Working mothers could face more negative effects from hybrid work models than their single male counterparts. Experts say the solution is to make remote work the default.

Mother working from home with child
A child plays while his mother works remotely.

  • Partial remote work could create a two-class system where workers in the office are rewarded.
  • This system could benefit unattached men and harm working mothers who need flexibility.
  • Experts say the solution is to make remote work the norm, not the exception.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

In some form or another, remote work is here to stay.

While some US workers are adamant that they’ll never return to an office, others just want flexibility – the option to stay at home when they want to and come into work when they need to. In corporate America, this has been dubbed a hybrid model of working, and everyone from Google CEO Sundar Pichai to JPMorgan’s Jamie Dimon have decreed that their companies will adopt a new, flexible way of working.

On the surface, this type of flexibility will be crucial for workers whose lives no longer revolve around commuting five days per week, or for working parents who need to adjust their schedules to support childcare duties.

But experts warn that there could be a hidden downside to hybrid models of working if employers don’t handle it properly – one that could harm the careers of working mothers, and hamper diversity efforts for years to come.

A two-class system

Zillow CEO Rich Barton was one of the first executives to publicly question what flexible working arrangements could mean for workers. While Zillow has fully embraced the hybrid model of work, Barton has voiced concerns about the challenges his team could face.

“We must ensure a level playing field for all team members, regardless of their physical location,” he said during the online real estate company’s fourth-quarter earnings call in February. “There cannot be a two-class system – those in the room being first-class and those on the phone being second-class.”

Bhaskar Chakravorti, dean of global business at the Fletcher School at Tufts University, told Insider that he’s worried about a hybrid future because of the impacts it could have on employee morale, diversity, and company culture.

“Frankly, I think it’s unsustainable to have a gigantic headquarters and then a whole bunch of people dispersed around the country, around the world, and expecting that the dispersed community is going to feel equal to the ones who are at the headquarters,” he said.

Unless companies make substantive changes now to hire more women and people of color and to support people who require flexibility, he said, company culture, particularly in tech, could easily become a sea of homogeneity: mainly white, unattached males who are willing and able to commute into an office every day.

Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford University economist who’s an expert on remote work, took it one step further. In an interview with Bloomberg’s Olivia Rockeman published this week, Bloom warned that this system could lead to at-home workers missing out on promotions to their peers who show up to the office, which could eventually lead to a diversity crisis in six to seven years and “a legal minefield of quite justifiable lawsuits.”

According to a survey of over 1,000 US workers from employee analytics firm Perceptyx, four out of 10 employees who work remotely at least part of the time said they felt impacted by a “perceived absence” from the office compared to their peers who reported to work every day. They reported feeling like their work was evaluated less often, they received less recognition, and they were less likely to receive a raise or promotion than their peers.

And according to Bloom, the population that chooses to stay home most of the time will not be random going forward.

“For people with children under the age of 12, you find almost 50% more women than men choose to work from home five days a week,” Bloom told Bloomberg.

Women have already been beaten down by the pandemic, economically speaking

A report from the International Labour Organization from January found that women, as well as younger workers, experienced the greatest employment losses during the last year. Last September, nearly 900,000 women reported that they were no longer employed, compared to 216,000 men who said the same.

A survey by McKinsey and Co. from last fall found that that one out of every four working women was considering scaling back their hours or leaving the workforce altogether, citing the challenge of juggling their work with childcare and other household tasks.

Read more: We’ve failed working mothers (again). This is how we build a better world for them.

Now that life is slowly returning to normal, women – who are more likely to shoulder the childcare burden – will require the flexibility to stay home a few days per week or adjust their hours to handle pick-up from school or daycare. This flexible future should be a blessing. But over time, inequity could rear its head, said Raafi Alidina, a consultant for diversity and inclusion consultancy Frost Included.

Alidina said he’s worried the hybrid model could also change the behavior of the employees who feel they need to keep up with their colleagues.

“You’ll end up having the people at home, noticing that they’re being treated as second-class and they’ll either leave [their job] or they’ll try to come back to work like they used to, they’ll try to go to the office,” he said. “And when they do go to the office, they won’t be at their best because they’ll be thinking, ‘Oh, I wish I could be at home with my kid,’ or they just won’t be able to work the way that works for their lives best.”

He added: “You’re not going to get the best version of them as a worker, you’re not gonna get the most productive version of them.”

Make remote work the norm, not the exception

So what’s the solution?

Alidina said there are a few ways to curb the rise of a two-class system. One way is to be proactive about helping employees feel connected to their workplace by driving home the value and importance of their work – and explaining how all employees are connected to their workplace, regardless of where they are.

He said companies also need to make employee recognition a priority, and ensure that that recognition is inclusive of every role.

“The accomplishments that you’ll feel are worth touting are going to be based on your own biases,” he said. “Credit isn’t always given as often or as easily to people of color, people with disabilities, and other members of marginalized groups.”

And finally, it’s all about how a company messages the work arrangement to employees. Rather than asking workers to request remote work, make remote work the default – and make managers justify why an employee needs to report to the office.

“It’s the same kind of thing that needs to happen for any kind of inclusion: If you’re the person who has more power and privilege in society, it’s your job to adapt to to help that other person feel like they can be their entire selves,” he said. “It’s the same way with managers the people who report them.”

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