The COVID-19 pandemic forced millions of people to work from home, creating a paradigm shift in the way work is done. The shift resulted in a noticeable increase in productivity, and employees worldwide benefited from the flexibility that comes with working remotely. However, as vaccination rates increase and the pandemic becomes less of a threat, many companies are calling employees back to the office.
While many people welcome the return to the office, others are fighting back against the new mandate. One group that is speaking out is working mothers of young children: myself included in that group.
Here are 4 reasons why mandating employees return to the office not only doesn't work, but may discriminate against working mothers of young children:
#1 Productivity is better when working remotely
Numerous studies show that working from home can increase productivity. Employees can work in a more comfortable environment, with fewer distractions than in the office. Remote work is less stressful and more accommodating to personal schedules, enabling workers to maintain a better work-life balance.
#2 Discrimination against working mothers
Requiring employees to return to the office may discriminate against working mothers of young children. When children were forced to learn from home, working mothers had to juggle work, homeschooling, and household responsibilities.
When the pandemic forced remote work, these mothers found relief in being able to work from home while caring for their children. Requiring them to return to the office would mean they would need to hire additional childcare to accommodate school bus pickups and drop offs, which is expensive and may not always be possible - especially finding someone trustworthy and reliable when family is not nearby. Companies that don't provide accommodations for working mothers may risk losing valuable, diverse talent from this group of multi-tasking, creative ninjas.
The shift to remote work has provided employees with the flexibility they need to work around their personal schedules. This include but are not limited to car maintenance, meal prep, dentist and doctor's appointments (for self and each child), and even - gasp - being able to exercise!
Requiring employees to return to the office could remove this flexibility, and arguably the time moms so desperately needed for self care, leading to resentment among workers who are now used to, and are just as productive, working from home.
Costs and commute
Working from home has allowed employees to save on commuting costs, and many companies have saved on office rent. Returning to the office would mean that employees would have to bear the cost of commuting, from the high price of gas and time wasted in traffic to the daily cost of train fare and lot parking - not to mention accounting for train delays and cancellations.
Personal family situations have also evolved during the past three years: perhaps there is only one family car that has car seats to pick up children - how is a 2nd parent able to pick up the kids if the first parent must be in an office until 5pm? Then employees could be saddled with an additional car purchase, monthly payment and insurance increase. Without a salary increase following a mandate, this would be a difficult change for working parents to accommodate.
The Bottom Line
Mandating employees to return to the office may not be the best decision for many employees, particularly working mothers of young children. The shift to remote work has provided employees with greater productivity and flexibility, and it would be a mistake to remove these benefits. Companies that insist on a return to the office without considering the needs of their employees risk losing valuable talent, especially among the rockstars that are working mothers.
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If there's anything that the pandemic has taught us, it's how strong we are. From zoom school to daycare closures, I looked around and saw an inspiring amount of strength around me from working moms. It wasn't an easy time, and those of us with partners (better have!) chipped in, but I know I learned a lot about my personal strengths that I probably wouldn't have otherwise considered.
It's sad to me that we had to reach a breaking point to be acknowledged. I remember reading about a group of moms who just organized a group to go scream in a field. Though I initially admired the sense of support and camaraderie, and even could appreciate the physical release that must have brought, I overall thought it was a waste. Why couldn't we channel this frustrated energy into action? Did we all feel so powerless by endless restrictions and impossible situations that we felt the only thing to do was to scream into the universe together?
As a working mom, here's what I learned about myself during the pandemic:
#1 Your impossible standards are impossible. No one benefits from you being a martyr: not your kids, your partner, or your employer. Set up realistic boundaries and goals for yourself, and stick to them.
#2 It's okay for your job to just be your job. I personally find sayings like "if you work at a job you love, you'll never work a day in your life" damaging. With such an emphasis on meaning in your work, especially for women, I feel like we lose sight of what's most important: the money!
This may be an unpopular opinion, but women need spending power. We need to be paid what we are worth, and it's okay to not support your family at a company that pays you what you need: if it's not aligned with your personal mission in life, get invested in driving cultural change!
#3 Speak up: lean on your partner. Marriages are partnerships, and the pandemic highlighted how uneven the burden of running a household, childcare, and work can be. Don't wait for the unhelpful "how can I help?" (if you are lucky to get that). Give them specific tasks and ways that they can help you. Practice your managerial skills and delegate those tasks that you know they can handle!
When Strength Meets Heartbreak: Some Perspective
If 2020s have taught us anything, it's that we have put ourselves here. We put our mindset and way of thinking to a stress test and it broke. It sucked, but now it's time to rebuild.
How can we take this time to build it into something better? What kind of support systems did you wish that you had in place when you were struggling? Can you work towards bringing that to future generations of employees, or run for office with these issues at the forefront of your mind?
Want to dive deeper? Check out this recent podcast, where I shared more tips for working moms.
The global pandemic forced a lot more grace for working parents, but there's still a ways to go. Personally, it can sometimes be frustrating as a working parent to be lumped into a "mom" category by coworkers who don't have kids, and it can feel like my work ethic gets dismissed or challenged. Mom is just one of my labels: I can still be an employee, too.
Working parents are also brilliant multitaskers, one of many skills they have been forced to learn in the last 2 years. I remember in 2020 during a daycare shutdown having to change a dirty diaper while pitching a joint project with a partner. With a phone on speaker on the shelf near my head and my daughter staying blessedly silent, my coworker was shocked when I revealed what I was actually doing in the debrief afterwards.
So if you don't have kids - maybe by choice, or if you aren't there yet - here are some ways you can help out some of the working parents on your team.
1 - Empathy
It may be obvious, but let's start here. Think of your worst night's sleep, then multiply it by every night for at least 6 months, with no breaks. Then imagine having to be bright-eyed for a meeting, presentation, or even showing up at the office. Working parents have a lot going on that you don't see, so being understanding of their lives outside of the office can be incredibly supportive. How? I'm so glad you asked:
2 - Flexibility
Being flexible is one advantage you have that the working parent does not, most especially with their time. If their availability is limited, look at your own calendar and see where you can compromise. We don't mean to cancel meetings at the last minute, but sometimes our kid runs a fever or the babysitter doesn't show up. Do what you can to help parents when something comes up on the home front: offer to send notes from a meeting they missed, or cancel your weekly check in with them and send them an email outlining things instead.
3 - Accommodate
Parental leave in the US is a joke. We barely have time to have the children before we are expected back at work - often a mere 6 weeks later, if that. Maybe it's paid, maybe it's not. Do what you can to advocate for the new parents of tomorrow: what is your maternity leave policy? Can it be better? Can it be longer, or can it be paid? Can paternal leave be extended or enhanced as well? New moms coming back to the office also need a space to pump - and a bathroom stall or a supply closet is unacceptable, I don't care how small a company you are. These simple accommodations will be one less thing new parents have to worry about, and they are worrying about a lot right now in raising tiny humans or getting ready to welcome them.
4 - Respect their time
Do not ask me to have a call at 8am while I am dropping off my kids. I also work hard during the day so I can leave to get my kids and start my 2nd shift (which weirdly I look forward to after a full day of work), so don't ask me to stay later for happy hours or dinners. See if your culture can better respect time constraints of working parents: perhaps have a team lunch during working hours, or being strict about only booking important meetings during reasonable working hours. Now is not the time to demand above and beyond time commitments from the working parent.
5 - Offer to Help
Be proactive about what you can do to help support working parents. Often working moms especially are constantly trying to defy the laws of time and space and tend to overcommit. If you are their manager, see what you can take off their plate or that can be delegated to another team member. Have honest conversations about their workload and what can be reprioritized. Also make sure they have some balance in the type of work that they have - they have the necessary work, but make sure they have a project or two that they are truly passionate about so they find some fulfillment at work. This can also help alleviate some burn out.
The Bottom Line
The capabilities of working parents are extraordinary. Can you imagine the leadership skills they are developing during this time in their lives? I for one have improved my creativity and negotiating skills - toddlers and preschoolers are no joke when it comes to getting them out the door in the morning (and I'm doing that solo!) While all of the above is incredibly helpful to working parents, its important for you as their colleague to understand that this period in their lives is not forever. Every day, my kids need me less and less ((chokes back tears)) and one day, will require very little of my time to survive. Working parents need to be allowed the flexibility to have this precious time with their children, and shouldn't have to sacrifice being a valued team member too: and I can guarantee the long-term investment will definitely pay off.
I'm a motivated, self-starting marketer and working mom looking to make a difference in the world - one story at a time.
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