As many high-tech companies enter our sixth month of altered work arrangements due to the coronavirus pandemic, some trends have started to emerge with regard to how employees are faring with remote work. With decades of in-office experience under my belt in comparison to just half a year of work from home (WFH), the comparisons that have emerged already surprise me in some ways.
Oftentimes, I speak and write from my position of formerly being a “veteran only woman in the room” in high tech. As such, I feel particularly attuned to the plight of women in a field that continues to be rather male-dominated. I believe it is not only important to hire women but also to mentor them, retain them and promote them to positions of leadership, such that when young women debate whether or not to pursue STEM careers, they can point to women in positions of power in high tech and say, “I want to be that woman someday.”
My belief is that the playing field has become more level but that, in a world where every Fortune 500 now has a woman on its board, we’re still far from equal, as that’s still a far cry from true gender parity at the table.
It’s no secret that where a lot of career trajectories fall apart, disproportionally for women but also for many men, is when there’s too much pull between work and family. Commuting itself takes something away from both work time and family time. As well, depending on the flexibility that a company offers, face-time in-office may mean less face-time for things like kids’ activities like sporting events or arts performances.
Naturally, some have embraced WFH, especially now due to the pandemic, as an optimal solution, in part for its zero-commute time and for the flexibility and mobility it offers us to do what it takes to care for our families during this unprecedented time. My company builds tools that enable business communication and collaboration to take place seamlessly from wherever our clients or our employees work — so whether in-office, at home or beside that soccer field, the tools needed for work are in-hand on any mobile device. We’re seeing that now is the ultimate test of whether or not some companies can work in mobile, flexible ways like this going forward. Some high-tech companies, like Twitter, have declared success and have shared that employees now never need to return to in-office work if they so choose.
Given that a lot of the work we do is fully transportable via our smart devices these days such that some companies are going fully “virtual” like this, one would think that this transition to full-time, in-home work would mean a lot less stress for employees, and also, perhaps, a more level playing field.
However, a recent article from the Harvard Business Review (registration required) suggests that, among other things, when women and men have families, a recurring finding is that a disproportionate share of domestic and child-rearing responsibilities fall on women — and that a company having flexibility and allowing mobile work doesn’t mean that women are faring better.
The article suggests, “historically, company practices that increase flexibility with the aim of facilitating a better work/life balance have not necessarily resulted in increased advancement of women to senior levels. The benefit has simply been better retention of women at lower management levels.”
Whether virtual or in-office, face-time seems to continue to matter to many companies. An article in the Wall Street Journal (paywall) has suggested that women’s careers could take a heavy hit due to working from home during the pandemic.
Whether in-person or in a meeting room, it still feels to me like women have to work harder to make their voices heard and to be forceful — sometimes more forceful than men — to drive an agenda. Valuing a diverse workforce, and making intentional space for a broad array of diverse voices around that table, is critical to a company’s success. Companies have to work hard to fight unconscious biases, whether in hiring or in-office — and now they have to learn to do so in a different space, the virtual office, while somehow accounting for all of the inequity that may be going on behind the scenes to boot.
Numerous studies have shown that not only are women not on a level playing field in the office, they’re also not on a level playing field at home. How does a company account for that in a way that promotes women — equally to men — to positions of greater success, whether they’re working from home or not?
At the end of the day, the “great equalizer” in the workplace still should come down to what it always should come down to: education, skills, the time put in and the effort made, all whether someone works in-office or from home. It’s the work product that matters most.
It’s my belief that where some companies are falling apart when it comes to supporting women in virtual work is in trying to mimic an in-office culture that disproportionately rewards those with the loudest voices and biggest presence without focusing more on their specific work outputs. A culture of inclusion must be fostered.
Now, we don’t know what or who is tugging on our employees during their “normal” workdays during this time that’s about as far from “normal” as we can get. To get to a level playing field, one question needs to be in focus, whether in-office or at home: What is the quality of this employee’s work product?
If our focus remains on that, then I believe women’s careers won’t be impacted as greatly as some suggest by the pandemic’s forced work/life shift — and WFH indeed can be the “great equalizer” that many feel it can be.
This post originally appeared on Forbes.