A year after US COVID-19 lockdowns began, Al Jazeera asked US small businesswomen about challenges and silver linings.
Mark, a vice president at a global bank, has a sweeping view of his bucolic backyard from his home office in suburban New Jersey in the United States. In between virtual meetings, he takes quick breaks to connect with his two elementary school-aged children and talk dinner logistics with his wife.
“Overall, working from home has been amazing for our family,” Mark, who asked not to use his last name due to job concerns, told Al Jazeera. “I feel like I’m even more productive because I don’t commute, and can step up in meaningful ways at home.”
That newly achieved work-life balance will all end this summer, however, when Mark expects to be summoned back to the office like many in the US financial industry. The heads of big Wall Street firms have made it clear that remote work isn’t working for them, and employees are being forced to follow suit.
JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon asserted that working from home “doesn’t work for those who want to hustle” earlier this month and predicted that “sometime in September, October, it will look just like it did before”.
For its part, Goldman Sachs told its employees to “make plans to be in a position to return to the office” by June 14 in the US and June 21 in the United Kingdom.
Mark does not work for Goldman Sachs or JP Morgan, but believes the two major banks’ policies will set a precedent for the industry. And Mark worries that he and his family will lose the gains they made in the past year when he dons his suit and tie and commutes the nearly two hours back to New York City.
“Because of [the commute], I know I won’t be as present as I have been,” Mark said.
And Mark isn’t only worried about his own sanity sitting in traffic or on the train — he’s worried about how his wife will once again bear the brunt of the childcare responsibilities, because of her more flexible part-time work schedule.
“I was working a lot, but I was here,” he said of the past year with his children. “I knew the names of their teachers; I could make lunch. I felt like we were a partnership. And I feel like we will lose that.”
‘Something is changing’
The remote work debate is playing out beyond the finance world as companies create back-to-office pathways that could very well leave some workers, such as those with elder and childcare responsibilities, out. Some fear that the corporate culture that favoured whoever could stay at the office longest might be creeping back in, too.
Last week, WeWork CEO Sandeep Mathrani said “those who are least engaged are very comfortable working from home” to an audience for The Wall Street Journal’s Future of Everything Festival.
His comment led to swift backlash — but also fear that he may be voicing an unspoken attitude common among managers.
It will reach a point where compensation doesn’t become an essential driving force. If one firm offers $1.2m, and one offers $1m but the chance to work from home, the flexibility may win out in recruiting top talent.
Experts, however, say “the new normal” around remote work continues to shift and exceptions will become the rule. For example, JPMorgan’s and Goldman Sachs’s back-to-work plans let some employees still work remotely depending on their roles, and occupancy caps mean that workers will likely rotate into the office on a hybrid schedule for the foreseeable future.
“Big banks are calling people back, but you’re also seeing them shrink their footprint, so something is changing,” Roy Cohen, an executive coach and author of The Wall Street Professional’s Survival Guide, told Al Jazeera.
But that said, Cohen notes that in-person workplaces may have a competitive advantage over those that offer fully remote options.
“It’s nearly impossible to understand the corporate culture of an organisation if you’re not inside the organisation,” Cohen said. “And you need to make sure that you have senior people for leadership and mentorship. I think there will be some stumbles as firms figure out what works, and what their employees will accept.”
‘Flexibility may win out’
The flip side of the coin is that firms might also have to prove to workers why they need to be in an office after doing their jobs remotely for more than a year. Cohen has also seen this dynamic play out in his conversations with coaching clients.
“I have a client who feels confident that his firm will support a hybrid schedule,” he said. “He knows he’s valuable and he knows that his bank will work to keep him.”
Aleksandar Tomic, associate dean for strategy, innovation, and technology at the Woods College of Advancing Studies at Boston College, believes that remote-friendly options will continue to be a flashpoint in talent retention, especially for recruiting management-level talent.
“I don’t think firms will have a problem recruiting entry-level employees [to work onsite], but I think it’s when you’re looking for talent that things will get complicated,” Tomic told Al Jazeera.
“It will reach a point where compensation doesn’t become an essential driving force. If one firm offers $1.2m, and one offers $1m but the chance to work from home, the flexibility may win out in recruiting top talent.”
The pandemic brought about a paradigm shift in terms of what people expect of their workplace, and it’s the workplaces that truly are empathetic to their workers that seem to be coming out ahead.
Tomic’s prediction is echoed by statistics. According to a survey of over 5,000 US workers across the country conducted by management consulting company McKinsey, nearly one-third of workers would like to work remotely full time, and more than a quarter say they would consider switching employers if their organisation returned to fully on-site work.
But of course, many workers don’t have the luxury of weighing multimillion-dollar job offers.
Tomic believes strict “return to office” mandates may disproportionately affect women, parents, and minorities who may have been less valued at work in the past and might be passed over for roles in favour of people who can commit to full-time, on-site employment.
And, if ideas tying performance to presence persist, those workers could also lose out on advancement opportunities or raises, he said
“I think the question will not be, can you work at home, but can you truly advance at home,” Tomic said.
‘This huge unknown’
In this way, it may be the people who have the option to continue to work remotely or head back to the office who are facing the most uncertainty.
“I feel like it’s this huge unknown,” Laura, who works at a tech company in New York City and does not want her last name used due to employer sensitivity, told Al Jazeera. “I feel on one hand, we’re being told that we can choose. And on the surface, that seems great. But then I wonder: Is it a real choice? In a way, a ‘back-to-work’ mandate makes it easier because you know what’s expected of you.”
Laura is already facing pressure. Her manager told her team he expects them back in the office in early June.
Laura has two children aged five and nine who are on a hybrid school schedule in Jersey City, New Jersey, and she says figuring out a childcare option for them for the last two weeks of school is “an impossibility”.
Her manager has told her they “might” find some wiggle room, she said, which has left Laura feeling stressed out and unsure if “special dispensation” to continue to work remotely may result in missed opportunities.
Women have already been disproportionately impacted by the burden of juggling remote learning and work.
Research from Catalyst, a global non-profit focused on building equity and inclusion for women in the workplace, has found that while all parents had a productivity onus put on them during the COVID-19 pandemic, it was mothers who suffered the most.
A Catalyst-CNBC poll found that 41 percent of mothers (and 36 percent of fathers) felt they had to hide their caregiving struggles from their employer and that parents, especially, feared they would be the first to be let go if their company needed to downsize.
“Women, parents, and people of colour were disproportionately affected during the pandemic,” Lauren Pasquarella Daley, senior director of Women and the Future of Work at Catalyst, told Al Jazeera.
“I think we’re looking at two things as companies are considering their return-to-work plans: First, that organisations not create two tiers of work, with some people getting advantages for being in the office; and the second is to advance and build flexibility for workers who may not have had access to remote work options,” she said.
This, Daley explained, means using technology as a way to allow shift workers to control their time and schedules.
Daley also believes that some companies with firm “back-to-work” timelines may be out of step with the culture.
“The pandemic brought about a paradigm shift in terms of what people expect of their workplace,” she said, “and it’s the workplaces that truly are empathetic to their workers that seem to be coming out ahead.”