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The flip side of ‘flexibility’: Working moms make the powerful case for going back to the office

Remote work was long considered the promised land for working moms. But a year into the pandemic, many are eager to get back to their workplaces.

The flip side of ‘flexibility’: Working moms make the powerful case for going back to the office
[Photo: Standsome Worklifestyle/Unsplash]
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The future for offices is dire, if you scan headlines from the last year. The pandemic might be the “end of the office as we know it.” We may “never go back” to the office, post-COVID-19. Do workers ever need to return?

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For some working moms, their emphatic answer is “yes.” 

“It was constant juggling. I found myself working all hours of the day, crazy hours,” says Rachel Tan, a senior executive assistant at Salesforce in San Francisco, and the mother of a 13-year-old and 2-year-old, about her experience working from home during the pandemic. “Writing an email in the five minutes I have between warming up my daughter’s lunch in the microwave . . . it’s been really difficult. Being at home with kids and trying to single-task is absolutely impossible.” 

Pre-pandemic, there were around 23 million working mothers in America. Though many are essential workers who never had the option to stay home, one year ago millions of others found themselves suddenly trying to work from their couches, kitchen tables, beds, and kids’ rooms. They found ways to adapt. But their methods show how difficult, distracting, and stressful it can be to try to work in the same space where you parent. 

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Catherine Merritt, founder and CEO of Chicago-based marketing firm Spool, whose business grew 800% during the COVID-19 pandemic and whose staff grew from 2 to 12, resorted to putting a padlock on her home-office door to reduce near-constant interruptions from her 11- and 8-year-old boys. (The padlock has since been replaced by Jacob, a tutor who comes daily to help with Zoom school.)

Jennon Bell Hoffman, a content writer and strategist from La Grange Park, Ill., had a coworking space before the pandemic but is breaking ground this month on what she calls a “me shed” in her backyard, an 8-by-10-foot space with room for a desk, a chair, her computer, and her reference books. “Thinking about it literally calms my racing thoughts every night,” says Bell Hoffman, who has a 4-year-old and a 1-year-old. 

No matter what, someone will come flying in with no pants on and ask me for Cinnamon Toast Crunch.”

Gaelen Bell, mother of three

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Her sister, Gaelen Bell, the vice president of marketing at Chicago-based agency Motion, sometimes works from what she calls her “mobile office”—the Honda minivan parked in her driveway, and at one point co-opted a neighbor’s empty basement when she had a big presentation to make.

To some extent, too, Bell has made peace with the fact that her kids will interrupt and create chaos on Zoom calls. “No matter what, someone will come flying in with no pants on and ask me for Cinnamon Toast Crunch,” said Bell, the mother of 7-year-old twins and a 6-year-old. 

These efforts by mothers to find time and space to concentrate on work are driven by stark disparities in parenting duties that exist in many families—disparities that have only been heightened by the pandemic. The juggling of work and childcare disproportionately falls to mothers, especially those with young children, who reduced their work hours four to five times more than working fathers with young children during the pandemic. More than 2.3 million women in the U.S. have left the workforce since the pandemic began, pushing their labor participation rate to a 33-year low

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Despite the stress and burnout caused by working from home while managing childcare and home responsibilities have created for women, some companies have moved quickly to make the abrupt shift to working from home permanent anyway. Facebook said last May it expects as much as half of its workforce to be remote in the next five to ten years; Twitter said its employees can work from home forever. Coinbase went “remote first” and Shopify is now “digital by default.”

“On a headline level, saying everyone gets to work from home now sounds great, but once you dig into what that actually means, it maybe is not so great for a lot of families,” says Sarah Jane Glynn, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. 

Companies who expect employers to be 100% remote assume a lot about their employees. Working from home is fine if you can afford a house with a quiet office space, decor that would score 8 or above on Room Rater, an ergonomic office chair and desk, and a reliable laptop and speedy broadband so your Zooms don’t get draggy. It assumes you don’t mind your boss knowing what your bedroom or your spouse looks like, or what your kids sound like when they’re squabbling in the room next door. It assumes you like being alone most of the time, and that you enjoy staring at the same four walls 24 hours a day. It assumes that if you have kids, you have someone else to take care of them. 

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“There’s this rosy picture that gets painted of a working woman whose kids are peacefully in the corner doing their schoolwork very easily, and she’s in a beautiful Instagram-ready space, and I don’t know anyone whose life actually looks like that,” says Glynn. “Flexibility can become a buzzword, where it’s not actually about flexibility for the worker, it’s about flexibility for the employer. That’s the critical question here: Who has control over this, and whose needs are really being met?” 

It’s hard to feel the same sense of accomplishment’

While some workers enjoy no longer having to commute every day, the strains of never going into an office are showing for the more than half of American workers who went remote during the pandemic. Nationally, an estimated 9.8 million working mothers are suffering from burnout; a survey by Harvard Business Review on workplace burnout during COVID-19 found that 89% of respondents reported a decline in workplace well-being since the start of pandemic, and 50% reported declines in mental health. 

On top of constantly having to monitor small children who need help with online school, part of the problem is that working from home has almost totally erased any boundaries women once had between work and home life, says Dr. Christine Coleman, an Oakland, California-based marriage and family therapist whose practice centers around clients who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color. Because there are no longer “office hours” and home, work, and daycare are all the same place, she’s seeing “a severe level of burnout,” especially because most of her clients do not have paid help with childcare, and were also experiencing the trauma of a racial reckoning at the same time as the pandemic. 

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“The pandemic is enough to be traumatic,” says Coleman. “But when we look at the intersectional aspects for women, all the systemic oppression that we hold, as women and women of color in particular, it is all at its peak.”

In work with her clients and with companies she consults with about mental-health issues, Coleman said she’s pushing for employee self-advocacy, where working mothers create boundaries for themselves “tied to self-preservation,” such as not answering emails after a certain time or talking to managers about limiting unnecessary work tasks. 

Tan said the early days of the pandemic “felt like a vacation” at first and she enjoyed extra time with her 13- and 2-year-old. But that feeling quickly evaporated as her workload picked up, in spite of what she describes as Salesforce’s “incredibly supportive” policies for working parents, like a COVID-19 childcare benefit. “I’ve been really good about my boundaries and this is like, no boundaries.” 

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Others say not being in an office on a regular basis has been a blow to hard-won identities. 

I’ve worked really hard my whole life to be successful,” says Angela Moore, vice president of content operations at Discovery Inc. Prior to the pandemic, she had her own office inside Discovery’s space in Chelsea Market, the stylish Manhattan-based food and retail destination. “It’s hard to feel the same sense of accomplishment at home as when I walk into my own office to do my job at a beloved media company. For someone who has been trying to get to this point for so long, and to hold onto where I am despite changes in the industry and the economy, it means a lot to me.” 

At home in the East Village, she uses an old trunk, a milk crate, and a lap desk for a work station, and has no room for a chair. 

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Others describe being home with young children all day as bittersweet; it is impossible to bifurcate your identity in the same way you can do when you are in a child-free office. 

Keaton O’Neal, the vice president of legal at Social Solutions Global, an Austin-based software company, struggled to get enough separation emotionally from her kids when trying to work from home, even when she had help to watch them. 

“If somebody fell down in the driveway and wanted boo-boo kissing and a Band-Aid, she wants me to do that, and I want to do that,” O’Neal said. “And it’s not just the tough things. My kids got a Slip ‘N Slide for the first time in May and I could hear them squealing in delight, and I felt this weird jealousy and missing out.” 

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Her kids are now in school five days a week, and she is back in the office three to four days a week. 

Even once the kids are back in school, many working mothers say they’d still prefer to work in an office at least part of the time. They miss the collaborative and creative aspects of working with others, wearing work clothes, having time to read a book or listen to a podcast during a commute. Most of all, they miss not being able to compartmentalize work and home.

“As a mother in general you have this mental workload for all the things that need to happen at home,” said Tan. “At least when I was in the office and couldn’t see the laundry on the bed, I didn’t worry about it. I can’t stop having anxiety about it.”

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The Office’s Role in Equity

Like so many things about COVID-19, ensuring a future return to an office—for everyone, not just working mothers—is also an equity issue. 

“If you look at the folks who are currently able to work from home, they’re more likely to be white, and they’re more likely to be higher income,” says Glynn. “It has to do with income and class, which is so tightly bound up with race and ethnicity in this country.” 

Higher-income people are more able to afford to set up a comfortable and reliable home office and high-speed internet. This is more challenging in multigenerational households or for people who live with roommates. Requiring or even encouraging employees to work from home most of the time could create a scenario where certain types of people will be at a disadvantage, further deepening the cycle of inequality by locking them out of jobs that require a home office. 

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Meanwhile, companies will be saving millions moving out of high-priced areas or reducing their office footprints, and can shift costs for things like office supplies, technology upgrades, and internet access to employees.

“As a single, middle-class person with no children, it’s pretty easy for me to create a dynamic where I can work from home pretty seamlessly,” Glynn says. “But for someone who is maybe caring for extended family, has a bunch of people living in the same dwelling, maybe has multiple children and adults who are all trying to work remotely at the same time, it’s going to be a much more complicated scenario.”

In addition, if companies close or reduce office space in urban areas, jobs that support those offices are also at risk. “Black and Latino workers are overrepresented in a lot of service-sector jobs that keep offices running, jobs like security guards, food service, and cleaners,” said Jessica Fulton, vice president at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. “If companies decide that they’re not going to be opening offices, those jobs go away.” 

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‘The Future Is Flexible’ 

Some companies are hearing parents’ desires to return to an office and preparing their offices to welcome them back. 

People say the future is remote, and I don’t think that’s true.”

Janet Van Huysse, head of people at Cloudflare

Janet Van Huysse, head of people at Cloudflare, said the company polled its workers and found that about 80% want to come in a few days each week. Around 10% want to be fully remote, and about 10% want to work all week in the office. 

“People say the future is remote, and I don’t think that’s true,” Van Huysse said. “I think the future is flexible and I’m excited about that. Work from home does not work for everybody, and homes were not made to be offices.” 

Cloudflare, a web infrastructure and security company, is revamping the floor plan of its offices to allow for more space to work, and is using more outdoor space to create and furnish parklets and roof decks. Employees and managers decide together what sort of in-office schedule works for them, and there is no across-the-board policy requiring in-person or remote work, or how many days are required in the office. 

Van Huysse believes having inviting offices could become a marketplace differentiator—it has already been useful to Cloudflare with recruiting—and help with employee retention. She finds the idea of going completely remote “alarming.”  

“Companies are going to lose employees who want to go into an office because working from home is hard for them,” she said. “I’m especially hearing it from early-career, new college grads who want to go into an office, get mentored, and learn from their coworkers. Having that exposure is really important to them.” 

Cloudflare’s cofounder and president is Michelle Zatlyn, one of a handful of women who serve as president of a public tech company. 

Sarahjane Sacchetti, CEO of family benefits startup Cleo, said the lack of a broader social safety net for childcare and education in the U.S. has forced employers to step up and provide additional support for families during the pandemic—in part because their challenges were suddenly so visible.

One thing the pandemic gave to working parents, she says, was “the thunder clap of awareness that we exist, that we have needs, and that we are an identity group. It wasn’t Bring Your Kid to Work Day—[kids] are always there, 365 days a year. And if you’re a parent of young children, it feels like 420 days a year.” 

Legislators are attempting to manage the child-care crisis via provisions in President Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan. It includes $24 billion in emergency stabilization funds for childcare providers, many of which are losing money because of the pandemic and are in danger of closing, and $15 billion in childcare assistance for families who can’t afford it currently, as well as increased child tax credits to help cover the cost of childcare and reduce poverty. 

The Rescue Plan has now passed the House and Senate, and President Biden is expected to sign it later this week. For working mothers who want to return to the office, the childcare provisions are “imperative,” said Laura Dallas McSorley, director of early childhood policy at the Center for American Progress. “Childcare is a key determining factor of whether a mother can work,” she said. “[The Rescue Plan] is a really crucial first step to be able to think about rebuilding.” 

As vaccination rates increase and working mothers begin to see a cold, fluorescent overhead light at the end of the tunnel, some mental-health relief may be imminent. Mothers who have been able to return to offices, even in a limited way, say it’s helped them be happier and more satisfied with work.  

“Mentally, I just feel so much better,” said O’Neal, who started working from the office most days again in October. “I feel like myself again, not like a schlumpy shadow who works all the time and cooks dinner. I remembered who I was.” 

About the author

Erin Schulte is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in Fast Company, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Harper's Bazaar, and Entrepreneur, among other publications. You can find her on Twitter @erin719nyc.

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