Working from home used to be a job perk for many Silicon Valley start-ups. Since COVID-19 upended our lives seven months ago, remote work is now a fact of life for nearly every non-essential worker.
Certainly, increased productivity, heightened employee engagement, and a semblance of work-life balance is achievable under normal work-from-home standards. However, in a pandemic, these outputs are mixed, particularly for women in the workplace.
A recent Harvard Business Review article makes the case that working from home during COVID-19 has put working women at a higher disadvantage because traditionally, women tend to take charge of the domestic responsibilities at home. Without access to childcare or schools, less access to ‘mostly male’ decision makers and leaner staff, women are under greater pressure to perform at work and at home leading to less career advancement, a wider wage gap, and decreased productivity.
In good or bad circumstances, women still lose out
This period of forced quarantine has benefited female employees in a number of ways, too. It has removed the stigma of remote work for all employees and opened up the corporate world’s eyes to the realities of balancing work, life, and family demands for both men and women. If hearing a child’s temper tantrum in the background of a Zoom call used to make one cringe, it’s now become a normal part of work meetings. Life is happening regardless of one’s work responsibilities and most employers are emphatic to this new reality.
Yet even if employers and employees have grown accustomed to these ‘normal’ interruptions, a shows that the gender gap in work-from-home environments is increasing due to the pandemic. Male employees report being more productive while working from home compared to their female counterpart –
“70% of them say their productivity has increased since the start of the pandemic, compared to 41% of women who say they’ve seen similar improvements,” notes CBS News.
That’s a stark difference between males’ and females’ perception of productivity.
The results are even bleaker among women with children versus those without. Thirty-four percent of men with kids at home reported receiving a promotion versus 9% of women with kids. Pay raises for men also increased far beyond what women received (26% for working Dads versus 13% for working Moms).
The chasm between men and women is even more apparent among employers who have yet to empathize with realities of parenthood during COVID-19. Recently, a San Diego woman filed a lawsuit against her employer for wrongful termination and discrimination, claiming her boss harassed her for having kids making noise in the background and was frustrated by her schedule in balancing work and family demands. According to the lawsuit, the defendant’s husband was an essential worker and wasn’t available to split childcare duties while she worked from home. Her case is not an anomaly. It’s likely that we’ll see more lawsuits from women in the coming year for workplace discrimination and wrongful termination citing similar reasons.
Where there’s a will, there is commercial real estate
Meanwhile, some professional women are getting creative with the mandatory work-from-home orders. Brittany Meiling, a San Diego Union-Tribune journalist made the “financially unwise” move of leasing out a private office space to do her work during the pandemic.
As the commercial real estate market struggles during the pandemic and offices sit empty for the rest of the year or more, women like Brittany are getting crafty with their workspace. As Brittany puts it, she and so many others did not ‘sign up’ to work from home and don’t have the room or resources to create an office space under this current environment. Having a carved out space and a place to go to each day provides working women like Brittany the structure and distraction-free environment needed to produce high quality work. Swapping out a car payment, vacation, and dining out has made this a financially viable option for anyone willing to find and lease their work-from-home away from home office.
The work from home survival guide
As we continue to ride out this storm, it’s important to acknowledge that not everyone is in the same boat, especially the working woman. A single and childless employee is in a much different boat than a parent of two toddlers or another caring for a sick parent while working remote. Employers need to acknowledge the new reality and make accommodations based on the individuals’ circumstances as best they can.
Here are three considerations to help employers and employees survive the challenges of working from home.
- Train your leaders – Everyone is figuring things out as they go, and employees are looking to the top for guidance. Gather your managers and give them the proper tools, resources, and ongoing training necessary to help their direct reports thrive. If needed, re-organize your teams in order to divide the load of responsibilities or employee management.
- Be human – Children screaming, dogs barking, roommates hogging up the bandwidth for Zoom meetings – this is the reality of working from home. Don’t penalize your employees for this. Instead, try to be accommodating as possible to people’s schedules and normalize these challenges with employees. For example, invite your new puppy into a Zoom call or talk about the latest funny-now-but-not-at-the-time toddler tantrum at the start of a staff call to showcase that despite the circumstances, we’re all managing a challenge or two.
- Prioritize mental health days – There’s no question that those who are still working from home are doing so under heightened stress, anxiety, and more workload as teams get tighter and leaner. Check-in with your team on an individual basis and encourage them to take “mental health” days more often (even better if you can give it without it going against their PTO). Talk openly about giving mental health days to employees, share resources, articles, or tools to help staff members de-stress, and make mental health awareness less taboo.
Women aren’t robots
In times like these, women aren’t just working from home, they are also homeschooling their kids, playing housekeeper and cook, managing household finances and oh, trying to keep their relationships, health, and sanity in check. That’s a lot to ask of a single person. Women have proven time and again to be efficient and effective leaders and team players because they are used to juggling competing personal and professional demands for the majority of their careers. Now, employers must rise to the occasion on their own and help women thrive in the work from home setting with empathy, creativity, and grace. Women are not robots and to expect the same outputs from them, or any employee, as they did prior to COVID-19 sets them up to fail during a critical time for businesses and employees.