptu conversations that lead to new opportunities. Over time, so-called hybrid friendly companies will develop two-tier workplaces — with the lowest tier populated mostly by women.
If hybrid work becomes both widespread and mostly an accommodation for women, “You entrench a women’s work ghetto,” said Brigid Schulte, director of New America’s Better Life Lab. “You are mommy tracked to the billionth degree.”
This new kind of class ceiling would come at a particularly precarious moment, when the mass exodus of women out of the labor market could lead to a slowdown in growth for the entire economy, to the tune of billions of dollars, according to one estimate.
If companies don’t move intentionally to head off the problems posed by the hybrid workplace, decades of progress toward equality could be set back. “Unless you are very intentional and careful about how you come back and who comes back and you’re open about culture,” said Schulte. “I feel this could be worse for women.”
While no one can be sure what workplaces will look like once we’re far removed from the pandemic — whenever that will be — the way we work will likely be altered in the long run. “The more months we stay like this, the more it is sticking,” said Nicholas Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford University. Bloom has studied remote work for years, watching it rise from a rarity to standard practice during Covid.
Before March 2020, most jobs required employees to come into the office or the worksite. At the peak of the pandemic, as many as 40-45 percent of workers were at home all the time, said Nick Bunker, an economist at Indeed.com. In September, according to the latest data from the Department of Labor, 11.6 percent of employed people were working remotely at some point in the preceding month because of the pandemic. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 6 percent of people worked primarily from home in 2019. Meanwhile, more workers are demanding remote work. Job seekers are three times as likely to look for remote work as they were before Covid, Bunker added.
Even large companies that once held up their physical workplaces as one of their biggest draws are making the switch to allow for remote work, at least part of the time. Back in May 2020, the founder and CEO of Meta, the company formerly known as Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, said as much as 50 percent of its work force would be working remotely permanently in the coming years. That announcement was a “revolution,” Bloom said. At the time, many found it surprising that such a big and established tech firm, known for an office culture that included onsite food and other perks, would be willing to commit to the arrangement, Bloom said. Now, it’s the companies forcing workers back five days a week that seem like outliers.
Of course, there are many jobs that can’t allow remote-work flexibility — most jobs in health care, for instance, or service-sector jobs. And some industries where long hours are typical will be more resistant to the switch. But in many white-collar professions, workplaces are already embracing remote work at least part of the time for workers who choose that option.
There is a lot of potential upside for women in this seismic shift. Until the pandemic forced workers to stay at home, professional women who opted for flexible, work-from-home schedules often faced a stigma at work. So-called “flex” policies were used by companies — typically well-known consulting and law firms — as a way to advertise their female-friendly bona fides. But they were basically a trap for women, an on-ramp to what’s been long called “the mommy track.” (The term dates back to a 1988 New York Times article about women at law firms.) The career path where ambition goes to die.
Companies had a long-standing pattern of giving women these tools to work flexibly and then penalizing them for taking advantage of the policies, said Colleen Ammerman, the director of Harvard Business School’s gender initiative and co-author of Glass Half Broken. “There is a promotion penalty for people who work off site,” Ammerman said. There’s a strong notion in corporate settings that if you’re not in the office, she said, you’re not committed to work.
Studies bear this out. The management consulting company Egon Zehnder conducted a study recently where 97 percent of C-suite professionals said women in their organizations benefited from working from home, but at the same time, seven in 10 executives said remote and flexible employees may be at risk of getting passed over for a promotion because of decreased visibility at work.
The pandemic certainly shifted the way companies perceived remote work. Some hope that will last. But many fear it will be temporary. Leadership might talk about its flexible culture, but at the end of the day, traditional sentiments will likely prevail, Schulte and other advocates warn. “The ideal worker culture will come back,” Schulte said. All the managers and CEOs — mostly men — will want to come in. “They’ll expect the committed workers to come back, too.”
JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon best expressed all this in the summer, explaining why he wanted his workers to come back full-time. “[Remote] doesn’t work for those who want to hustle. It doesn’t work for spontaneous idea generation. It doesn’t work for culture,” he said.
As of October, all U.S.-based JPMorgan workers have been coming back to the office on a rotating schedule, subject to office occupancy caps. But Dimon’s statement shows the bind that some employees will be in once everyone has more freedom to choose their own schedules : Allowed to work from home, and perhaps needing to work from home, but aware that management associates it with a lack of “hustle.”
Taking advantage of remote work could also further entrench harmful stereotypes that women are less ambitious, says Ammerman. “Often what people will say in a very genuinely inquisitive way is, ‘Isn’t it [that] women don’t want these [more demanding] jobs?’ So I think we as a culture are always looking for ways to shore up that story.”
Leaders don’t have to be outright hostile to remote work to display bias. “Proximity bias” is the unconscious tendency to consider those in our immediate vicinity better workers. If leaders end up coming into the office more often, then they’ll naturally favor those around them.
Many women themselves may not even realize they’re experiencing any kind of remote-work penalty until it’s too late.
“It can be hard to tell if you are being treated differently than others, and maybe even harder when everyone is remote,” said Marianne Cooper, a sociologist at the Stanford VMware Women’s Leadership Innovation Lab and leading scholar on women and leadership. “It may be that a woman would need to try several times to be promoted and not get promoted before it begins to ‘feel’ like she’s struggling and perhaps there just hasn’t been enough time yet for that to happen to people.”
Imagine this happening to women in offices around the country, and soon enough, you have a crisis on your hands. “It could be a way to rationalize the persistence of gender inequality in the workplace,” Ammerman says.
But it doesn’t have to be all bad for women and anyone else who wants to take advantage of more flexible workplace schedules.
Workplaces that go hybrid just need to be intentional about what they’re doing, says Erin Grau, cofounder and COO of Charter, a media and consulting company devoted to covering the transforming workplace. Companies can make sure performance reviews, for example, aren’t over-valuing face time. They can set boundaries around meeting times, and even work hours, so those who aren’t in the office that day and who might be off picking up a kid don’t miss out on a crucial meeting.
“We’re urging companies to avoid creating a two-tier workforce where in-person employees get more access to special projects, raises and promotions,” she said.
There are a few companies that are being “intentional,” as Schulte said, and seem to understand the delicate balance required to make remote work equitable for women — possibly because their cultures were in-tune with gender-equity concerns pre-pandemic.
The executive team at Etsy, the online marketplace for independent, handmade goods — a company that is already known for generous benefits like 26 weeks gender blind paid parental leave — is committing to hybrid work for everyone. Executives at the company have committed to not coming in five days a week — a rule explicitly designed to avoid proximity bias.
In June, financial services firm Synchrony similarly said its CEO and top managers will not come back five days a week. “Our employees told us across the board they wanted a more flexible work arrangement,” chief executive officer Brian Doubles told Bloomberg. “A big part of this is how do you go about this in a way that’s inclusive?”
Bloom, the Stanford economist, said rules around meetings in hybrid workplaces are particularly crucial. If most of a team is in the office but one person is calling in on Zoom, the whole team should be on Zoom, too, Bloom says, to ensure there’s no remote-worker penalty. He compared this to a scenario in which one English speaker attends a meeting in Germany, where everyone’s first language is German but they all speak English for the American’s benefit.
Still, when the meeting ends and all the in-person workers keep talking, even that strategy could fall apart.
Some companies, aware of these pitfalls, are scheduling specific times when workers must come to the office and conduct meetings in-person.
Etsy isn’t requiring workers to be in-person for meetings, but it is rolling out something called Prime Time, encouraging employees to hold all meetings from 11 a.m. – 2 p.m. This way employees have the bulk of their day to arrange in a way that accommodates their own needs. The idea is to make “distributed work,” i.e., a workplace where people are located in different places, equitable, the company’s spokespeople told me. That means making sure there are clear guidelines around when work happens and where.
Employers can take other steps to accommodate other parts of employees’ lives. For example, the way Patagonia, the outdoor clothing retailer, did performance reviews this year was different than in other years, said Jenna Johnson, the company’s president.
“It’s more about looking at and acknowledging the work we did while balancing our lives,” she said. So whatever performance goals employees had before March 2020 weren’t considered during review time in 2021.
And for Patagonia, these pandemic-era tweaks seem to be working. During a time when a lot of mothers were forced out of the labor market because of pressures at home, Patagonia said parents were less likely to quit than non-parents. And because the company already provided on-site childcare even before the pandemic, parents were actually more likely to come to work than nonparents during the past 18 months.
There is no consensus on what workplaces will look like next year, in five years’ time, or in the more distant future. We can’t know whether most offices will revert to their pre-pandemic rules, requiring Monday through Friday attendance from most employees. Given the long-term trend toward working from home, this seems unlikely, even if most white-collar workplaces don’t also become fully remote.
What is clear is that employers now have an opportunity to build a new workplace model that doesn’t leave women behind the way the old one did — but only if they’re deliberate about building it. Ambition and caregiving responsibilities, after all, are not mutually exclusive. There are plenty of people — especially women — with both.
Take Courtney Guitierrez. The 35-year-old mother of three works in special education as an administrator north of Seattle in Mt. Lakes Terrace.
For years, she’s worked “flexibly,” partly at home and partly in schools, fitting in work whenever she could. She now has three children at home — a 10-year-old son, three-year-old daughter and a 10-month-old baby girl.
At one point, before the pandemic, she took on a leadership role as program director — a step up. But doing that work from home ultimately didn’t work, she said. “I remember trying to call into meetings from home and it was like nobody knew how to do this,” she said. “The rest of the team was in one office with one iPhone, and I was calling in on my iPhone at home. I couldn’t hear a thing they said. If they could hear me, they couldn’t respond. It was kind of a bust.” She wound up stepping back and returning to her old lower-level position.
Once Covid hit, her colleagues were forced to figure out how to work remotely. Now those call-in blunders don’t happen. They use Microsoft Teams, and likely will continue to do so for some time.
Guitierrez recently got her director role back. The promotion is a blessing, but also a curse, she said. She’s overworked and overwhelmed just like a lot of other working parents these days — but is happy to be back in the struggle of figuring out how to balance it all day to day. “I’m so happy I can do this,” Guitierrez said. “At the same time, every day is a year long.”