Companies will lose female talent if they don’t address work-from-home challenges

A Kearney study finds 30 percent of women may leave companies due to the strain of remote work.
Leading companies across industries have been dedicated to advancing gender equity for decades. They have made slow, but essential, progress toward inclusive workplaces and balanced representation at all levels. However, COVID-19 and the switch to working from home (WFH) could cost them their hard-won progress. A recent Kearney survey found that 30 percent of women were considering changing their current role, leaving their company, or exiting the workforce altogether in the wake of COVID-19 and the shift to WFH. The early perception that WFH could provide the catalyst companies needed to adopt flexible work models has unfortunately not translated into reality. Instead, women who switched to WFH report difficulty managing their workload, reduced access to influential leaders and career opportunities, and a decrease in their overall well-being and mental health. Taken together, these factors have increased barriers to career advancement for women working from home and their likelihood of leaving.

The situation will likely continue after the pandemic ends. Many companies are talking about making WFH a permanent part of their work model. That makes understanding WFH’s ramifications more important than ever. For now and the long term, there are fundamental things companies can do to ensure WFH succeeds not only for their female employees but for everyone.

WFH and the barriers it creates
The influence of gender roles and stereotypes complicates WFH. Even as men take on more unpaid work at home, women continue to shoulder the majority of homecare, childcare, and eldercare duties. COVID-19 threw a spotlight on this inequity. The US Census Bureau notes women ages 25 to 44 are nearly three times as likely as men to not be working due to childcare demands caused by the pandemic.

Out of concern for the impact of WFH on workplace gender equity, Kearney conducted a survey of more than 1,000 women across industries, job levels, and work locations to understand how the WFH shift affects them. The study focused on mid-career women, ages 25 to 45, in the United States. Some 30 percent had shifted to WFH since the outset of COVID-19. Twenty percent already worked primarily from home, and 50 percent have continued to work in the office or at another worksite. Kearney sought to understand how nine common barriers to career advancement, including access to opportunities, mentorship, workload, schedule flexibility, and personal well-being, have been affected by the switch to WFH.

Women who switched to WFH as a result of COVID-19 told us that every career barrier has increased in severity since leaving the office earlier in 2020. Compared to women who remained at the office, women who switched to WFH reported a three times greater increase in the severity of these nine barriers. In particular, workload, access to important development opportunities, and personal motivation and well-being presented the greatest challenges.

The inability to maintain personal motivation and mental well-being is by far the top challenge women have faced since COVID-19’s onset. It is particularly exacerbated for women who now work from home. They report an increase in severity nearly four times greater than for women who remained in the office. For women working from home, burnout is a real risk.

It appears that this decline in well-being stems primarily from three areas. First, women indicated limited schedule flexibility despite the switch to WFH. Of those who switched to WFH, 70 percent reported either no change or a reduction in schedule flexibility. Flexible work arrangements are an important tool for attracting and retaining female talent and the switch to WFH during COVID-19 seemed like the catalyst needed to help make flex work the norm. However, it appears that many companies have switched to WFH without incorporating many of the “flex” aspects of flexible work arrangements.

Second, women working from home are struggling to manage their workload more than those who remained in the office. Yet, here perception does not appear to align closely with reality. While just 5 percent of women reported a three-plus-hour increase in their daily workload since switching to WFH, 42 percent reported increased difficulty managing their workload. This paradox suggests that WFH dynamics have made it much more difficult to manage the same workload as before, resulting in significant burnout and dissatisfaction.

Finally, women told us that their access to development and advancement opportunities had fallen significantly since switching to WFH. In the office, employees have greater access to senior leaders, teammates, and the informal interactions that lead to important conversations and opportunities. At home, the limited access workers do have to influential individuals may not be enough to open doors that lead to important career development and advancement. As survey respondents told us, “Access to key executives is much lower these days” and “We need better communication and coaching from leadership.”

How to get women to stay
WFH is not synonymous with flexible work, especially for women. Companies that recognize the difference and incorporate more flexible work policies into their operations, while alleviating the current WFH challenges, will have a competitive advantage in retaining top female talent.

They must be more cognizant, intentional, and tactical in how they manage WFH. In the near term, companies can address the following to good effect:

Look for ways to adjust workload and help employees set boundaries. Work with them to prioritize what is most important from what can be delayed, delegated, or eliminated. Encourage employees to take time for mental health, and lead by example.
Consider flexible HR policies that provide near-term relief when needed. That could be shorter request windows for personal time off, temporary arrangements for part-time hours or different role assignments, and unpaid vacation or leave-of-absence policies.
Encourage leaders to connect one-on-one with their employees regularly to ensure informal mentoring conversations still occur and leaders help women identify, secure, and succeed in important opportunities for their career advancement.
Longer term, companies should plan to adopt much more flexible work models for a post-pandemic world.

Make work truly flexible and not just remote. Employees’ needs vary and they are unlikely to uniformly embrace either a return to the office or continuing a 100 percent WFH model after the pandemic. Understand what employees need to do their, best work and design flexible models accordingly.
Address flexibility in both location and schedule. WFH is not truly flexible if employees must follow standard working hours to be successful. Define the times when teams need to work together and use technology to collaborate more effectively when team members are in distributed locations or working asynchronously.
Shift to outcomes-based management. Focus on working with and evaluating employees based on the results of their efforts, rather than closely managing their daily activities.

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