Do you remember when working from home was a luxury rather than a necessity?
COVID-19 is turning that necessity into a right which is great news for those of us who’ve battled with our bosses to cut unnecessary ties to the office.
I’ve worked from home for nine years but still remember clearly my corporate days when people would mime speech marks and raise their eyebrows to demonstrate they thought “Working From Home” was code for skiving off.
So now we’ve got what we want, we should all be rejoicing, right? Not necessarily. Even when the children eventually return to school, many women will find full-time home working problematic and not just because ergonomic office chairs take up 5x more space than you realise (and look terrible in your living room). Here’s the challenges as I see them, based on my experiences:
Women still carry the majority of the housework burden (2.6x more than their male heterosexual counterparts) and having a workplace full of ‘silent tasks’ that you never get thanked for is not conducive to being productive.
Unless you are lucky enough to have a separate home office, having constant reminders of chores that need doing mean breaks get taken up with loading the dishwasher rather than taking time out. There are days when I long to work in a building that someone else has cleaned and where a twelve year old boy hasn’t used the toilet…
Stock control issues
Women overwhelmingly (89 per cent of us globally) report holding the purchasing power but with that power comes great responsibility (aka – making sure the cupboards are full). In an office, items like coffee, tea and toilet roll are replenished frequently, and for free. When I worked for Microsoft this extended to fresh fruit, fridges stacked with drinks and themed days where pizza and Chinese food magically appeared. This does not happen when you work from home and you missed the last two Ocado slots.
You need a decompression chamber
For all of its stress, commuting is an effective form of transitioning from work to home – even if that does involve sitting opposite someone eating smelly food or sitting in a traffic jam. As someone who is a recent convert to noise cancelling headphones, I can confirm they do a great job at shutting out external noise but they don’t cut out the little voice in your head that says, “I bet I’m going to be interrupted at any minute.”
Lack of privacy
Thanks to Zoom, Teams and other video apps, we are more intimately involved in the lives of our colleagues and customers than ever. On the plus side, it’s making the process of doing business a lot more human but at the same time we’re inviting people right into the hearts of our homes. And bringing our families into the heart of our workplace. Regardless of whether you blur your background or switch it up to make it look like you’re in the Maldives, you’re still at the mercy of being interrupted by family / house mates / your neighbours deciding it’s time to break out the chainsaw.
Role models and reassurance
For women early in their career it is vital to see and connect with women who are a few steps ahead. Impromptu conversations are much harder to have if your only interactions are scheduled. If this was the case when I started out in business, I would never have had the conversation with a senior leader about how she combined being on the executive team with being a parent or with another about how she navigated the attitudes of others to her earning far more than her husband. Seeing and connecting with women in positions of influence inspired me and provided me with opportunities to benefit from their coaching and experience. And, as my career took off, I was able to pay it forward to new female recruits.
Carving out space
Within my industry – IT – women are still hugely underrepresented. So while we finally have the flexibility that so many of us have craved in being able to work from home, we have to make doubly sure that we continue to carve out (and protect) space where we can work. Doing this means preventing ourselves from being swallowed up by the needs of others or by our own inclination to simply “get stuff out of the way / off the to-do list”. While there has been a forced mindset change in the viability of remote working, societal expectations around the home and caring for others still fall heavily on women’s shoulders.
In one enlightened approach, a friend told me that her organisation is assessing returning to the office on a case-by-case basis where those for whom it is working brilliantly can continue to do so whereas those who need some space of their own can return to a (socially distanced) desk. I hope more companies follow suit.
About the author:
Toni Kent is an experienced writer and performer who is trusted by large corporate IT organisations to represent their business leaders and brands through a mixture of ghost writing, coaching and motivational speaking.
With twenty years of experience in technology and as an advocate for women supporting women, Toni is frequently booked by Women in Business networks and organisations that want to promote gender parity. With lived experience of how work transforms the life prospects of women from disadvantaged backgrounds, she is proud to be the official event compere for Smart Works Reading – an organisation that helps women return to the workplace via free interview coaching and work-appropriate clothing.
Toni is also a columnist for Berkshire Life and has written three books of humorous reflections on what it means to be a woman: Reasons to be Cheerful Parts One and Two and I Need a Wife. Her books are all available via Amazon.
You can follow Toni on Twitter and LinkedIn at @tonijkent
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