I vividly remember conducting a phone interview from my office late one evening when my children were young. I could hear as the person I was speaking to turned on a kitchen sink, opened their refrigerator, and clinked bowls and dishes as they made dinner. My heart ached. Why couldn’t I be at home with my family, too?
It made no sense to me. So, even though it was frowned upon at the time, I began quietly working from home when I could. It was a calculated risk. Mine was the kind of workplace in which managers gave out plum assignments in hallways and valued “face time” — seeing people in person, at their desks, typing away late into the evening.
Social scientists have a term to describe this phenomenon: “The Ideal Worker norm.” In American workplaces, the Ideal Worker comes in early. Stays late. Never has to rush out to tend to a sick child, to take an aging parent to the doctor, or just aches to see more of their kids before they go to bed.
Women are more likely to have care responsibilities, so the belief that the best work is done in the office hurts us most. As the coronavirus upends every corner of our lives, I hope it also disrupts the outdated beliefs about working that hold us back when it comes to career advancement.
In mere days, to create the social distance necessary to halt the alarming spread of the virus, television anchors began broadcasting from their homes, retail businesses closed and people fumbled to learn how to use video conferencing technology from their kitchen tables, often with bored kids or curious pets looking on.
And yet, even after the Trump White House, after weeks of denials and delay, finally issued guidance to encourage businesses to enable people to work from home “whenever possible,” many businesses that could, didn’t. One C.E.O. even wrote to nervous employees, “We are collectively more productive working in our corporate offices.”
Those dragging their feet included the federal government itself. Many of the 1.2 million people in the federal work force headed into the office the day after the announcement, including, ironically enough, employees at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Atlanta headquarters.
Not everyone can do their job in a home office. Certainly not the health care, pharmacy, grocery store and delivery workers we’re all relying on. But the resistance — in the middle of a pandemic — to remote work by those who need no more than a laptop and a phone reveals just how deeply the face-time bias runs.
One quarter of the U.S. work force works remotely, at least some of the time, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Research has found that remote workers are often more productive, more engaged, less stressed, more satisfied and less likely to quit than their in-office counterparts. Remote workers, to their own detriment, are often more dedicated, working longer hours, and, in essence, “gifting” their time and lives for free back to their companies.
And yet research shows that managers tend to reward workers who are physically present over remote workers, and believe face-time workers are more committed to the job.
Some of the face-time bias in American workplaces, to be sure, has to do with status quo bias, or our human predilection to favor things we’re familiar with. But a lot of it has to do with gender.
When remote and flexible work policies were first introduced in the 1990s, many were offered through “women’s initiatives” and not available to the wider company. They quickly became seen as “Mommy Track” accommodations for women and working mothers in order for them to juggle work and caregiving. Managers assumed men didn’t need them, because men didn’t have to give care — a notion that’s being challenged as more men demand parental leave and take on caregiving. Men wanting to work remotely have been seen as less dedicated, and penalized. Many companies have a telework policy in name only that no one dares to use. Or, as some human resources professionals say, a “ghost benefit.”
Erin Kelly, a professor of work and organization studies at M.I.T., has found this in her research. Working flexibly from home for more than a day or two here and there, she said, “marks you as someone not playing by the regular rules.”
The coronavirus crisis may be changing those rules. Now, even C.E.O.s are openly working in their laundry rooms. Remote work can no longer be considered a perk for women or restless millennials. It is, however imperfectly done right now, a matter of life and death.
I hope this moment finally pushes us toward a new and better understanding of professionalism and performance that’s fairer to mothers and caregivers and removes one of the barriers professional women face. I hope it forces us to recognize that even as the dog barks, the kid cries, and the bowl clinks as dinner is prepared in the background, good work can be done anywhere — and by anyone.
Brigid Schulte is the author of “Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play when No One has the Time,” and director of the Better Life Lab at New America.
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Source: NY times