Hybrid work will likely be the new normal for many organizations. After realizing that productivity didn’t take a hit when employees worked from home during the pandemic, many organizations are planning to allow employees to work from home several days per week even after the pandemic subsides. While many employees appreciate the flexibility, a growing number of experts are expressing concern that these hybrid work environments may negatively impact women.
Since women typically take on more responsibility when it comes to childcare, women were more likely than men to seek flexible work arrangements even before the pandemic. Working moms often prefer these flexible work arrangements because they relieve some of the stress that comes from trying to balance work and family. If hybrid work becomes the norm, some believe it could be a game-changer for mothers with young children.
Unfortunately, there’s growing concern about an unintended consequence of hybrid work. If flexibility to work from home becomes a common option, what happens to gender equity if men return to the office and women choose to work from home?
Sian Beilock, president of Barnard College at Columbia University, is starting to see this play out at her university. “If male partners feel less responsibility for domestic labor, they will be less likely to exercise the option for remote work. I see this already, even at the women’s college I run: The majority of workers are women, but a lot of the ones who show up at the office these days are men,” she recently described in the Washington Post.
Herminia Ibarra, Julia Gillard and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic shared a similar observation. Discussing work during the pandemic, they wrote, “One financial services organization, for example, decreed that only a small percentage of its employees could be physically in the office. The senior women observed that it was mostly men coming in, as they were more likely to have enclosed offices, which caused the women to wonder if they were being left out of crucial conversations as they worked from home.”
Nobody knows who will choose to return to the physical office after vaccines are fully distributed and the pandemic has waned, but this anecdotal evidence suggests that given a choice, men are more likely to return to the physical office than women. A recent Envoy survey further supported the notion that women would be more likely to opt for the flexibility to stay home. Although the survey found that hybrid work options were important to both men and women, more women than men reported considering looking for another job if their employer didn’t offer a hybrid work model.
If men are more likely than women to spend time in the physical office, it could increase inequities because employees who are physically present in the office are more likely to reap rewards. Sarah Jackson, visiting professor at Cranfield University School of Management, told the Financial Times that workers who are not visible get forgotten. “What the research shows is that interesting projects are divvied up and go to the person sitting there in the office,” she said. Those at home may be left out of the important decision-making conversations.
Business professors Mark Mortensen and Martine Haas described the issue this way in the Harvard Business Review, “Working in the same space as the boss increases the likelihood that employees’ efforts and actions will be recognized and top of mind. Employees who are seen in the hallways are likely to come to mind when it’s time to staff an important new project, and their actions on that project are likely to be recognized, resulting in credit for a job well done.” They also point out that those who are physically in the office may have access to better information and faster technology, which, in turn makes it easier for them to demonstrate their competence.
One reason that those who are in the office have better access to information is they’re more likely to chat with a coworker at the water cooler or meet a new executive in the cafeteria. This type of informal networking has been shown to be a necessary component of career advancement. But, if men dominate in the physical office space, it could encourage the formation of old boy networks that exclude women.
Evidence that virtual interaction may create even more barriers and challenges for women suggests there’s yet another issue with the hybrid models. A recent Catalyst survey found that 45% of female business leaders reported that it is difficult for women to speak up in virtual meetings. One in five women says she has been overlooked or ignored by colleagues in video calls. This evidence suggests it may be even more important for women to be physically present to be heard.
Not all women will prefer working from home, and some women will certainly choose to return to the physical office full time. But, if they are outnumbered by men in the office, these women may also face repercussions. Research tells us that stereotypes are more likely to be applied when gender is more noticeable, as it is in workplaces with many men and few women. And Beilock suggests the lack of women may also alienate the female employees who choose to return to the physical office. “If female professionals become scarcer at the office, more women will feel as though they don’t belong and opt to work remotely. So women will be even scarcer,” she writes.
Fortunately, organizations can offer flexibility while maintaining equity. The hybrid work environment is only problematic when organizations offer their employees a choice regarding whether to physically show up in the office. If the choice is eliminated, and all employees adopt the same schedule, the inequity disappears. In this scenario, men and women have the same flexibility, the same in-person time in the office and the same amount of time working from home. This type of flexibility would likely be a boon for many women with small children.