Flexibility in workplaces is still the name of the game in 2024, and the largest portion of workplace conversations around this include the topic of remote work (also called teleworking, telecommuting, work-at-home, work-from-home, homeworking, e-work, mobile work and virtual work). Sadly, I’ve heard from employees that some large Utah employers are changing their policies to end remote work options. Time magazine just published a piece titled, “No Recession? Thank Women,” with the author noting that progress for women is “being threatened” by this wave of “return-to-office mandates” and that these inflexible mandates are “squeezing out women who want to stay in the fulltime workforce.”

As someone who has worked a great deal from home throughout my career, this topic is close to my heart. In fact, two decades ago I published a dissertation at the University of Minnesota on the topic of teleworking. Minnesota was known for its forward-thinking companies in terms of providing flexibility. Working remotely two to three days a week had already become the “norm.” Imagine my surprise when my family and I moved back to Utah in 2001 to find Utah workplaces were about 15 years behind many other states in terms of offering and implementing family-friendly and flexible policies, programs and practices for their employees, including remote work options.

Fortunately, Utah made huge strides in 2020-2022 during the pandemic, when companies were forced to change. In addition, the talent shortage has also motivated employers to find better ways to attract and support their workers. So why are we slipping backwards? Among other reasons, older styles of directive leadership have focused on managing employees with an underlying foundation of micromanagement, mistrust, fear and justification (making sure building space is utilized). This is not what employees of today are looking for.

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The bottom line is that women (and many men these days) want and need flexibility of hours and location. National research continues to find this is the case, and various Utah studies show that the most important thing women want from employers are flexible work environments (the second is child care support). In fact, in 2023, 90 of the 100 Companies Championing Women offered both flexible hours and location, making them particularly attractive to Utah women who need and/or want to be employed.

The research continues to show plenty of benefits related to remote work. For example, my own research found that full-time employees who could do so worked weekly at least two days from home had less work-family conflict, while other researchers have found remote work leads to increased productivity, improved performance, higher job satisfaction, stronger organizational commitment and so much more.

To be clear, not all benefits apply to all remote work situations. Research shows that the greatest benefits for individuals and organizations emerge in the following situations:

  1. Full-time employees can telework two to three days per week and be in the office or field the other days.
  2. Employees can maintain the same number of hours that they work in the office, while eliminating transit time and saving money on gas and parking fees.
  3. Workers have a stable support system, including consistent, reliable and quality child care, if they have children at home.
  4. Managers have open, positive and effective relationships with their employees.
  5. Workers can continue their career development opportunities and remain “visible” — working two to three days a week in the office continues to do this.

I thought Utah companies had settled into many of these flexibility policies for good, so I’ve been surprised hearing that at least five companies in the last five to six weeks have now “mandated” their employees at all levels of the organization be back in the office full time. This is particularly concerning, as flexibility continues to be the top need and request by women across the county and in the state of Utah.

Working remotely has made so much of my professional life possible. This included many years where I was primarily a stay-at-home mom with side gigs to my current status as university professor and advocate for women in Utah. Obviously not every position in workplaces today can be done remotely, but there are many that can. To organizational leaders: Please think carefully and strategically about “all or nothing” remote work decisions. Historically, Utah has not been known for supporting women in the workforce, but things have been changing for the good, and remote work is a big part of that. Let’s not take a huge step backward but continue to embrace flexibility and make Utah a place where women and their families can thrive.

Susan R. Madsen is the Karen Haight Huntsman endowed professor of leadership in the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University and the founding director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project.