Katy Clark left the house every morning by 7 a.m. to fight for parking. Lymari Vélez Sepúlveda spent two to four hours a day commuting, dragging her young son along for the ride so he could be dropped off at day care. Christopher Thomas left before his daughter woke up, and by the time he returned, she was starting to get ready for bed. Angele Russell raced to pick up her son each evening before his aftercare program closed. And a mother of three in New Jersey almost never got home in time to eat dinner with her family on weeknights. Sometimes she wouldn’t even make it for the final kiss good night.
“And if I missed bedtime, I was really upset. And they were upset,” says the New Jersey mom, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she was expressing a desire she worried would upset her bosses:
She wants to work from home.
For decades, working parents — and mothers in particular — have been calling for more flexibility to juggle their personal and professional responsibilities. Finally, a global pandemic forced many employers to give it to them. Office workers were sent home en masse to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus, along the way testing out their companies’ capacity to maintain operations with a dispersed workforce — and challenging some long-held notions about how productivity is best achieved.
A year later, having proved they can do the work remotely — often under difficult circumstances that included too little child care and too much virtual education — many parents are now loath to return to full-time office life and the toll it took on their families.
That places employers at a crossroads as more workers are vaccinated and executives plot out their plans to reopen offices. Hanging in the balance are questions about the value of in-person collaboration and workplace culture vs. potential savings from distributed workforces and the desire from workers, including many parents, to have the continued option to work remotely.
“I’ve already kind of let it be known that I do not have any intention of returning to the office full time — because now, from a professional standpoint, we know that this model works,” says Angele Russell of Moseley, Va., who works in the district office of Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va. “There’s just zero benefit in my mind now to return back into the office and give up all of those things that we gained over the past year.”
For Russell, 38, “all of those things” include the ability to hop on an exercise bike after a tough constituent call, to keep laundry going throughout the week and not to have traffic-fueled panic attacks while racing to make sure her kid isn’t the last one to be picked up from aftercare. And time. So much time. Time she doesn’t spend doing her hair, or filling up her gas tank.
Russell says she’s doing her job as well as she’s ever done it. She’s just doing her personal life better — being a more present mother to her 6-year-old son, Abraham, and a less stressed wife to her husband, Javarro. She’s able to sleep more, take better care of herself. Even dinner is better. “I’m not coming home, being stressed out on the commute and then kind of throwing something together and, you know, drinking my pain away,” she says.
A January poll by Gallup showed that 44 percent of U.S. workers prefer to continue remote work. Katie Connolly, who has been researching work flexibility for the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, has seen this shift play out in person.
During the pandemic Connolly returned to her native Australia, which has kept the virus tightly controlled and may offer a glimpse of what post-pandemic life will look like in America. Though offices are open, few employers have made a return mandatory. And few workers have voluntarily gone back to traditional 9-to-5 cubicle life.
Connolly expects that to continue once everyone is vaccinated. “I think employers are having a hard time justifying to people why they absolutely have to be back in the office 9 to 5 when things ran pretty smoothly in the absence of that demand,” she says.
Today Katy Clark can’t believe she often left the house before daylight just to get a parking spot for her research job at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. But there was no other way; if she didn’t, the 50-year-old might have to circle the lot for an hour, which would mean she’d have to work late and then make her teenagers miss part of hockey practice.
After shuttling kids to activities, she’d rush home, scramble to make dinner, then “feed the cats, scoop the litter box and make sure no one’s in crisis.” Now she can work until it’s time to drive a kid to practice, and she doesn’t have to take an entire afternoon off to take her 14-year-old daughter to the orthodontist. But the benefits haven’t just been logistical. Clark’s daughter struggles with anxiety, and when she’s having a tough time, Clark is there to help. And she’s connected more with her 17-year-old son, who will leave for college next year.
“He will just come in once in a while and start talking about our cats or say something silly. It’s nice to have kind of those small moments with him that we wouldn’t have had,” she says.
C. Nicole Mason, chief executive of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, thinks one of the pandemic’s silver linings is that it has forced corporations to see employees as humans, not just workers. “The issues related to child care used to be seen pretty much as your problem that you as an individual or family had to solve,” she says. “Because of the pandemic, it became an employer’s problem.”
Mason is a single mom by choice of 11-year-old twins, intimately versed in the near-impossible act of full-time work and full-time parenting. She also leads an organization that moved into new office space not long before the quarantines began. “Even I was like, ‘We’ve got to come back at some point. We just got new offices!’ ” she says.
But when Mason’s organization polled its staff, there was a resounding call for flexibility. “People were like, ‘You know what? I don’t really want to commute. That’s an hour of my day that I could be working or doing something else,’ ” she says.
Mason suspects that the pandemic accelerated conversations around caregiving to an extent that policy discussions never could have.
“We have a moment of reckoning,” she says. “And it’s not only an opening, it’s an opportunity … to reimagine a workplace that is actually more reflective of our lives. It’s a shame it took a pandemic, but it would’ve taken years to get to this point. Actually, I don’t think we ever would have gotten here.”
Of course, not all employees have the luxury of even requesting the option to work from home. Doctors and nurses still need to show up to hospitals, teachers to classrooms, cashiers to grocery stores. Vicki Shabo, senior fellow with New America’s Better Life Lab, is particularly worried about the impact on service industry workers who have been disproportionately hurt by the pandemic. More white-collar employees staying home could mean fewer child-care choices, bus routes and jobs in city centers for other Americans.
“Things could shift in a way that continues to make it harder for these other workers,” Shabo says.
On the other hand, Shabo has been cheered by anecdotal evidence that the pandemic has opened many men’s eyes to the caretaking labor shouldered disproportionately by women. And that in response they’re stepping up to do more.
That’s been the case for Christopher Thomas, an office manager and executive support staffer at Portland State University in Oregon. But his time at home also showed him how much he’d been missing. Before the pandemic, he saw his 3-year-old daughter only briefly on weekdays.
“We didn’t really have a very deep, meaningful relationship,” says Thomas, 36. “She would always go to her mom for everything.”
In the past year, Thomas’s wife, previously a full-time mom, got a job, and now the two stagger their working hours to be able to care for their daughter. The time with his preschooler has been a revelation to Thomas. “The tables have kind of flipped because since I’ve been home, I’m like her favorite person. She follows me around.”
Thomas isn’t optimistic that he’ll be able to remain at home full time for the long term, but he’s hoping the success of remote work will lead to flexibility for a hybrid schedule.
Lymari Veléz Sepúlveda is praying for the same. Before she became a mom, the 45-year-old, who lives north of San Juan, Puerto Rico, took a marketing job with a commute that could sometimes stretch to two hours. It was interesting work at a company she liked, and at the time she had fewer responsibilities at home. But when her son was born in August 2017, the dynamics shifted. At first, Sepúlveda was allowed to work from home as the island grappled with the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. But soon she was expected back in the office. Sepúlveda found a day-care center close to her office, but that meant her baby also had to endure the commute.
If her son got sick or the day-care center temporarily closed, it felt like a crisis. Now she wakes up at 4 a.m. and works until her son gets up. She logs back on when he naps and goes to sleep for the night. She also gets to cook with him and take him out to play during the day.
And even without child care, she says her job performance hasn’t suffered. She’d like the opportunity to continue to work remotely, at least a few days a week. “It’s like, ‘Oh my God, I already know what I need to do and how to do it. I don’t need to be in an office space to do the job.’ That’s how I feel,” she says. “For so long my life has revolved around my job. Now I feel like it needs to be the other way around.”
So far Sepúlveda’s employer hasn’t laid out firm return-to-work expectations. But flexibility to work remotely has become important enough to Sepúlveda that if it’s not offered she’ll look for a new position inside the company — and outside of it, if necessary.
The mother of three in New Jersey is also ready to walk. The 20-year insurance industry veteran says the word she’d use to describe her family’s pre-pandemic existence is “hectic.”
“I felt guilty all the time and just stressed, and I think my husband … was just routinely overwhelmed,” she says. It was especially painful to the mother that a neighbor who babysat the kids after school often seemed to know more about their lives than she did.
“She got the good stuff all the time. ‘This is what’s going on with me.’ ‘This is what I do in school.’ They would just talk and talk and talk. And by the time I got home, that was over,” the woman says.
Since the pandemic restrictions began, the family feels more in tune with one another. And she’s not willing to give that up. In a company questionnaire, she said her ideal would be to work from home five days a week. A manager suggested she put in a formal request to work remotely three days each week. She was approved for two days at home. But negotiations are ongoing, and she hopes her company will reconsider. If it doesn’t she’ll float her résumé elsewhere.
That threat, rather than a general sense of benevolence, is what’s likely to drive a long-term shift, says Mason of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.
“I don’t think employers who have a very traditional model or understanding of the workplace will be able to sustain it, she says, “and be able to retain top talent … Employers are going to have to adapt.”