Back to Work: Balancing Flexibility with Potential "Career Penalties" for Women

The return to the office is a hot topic right now. If to do it. When to do it. How to do it. As more employees are vaccinated, businesses are eager to return to normal. But what is normal in a post-pandemic world? Or right now, when we are still very much in it? And how will the past year change things?

When quarantine orders sent employees home more than a year ago, many workplaces made a big pivot to remote operations. This kind of workplace flexibility was something that workers, especially women and parents, had been advocating for years but that companies were slow to implement. After a year of remote work, it is clear that employees remain productive when not tethered to an office. As a result, more employers are considering flexible or hybrid work schedules for the long term.

F5, a Seattle-based tech company with more than 5000 employees in 43 countries, has spent the past year reimagining the workplace. The company is allowing its workers to choose among returning full-time to the office, opting for a hybrid home/office option, and selecting an all-virtual mode. According to Elizabeth Zimmerman, Senior Manager of Global Workplace Strategy & Design, preliminary results show that seventy to eighty percent of employees are interested in a flexible hybrid model. The next step is piloting the three work style models and determining how best to weave them into the company’s culture. Interesting upsides have occurred this year. Zimmerman’s colleague, Jenn Gile, has found remote work a surprising equalizer. She was always the employee on the phone or video screen while her workmates in another city gathered in a conference room. “This past year allowed me to get to know them so much more, and I think we are a stronger team because of it,” she said. She plans to continue working remotely full-time, which will also allow her to provide better care for her six year old.

An HR professional at a rapidly growing firm in the Bay Area, who asked we didn’t use her name, is also exploring creative ways to address office space post-pandemic. If more workers maintain hybrid or remote work schedules, the company will not need to spend as much on real estate. “Is there a bigger role to play in supporting outside work that also supports the business?” she considered. One option is to invest some of the real estate savings in a childcare plan for employees. Zoom bombing toddlers have really put a face on the need for more solutions for working parents, and particularly on the importance of retaining female workers.

Traditional businesses are also building greater flexibility into their back to work plans. One Seattle area employer is opting for a transitional plan, allowing workers to choose between working at home and returning to the office through early fall when vaccination rates will be up and children can return to school full-time. “Before the pandemic, working from home wasn’t embraced,” commented one employee. Now there is a greater “acknowledgement of needs,” she said, and though it appears the company will ultimately ask that most employees return to the office, it is also possible that some flexibility will remain in the long run.

There is a flip-side to all of this remote work flexibility, however. Millennial and Gen Z employees, as well as new workers, really benefit from being in person – both socially and for the transfer of knowledge. Workers in big cities like New York may live in tiny shared apartments that make it hard to conduct business. And while remote work helps working mothers attend to school schedules, there is also a fear that they could be marginalized if they do not return to the office like their peers.

According to Ellen Ernst Kossek, Purdue University expert on inclusive organizations, “Women are heavier users of workplace flexibility in part because they still cover more family demands. If companies don’t adapt their cultures as we reopen from the pandemic, it could hold women back, as well. Research shows that if you’re using telework and flexibility to finish a project late at night, managers love you; if you’re using it for family or personal reasons, they stigmatize you and think you’re not career-oriented.” Companies will need to be thoughtful, intentional, and use data-driven strategies to prevent their remote or hybrid workers from becoming second class employees.[1]

It remains to be seen how prevalent that remote or hybrid work will be in a year or two. Will businesses really re-imagine their office as a collaborative workspace or will they revert to their old ways?

Will men, as well as women, opt to work from home long term? Will employers remember how productive their workers were during the pandemic, even though they couldn’t see them doing their jobs? Despite the questions, it seems safe to say that our year-plus experiment in remote work has shaken up the workplace sufficiently to induce a permanent shift in the way we work, how we measure performance and how we see each other as human beings within the workplace. And all of that can be good for women:  IF companies can figure out how to equitably, see, support, and promote those who are in person and those who are fully or partially remote.  This is an opportunity to reinvent the new normal in the workplace and make it better for all.


[1] Remote Work May Increase Gender Inclusivity for Women—but May Also Lead to Career Penalties Post-Pandemic
Back to Work:  Balancing Flexibility with Potential "Career Penalties" for Women