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A working mother’s manifesto: Pandemic provides a once-in-a-generation chance to course correct how we work

A mother attended her son's soccer game.  For those who were able to work from home during the pandemic, the lack of a daily commute allowed many to take their kids to various activities and school.
A mother attended her son's soccer game. For those who were able to work from home during the pandemic, the lack of a daily commute allowed many to take their kids to various activities and school.Dina Rudick

Consider this a working mother’s manifesto, a call to employers about the once-in-a-generation opportunity to course-correct how we work.

This is the time for companies to remake the workplace, to eliminate inequities that have created predominantly male management regimes.

We all know the pandemic placed an incredible burden on women, saddling them with even more caregiving duties while juggling full-time jobs. But for those who were able to work from home, the lack of a daily commute allowed many to take their kids to and from school. They ate dinner as a family and cooked meals instead of resorting to the microwave. They attended basketball games and tennis matches without the white-knuckle rush from office to home.

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Still, I’m worried companies will rush back without thinking this through. The buzz is all about hybrid workplace models, as if the mere act of letting people work from home one or two days a week will magically create work-life balance, and level the playing field for mothers.

“It’s like a Rubik’s cube. There are so many pieces that need to fall in together,” said Andrea Alexander, an associate partner at the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. who has been advising companies on return-to-office strategies. “We have an opportunity to reimagine, redefine how we interact. It’s just an opportunity, it’s not guaranteed. We can go about it all wrong.”

Most companies say they will adopt a hybrid model that combines remote and on-site work, but have yet to figure out what it looks like. That actually could be a good sign, noted Alexander, because it means employers are being thoughtful, even radical. She encourages companies to avoid a one-size-fits-all approach.

For instance, some departments might function well with employees coming in twice a week, while the finance unit could work remotely for three weeks and be on site the last week of the month, when companies square up accounts.

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Under a hybrid model, employees should be coming into the office for specific reasons, such as to collaborate with colleagues, not just to occupy their cubicles the same way they sit alone at home.

And that 9-to-5 in-office schedule might need to go, too. Alexander cites surveys and case studies that indicate roughly four hours as the optimal amount of time for in-person teamwork. The implications are huge for commuters: Imagine schedules that allow them to avoid peak traffic hours.

“It’s a national experiment,” Alexander said. “We should be learning from each other. We should be finding ways to push the envelope.”

Count Eastern Bank as among those companies taking a measured approach to an office return. Branch employees have been on site throughout the pandemic, but many corporate staffers still work remotely. Unlike some businesses, the bank has not set a date when employees will be asked to return to its downtown Boston headquarters, in part because the current setup works.

”Leadership, in my view, is taking it slowly, listening to our colleagues, and watching the trends,” said Kathy Henry, Eastern’s chief human resources officer and general counsel.

The bank has been surveying its 1,900 employees, conducting pilots, and rolling out more online support. Henry also wants to track what happens with promotions and turnover in a hybrid workplace. Do employees who come into the office advance more quickly than those who are working mostly from home? Do remote employees tend to leave the company, or is retention higher because WFH is a desirable benefit?

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As a mother of three, Henry understands the stakes for working parents. When her children were young, she made sacrifices in her legal career ― taking a year off after her twins were born, and later working part time — because flexibility was not the norm. Henry felt supported back then, but the hybrid workplace may mean women don’t have to choose a mommy track and give up pay or feel sidelined. It may also give men the courage to advocate for improving their own work-life balance.

“We are talking about things that never could be a possibility. That’s amazing to me. I don’t want to miss the opportunity — not just for me, but for every working mother,” said Henry. “We can, and we will, do better. That is one of the unexpected outcomes of COVID.”

Before the pandemic, about 62 percent of employees at State Street Corp. had a “flex” schedule, where they worked out with their managers when to be in the office. Still, the Boston financial services giant remained wedded to an in-office culture, said Benjamin Langis, who serves as State Street’s head of workplace of the future. (Yes, that’s his real title.)

Post-pandemic, Langis anticipates most roles in its global workforce of 39,000 will be hybrid. State Street has been targeting September as a return date for a majority of workers and recently launched a pilot with its women’s network employee group on new workplace norms.

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Langis doesn’t expect the company to get everything right on the first try.

“Maybe the first time we do something won’t be optimal,” he said. “We recognize this as a journey . . . this is going to be a learning experience.”

Yes, companies better heed the caution flag. They need to be on the lookout for inequities as more women work from home because they remain the primary caregiver, and the danger of burnout if employees can’t separate work from home life.

A McKinsey survey of about 5,000 corporate and government employees found nearly half reporting some level of burnout, and that’s likely an underestimation. Another McKinsey study from last spring found that only 41 percent of mothers reported feeling positive about working from home compared with 71 percent of fathers.

Barnard College president Sian Beilock, a cognitive scientist by training and a working mother, has been warning about the unintended consequences of workplace flexibility, including the mental toll on mothers who still do the brunt of the housework.

Beilock stresses that managers can’t just leave it up to workers to figure out the right balance. Companies, for example, could decide there are certain times when everyone is in the office as a way to head off problems arising on work-from-home days when employees are out-of-sight, out-of-mind.

Employers could also decide not to schedule meetings certain times of the day — such as before 9 a.m., between 3 and 4 p.m., or after 5 p.m., allowing parents to make school drop-offs and pick-ups, and to prepare dinner.

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Before the pandemic, Beilock came into the office early, thinking she was setting a good example. But she has enjoyed walking her fourth-grader to school, and now avoids meetings before 9 am.

“I have realized I can set that precedent in a different way,” she said. “I don’t feel like I had permission to do that before.”

A brave new workplace awaits us, one that can be more inclusive than ever. But that won’t happen organically. It will require us to rewrite the rules of work.




Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com.