Back to the office: Back to 'normal' is not exactly what women need

Women, work and the push to go back to the office

There is an old truism that there is no great loss without some small gain: The big loss of the pandemic was our freedom to meet people, stimulate each other, be together. But in work terms the gain was finally fitting work around the needs of our lives at home (rather than our lives around the needs of work). For those with caring responsibilities, women particularly, it felt at last as if that mythical grail of ‘having it all’ might have arrived.

After all, when everyone from the CEO to the gopher is working from home, then that familiar female domestic juggle of bunging in a wash, overseeing a kid, and jumping on the next Zoom is just normal, not different. In the great pandemic home-based economy all were equal (except for the poor sods who actually had to go out to work in full PPE in a hospital, or supermarket or drive a lorry to keep the country going…)  But for the white collar rest of us it felt for bit as if the 21st century promise of tech-enabled flexible working had arrived: the future was zoom in slippers with the whole family happily humming along on the wi-fi together.

Don’t believe everything you hear

Of course it was never that easy. And now that vaccines have opened up the economy again and the push is on to get back to the office a new mummy track is appearing where women who choose not to commute and be available to the boss in real life are in danger of derailing their careers by becoming invisible. This week the chancellor warned about a K shaped recession in which some accelerate out of the slump into a sunny future, while others head down into the dumps, while Catherine Mann, a member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee said if women were to progress in their careers it is “extremely important” they get back to the office, an injunction echoed by a chorus of government ministers and city bosses.

As a veteran working mother myself – two decades of juggling kids and high wire executive life – I’d urge women to get back into harness. I’ve always urged women not to go part time, in my experience going down to three or four days a week is the worst of all worlds. Such workers (usually carers, often mums) get paid less but often end up being on call and doing just as much as they did before. My advice was always to stay full time but seek some flexibility round the edges (my own career was saved by a day working from home when my kids were little). As Sheryl Sandberg so rightly put it: “Don’t leave before you leave! Take your seat at the table!”

What women are experiencing: burnout

The trouble is that currently many women have run out of puff – particularly mothers. A year ago a survey from Lean In found that one in four women were considering jacking in their jobs because of burn out, now after 18 months of the pandemic, that figure has gone up to one in three. A plethora of studies show that women have born the domestic brunt of homeworking – my favourite statistic from the Fawcett Society is that the only households where men do half of the domestic chores are where the woman is the main breadwinner. In India, women do ten times as much household work – homeschooling, cooking, cleaning – as men. In Britain its about three times as much. One mother I spoke to last week spoke of her “endless day” – waking up with her toddler at 4.30am, looking after him, and then beginning the diurnal round of Zooms and childcare, which, as her job is for a global company, goes on late into the night as she talks to clients in Mexico and San Francisco. It is no wonder that now faced with getting suited and booted, getting the kids to nursery, and physically catching a train from Leatherhead into London feels like a bridge too far. “I’m just exhausted,” she said, “I can’t cope.”

It is easy to understand how she feels but the truth is the office can be energising. For mothers who have spent the last year and a half juggling zooms with home-schooling, sitting at a desk where you can drink a coffee in peace is a massive bonus. The office is where you are not mum, but a grown up in your own right. It is where things happen, that random chat with a co-worker by the kettle or in the lift often provides an aha moment or a new idea, or at the very least conjures a smile. It is in the small personal interactions before and after meetings – impossible on Zoom – where the real decisions get made. For newbies, watching how senior people behave, what they do, how they react in different situations is where the learning occurs – it’s how you get better at your job. No one ever spotted you as a future leader loading the washing at home.

 

There is a lot to be said for the buzz of the office, the excitement of feeling you have your finger on the pulse and are at the heart of things, the banter, the gossip, the hanging out with colleagues and being refreshed by different perspectives. After 18 months at home it’s good to get out of your own bubble. But a new study from the Harvard Business Review by Nick Bloom shows that the world of work is becoming increasingly polarised between those who want to be in the office all the time (20%, mostly bosses) and those who would rather work from home (32% predominantly carers and women).

“I speak to many companies and managers who are worried about how to cope with this new hybrid working model” says Christine Armstrong, author of The Mother of All Jobs and researcher on the future of work.  “We already know about Proximity Bias, where those closer to the boss are more likely to get promoted or get better work. I know many lawyers who are excited about a new wave of discrimination cases which will be brought by remote workers complaining that their lack of presenteeism is causing them to be discriminated against, particularly women.”

The new problems for companies

This is not a new problem. “The data on flexible working – that those who go into the office do better than those who don’t – is in danger of being enacted on a grand scale,” Armstrong warns. This presents big headaches for business leaders. “I was talking to one CEO last week who was trying to ask a mother on his staff to come into the office two days a week, and was weighing up whether or not to ask a man who wants to come in five days a week to be at home some of the time to even things up. Companies are going to have to establish new boundaries – perhaps core days where people are expected to be present. ”

Of course the background to all of this is the current war for talent. New data from recruitment firm, Randstad shows that 69% of employees are currently confident about finding another role. Not surprising when there are more unfilled jobs in the UK than ever before.  Randstad marketing director Adam Nicoll, warns: “Companies that haven’t nailed down the ‘why’ of what they do, what motivates people, nor have the wallet to win the war for talent, will languish and shed staff by the hour in this market.” The New York Times dubbed it The Great Resignation – as workers who have got to like their new more home-focussed lives hand in their notice in unprecedented numbers. This is true not just of working mothers and other carers who don’t want to return to the pre-pandemic commuting, presenteeism grind, but also millennials and Gen Z workers who now want to work to live, not live to work. This is a paradigm shift.

It is a warning echoed by Forbes columnist and career guru Avivah Wittenberg Cox. “Currently the power resides in the hands of employees because of the war for talent and lets not forget that women make up the majority currently of the highest educated talent. Smart companies who want the best people will find a way to give child-bearing women the flexibility they need to keep them onboard and on track. The reality is that there aren’t enough young people to fill the Labour market gaps and already 40 per cent of the US work force is over 50, with that trend coming to the UK soon.

Is the answer to hire older women?

I was speaking to a CEO last week and saying the answer is to hire older women, whose child-bearing years are behind them, who have huge reserves of talent, dedication and time. They are a much better bet but they are currently leaving the workforce in droves to start their own businesses. His eyes lit up! We need to change the way we think about career management allowing women to work more flexibly during caring years and powering up later on. But no one has even begun to think about age in the work force in this way yet.

Let’s be skeptical about the back-to-office movement

The reality is that it is only the 1 per cent of men at the top, usually with wives at home, who want everyone back in the office and that’s because for them it is fun, they have status, it is what they have worked their whole lives towards. There is no status online, no tile on Zoom bigger because you are the boss, no equivalent of the corner office or the secretary outside, all that investment in being a big shot. That is why they are so reluctant to let the rest of us be flexible,  even though we have seen that works during lockdown. It is interesting that it is the most neanderthal leaders, the financial CEOs, the big tech bosses who are insisting on presenteeism. Flexibility is always the result of more gender balance in leadership. This insistence on everyone being in the office is a final competitive play by men to keep their place in the hierarchy and exclude women (who biologically have to do the breeding during these crucial career years).”

Not all senior women agree. One global female CEO I spoke to for this piece said: “I’ve been back in the office fulltime for two weeks and I notice a distinct shift in attitudes. Nearly two years out of the work place has solidified for many employees their out of work identity. I was particularly struck by several young men who now come to work in full make up, older women who used to dress in heels and tight dresses who now wear floating skirts and trainers. Everyone has become more themselves, less corporate; they don’t want to pack away their full home identities anymore. This requires a new kind of more empathetic management and many people have also been through all sorts of personal traumas because of covid. Managers have to tread carefully, it is more about coaching and flat hierarchies now than command and control. When it comes to women, we have to understand that the pandemic has been tough for them, particularly mothers. They’ve had to juggle everything and now we are saying you have to come in to the office on top of everything and that feels tough. But what I’ve seen in the last few days is when they do come in they realise the benefits of being able to have a chat, get a coffee, be out in the world, be their old selves again and they like it. We just have to be nurturing and help them through this transition.”

You can’t put the genie back in the bottle

The truth is the world has changed, we are never going back to how things were. The pendulum swung to home working during the pandemic, and now it is swinging to presenteeism. Ultimately it will land somewhere in the middle. The perfect balance is a mix of face to face time and flexibility to serve the rest of our lives. What I do know from 25 years as a boss is that the more you go out of your way to help your employees with their personal travails, the more they will go the extra mile to make the business a success.

Eleanor Mills

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