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Forget returning to work as ‘normal’—this is what should take its place

The founders of a culture consultancy say we may have just unintentionally stumbled into the virtual reality training in empathy our world has needed.

Forget returning to work as ‘normal’—this is what should take its place
[Photo: Edward Howell/Unsplash]

At our company, like so many right now, the question being asked is: “When will things return to normal?” But before we rush back to the workplaces we think we’re missing, we should be asking: Do we even want them to?

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According to the World Economic Forum, the gender pay gap isn’t expected to close for another 208 years. Fewer women and people of color are running big companies than men named John. Discrimination persists in the workplace, everywhere against gender, race, sexuality, physical and neuro-ability, age, and caregiver status, despite companies’ commitments to inclusion.

So, do we really want to go back?

The short answer? No. American workers don’t want or expect their corporate cultures to return to “normal.” Our culture consultancy, Have Her Back, commissioned a national study to examine how Americans, employed at mid- to large-size companies, felt their employers are (or aren’t) supporting them through the crisis and what that could mean for the future of workplace culture.

Career parents are now struggling to juggle work and family responsibilities with little to none of their usual resources–particularly dads. According to our study, 31% of fathers reported caregiving during the quarantine as “extremely difficult” compared to 14% of mothers. While mothers have traditionally carried the burden of primary caregiving, the global pandemic has shifted a portion of that burden (for those in relationships) to their spouses. In fact, 38% of fathers strongly agree that they shoulder more of the burden of caring for their family during the pandemic. As women hold 76% of healthcare jobs in the U.S., make up 85% of the nursing workforce, and occupy so many of the other essential jobs, this shift of caregiving is a pandemic reality. But even when both parents are working from home, men are experiencing parenting while working in ways they may never have before.

What follows this crisis will be one of the most important caregiver bias truth tellers of our lifetime. Now that working dads (many of whom are leaders of their companies) have experienced what a struggle the juggle is, what will they do? Will they go back to the office, post-quarantine, with plans to do better for women? Or will their biases deepen?

Interestingly, 87% of dads agree that women will have more professional 
opportunities, particularly after having children, 
because of remote working. We take this to mean that their current firsthand understanding of the complexity women face when managing both career and family has potentially given them newfound respect and appreciation. This could be a very good outcome, not just for moms but for the entire workforce.

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Leaders of companies must make a choice. And what they prioritized before the crisis may look very different now and going forward. When asked what resources respondents wished they had that their companies weren’t providing, 36% of moms and 27% of dads want more flexible working hours. Twenty percent of moms and 40% of dads want the ability to work remotely.

Parents who are working remotely during the crisis have placed a magnifying glass over the caregiver bias issues in our country, a key factor proven to hold women back from advancing to leadership positions. Personally, we love creative and inspirational ways to educate, train, and inspire behavioral change to combat bias. But, we may have just unintentionally stumbled into the virtual reality training in empathy our world has needed.

Corporate policies are being put to the test beyond just parents. And the expectations are coming from every corner of the office. Women (29%), people of color (27%), millennials (26%), and boomers (25%) are the most likely to be dissatisfied with current “working from home” policies. But there’s hope.

When asked if they think the outcome of the crisis will change how people work in the future, 88% of respondents said companies that supported and cared for their employees during this time will be the preferred employers in the future, 87% said more people will expect to work remotely, and 81% said that flexible schedules will be more important.

Once frowned upon, or bestowed upon a privileged few, the ability to work remotely and have flexibility is now table stakes. Companies must continue to evolve to meet this new expectation, for both their existing employees and their future workforce.

Retaining top talent has never been harder, and the pandemic will not make it any easier. Our study found that about half of all respondents would consider changing jobs as a result of how their employer handles the crisis. And 90% of women, 89% of moms, and 80% of people of color would be less likely to work for a company that treats employees poorly during this crisis, versus 70% of men and 60% of dads.

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A new breed of corporate social responsibility has emerged, focused on looking inward. It’s about measuring what companies say they care about when it comes to gender equity, diversity, and inclusion against the actions they take to advance it.

It’s time to close any authenticity gaps. Going back to the way things were isn’t the answer. Companies who put their employees first now will have the best opportunity to transform their workforces in the coming year. We’re looking to the leaders who will finally create the workforce infrastructure worthy of all 360 degrees of our lives because it’s better at reflecting the profoundly diverse world we live in and the equity that is our innate human right.


Caroline Dettman, Erin Gallagher and Pamela Culpepper are founding partners of Have Her Back Consulting, a culture consultancy working with brave companies to tackle gender equity and diversity differently.

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