Returning to the Office: Blind Spots and Epiphanies

Returning to the Office: Blind Spots and Epiphanies

Why women’s voices are needed as we architect a return to the workplace

Among the wins and losses of the pandemic, one epiphany rings true: The office is not the only place where great work happens. For many women, and for longtime advocates of work flexibility, there is relief that employers now recognize it takes more than ping-pong, kegs, and snacks to keep employees happy. But as old structures give way to work-from-home and hybrid approaches, it is becoming apparent that leadership blind spots are also surfacing. Could WFH policies put us in danger of losing hard-fought gains for women’s progress in the workplace? And if so, who’s listening?

Fact: Almost 50 percent more women than men want to work from home five days a week, according to a study of 30,000 college graduates with young children.

A blind spot is by its very definition a space in one’s range of vision where something cannot be seen properly, even though it should be obvious. The majority of decision-making teams today in business are still comprised of mostly white, able-bodied men. Despite gains in diversity these last few years, this majority is not likely to change near term. While I believe that most of today’s leaders are sincerely trying to do the right thing for their employees, in their ad nauseam surveying of team members the focus so far has been primarily on hours, days, and places of work. Less effort has been given to understanding longer-term outcomes, or how perks and challenges of remote work may differ for men and women.   

New policies and playbooks are being published, but not enough women, and especially women of color, are at the table to help shape those policies for how tomorrow’s workplace should look. Could this be a blind spot in your own organization? It’s important for companies to get in front of this for four key reasons:

1. Stakes are high. Decisions about tomorrow’s workplaces can unintentionally put companies at risk for high churn rates, loss of key people, and low engagement.

2. Returning to status quo is not the goal. The time is ripe for innovation, for problem solving in ways that level the playing field. Workplace inequities didn’t just go away when people are working at home. If anything, they’ve been amplified for most women. Do you want to actively rethink how to support families with two working parents, to align childcare and school systems to the parents’ actual needs? Ask a woman—not just in a survey, but have her write the survey. Want to be more intentional about bringing mentorship opportunities to team members who are underrepresented in your company? Examine the makeup of your team that is responsible for redefining post-pandemic policies. Are they digging deep enough for answers? Make no mistake, if we do not address current inequities as we begin to define hybrid environments, there will be unintended cultural outcomes that stunt the growth of our companies and economy for years to come.

3. Third, we could be in danger of creating a whole new class of second-tier WFH workers. Will there be an unintended in-crowd and out-crowd that starts to emerge? Studies have shown that remote work makes it more difficult to get promoted (for both men and women). Since more women than men want to work from home full-time, will this mean even more females will be passed over for promotions? What will it mean in terms of team assignments and advancement? The ability to make connections with senior management? 

Nicolas Bloom, a Stanford University economist, had this to say: “My fear is the biggest cost in the long run is all the single men come in 5 days a week, and college-educated women with a 6-year-old and an 8-year-old come in 2 days a week. Years down the road there’s a huge difference in promotion rates and you have a diversity crisis.” Will these workers be seen by leadership as not being as “fully engaged,” as CEO of WeWork, Sandeep Mathrani, made the mistake of saying publicly in a recent interview? Opportunities for mentorship, gaining visibility, and taking on new leadership assignments just got a whole lot more complex. Where is the roadmap needed to align in-office and remote teams, to safeguard risks to diversity? To reimagine traditional tracks for workplace advancement?

4. The final reason a woman’s perspective is critical in shaping new workplace policies is the disproportionate share of burdens they have already experienced during the pandemic. Their insights and ideas for change could not be more relevant. Last year, forced to carry the lion’s share of domestic and child-rearing responsibilities, well over two million women left the workplace, and one in four women considered downshifting their careers or leaving altogether. Senior-level women experienced significantly more pressure than their male counterparts. Female entrepreneurs also had a disappointing year, as funding regressed overall for female founders to just 14.4 percent of total VC funding, down from 16.9 percent in 2019. (Meanwhile, funding for male teams enjoyed significant gains across the board, achieving record highs.)

In conclusion, there are serious headwinds that today’s business leaders must get in front of to not lose ground. A new normal for where and how we work is developing, but it’s not ultimately about days of the week or physical locations. In the end it’s about engagement, not structure. It’s about a mindset of innovation, about working differently and more effectively. It’s about pathways for advancements for all people groups, with all employees engaged in the success of the business and motivated to do their best work. We have a rare opportunity to invest in a more flexible and empathetic workplace that will retain the employees most impacted by today’s crises (and future leaders) but we must dig deeper for insights, and bring diverse voices together to build a cohesive strategy that represents everyone.

Just as the pandemic brought about an acceleration of digital technology advancements, so could advancements toward an equitable workplace mark this era in history. It could become the fuel that drives our economy to new heights, and creates meaningful and lasting connections between workers and the companies to which they make a commitment.

Jan Ryan

Jan Ryan is a founder of strategic consulting firm 3Hills Group and a faculty member at the University of Texas at Austin. As former executive director of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at UT, her career in both corporate innovation and emerging technologies has spanned over three decades, where she has been a serial entrepreneur, CEO, and tech executive in both new ventures and large, publicly traded enterprises. She is also recognized in Texas for her barrier-breaking work for the rising generation of female leaders.

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1 Comment

  • This is timely and powerful. Diversity is so important to the well being and success of a corporation. If we don’t do this right, it could be easy to lose the gains we’ve made as we rearchitect tomorrows workplace.

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