SALT LAKE CITY — Heather Stevenson’s work from home setup is complete with a treadmill desk and yoga ball. Throughout the day, she goes back and forth between her home office and her chronically ill son’s bedroom, attending to his needs between virtual meetings. Since she lives in American Fork and works for a company in Boston, Massachusetts, Stevenson is done by 3:30 p.m., just in time to welcome her other kids home during the school year.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the percentage of U.S. workers who were offered flex time or remote work options grew from 39% in mid-March to 57% by the end of that month, according to a Gallup poll. As companies like Facebook, Shopify, Zillow and Twitter plan to let employees continue working from home — even after the pandemic ends — an increasing number of people are reconsidering their work-life balance.
Working remotely for the past 41⁄2 years has helped Stevenson, a 45-year-old mother of four, balance work and parenting responsibilities, which she shares with her ex-husband. While there are some drawbacks, the flexibility of working from home is good, she says, because it allows more women to stay involved in the workforce. Families can choose to live near relatives who can help with childrearing, and couples don’t have to choose whose career to prioritize if one is offered a job in another city.
“It’s having the flexibility to manage children’s needs, whether it’s school events, or after-school sports, sick days, snow days, all those kinds of things,” said Stevenson. “It’s a lot easier.”
Research has consistently shown that working from home, otherwise known as teleworking or telecommuting, reduces work-family conflict, said Bradford Bell, professor in strategic human resources and director of the Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies at Cornell University. However, a world plagued by the coronavirus does not present the ideal conditions for teleworking, because multiple family members may be trying to work in a cramped space, schools are closed and child care is less accessible, said Bell.
“I’ve seen it go both ways,” Stevenson said. “I’ve seen some moms say that they are taking the extra brunt of things. ... But I’ve also seen the opposite. Dads and moms are both home, so it’s easier to share the child care together.”
Despite current challenges, Stevenson and Bell are both optimistic that when the pandemic is over, families will have more freedom as a result of increased teleworking options.
“At the end of the day, it’s largely about flexibility,” said Bell. “I think telecommuting can be an equalizer for a lot of reasons.”
Moms like Mary Rindlesbach in North Ogden and Crystal Price in Mesa, Arizona, are grateful they had the option to work or get an education from home while acting as the primary caretakers for their children.
Rindlesbach, 40, who is employed by a digital publisher based in Pasadena, California, has worked remotely for a combined total of more than 10 years. Her husband is a freelance video producer and currently does a majority of the caregiving for their two kids, ages 10 and 14.
But when the kids were younger, Rindlesbach took care of them while working for six years teaching an online film class for a community college. She said she’s grateful that the job kept her connected to the workforce.
“That gap in my resume would have hurt my career,” Rindlesbach said.
Stevenson feels like she missed out on the opportunity to work remotely or part-time while she was raising young children. At one point, she considered working a graveyard shift, but she couldn’t figure out who would stay with the kids when her husband was out of town.
“It is frustrating to see people my age who did not take a break from their careers are now at executive-level positions. I’m not where I would want to be at this point in my career, but I recognize that this is the consequence of the choice I made to stay home with my children,” said Stevenson. “I feel many women are forced to make this choice, but working from home may enable them to not have to choose.”
For Price, 41, online schooling wasn’t an option when she graduated from high school and some of her peers went on to college. Price, a mother to five kids, is currently finishing up a bachelor’s degree in health care administration at Brigham Young University-Idaho. She lives in Arizona and has done 100% of her coursework online.
“For the most part I did it when other family members were home and could take care of our little one. I was able to balance it,” said Price.
As part of an internship research team for the Research and Business Development Center at BYU-Idaho, Price and her colleagues surveyed 1,300 people across 46 states about changes due to COVID-19. Over 60% of people in management positions said they wanted to see online conferencing continue. In a separate Facebook poll, the research team asked, “what COVID changes have you liked the most?” The No. 1 answer was working from home.
“For me, it’s been a huge blessing,” Price said.
According to Pew Research Center, the percent of dual-income households, measured by the percentage of married couples with children where both parents worked, increased from 25% in 1960 to 60% in 2012. Still, women often sacrifice progress in their career to prioritize their spouse’s job, said Timothy Golden, professor and area coordinator of enterprise management and organization at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
“Maybe you have what’s known as a ‘trailing spouse,’ where one spouse gets a new job opportunity and may need to relocate to a different area of the country. And so the other spouse has to figure out, well do they leave their current job and find employment where they are moving to? Or do they try to keep their job and work remotely?”
“There are many instances where people have chosen to work remotely, and that’s worked out tremendously well for them,” he said.
Lydia Morgan, 25, is one of those people.
When Morgan and her husband moved from Provo to Orlando, Florida to pursue her husband’s “dream job” working as a software engineer for Disney, Morgan was able to keep her job as an accountant, working remotely. Since then, Morgan has continued to work from home part time as she and her husband have made multiple geographical moves and added two kids to the family.
According to Golden, because of COVID-19, remote work is becoming more commonplace for both men and women. He estimates 30%-50% of white collar workers will continue teleworking at least part time after the pandemic ends.
“There is some indication that remote work helps level the playing field for women in the workforce,” said Golden. “If men and women are working remotely, it’s not that it’s perceived the woman is working remotely just to handle family demands, it might be for preference.”
Morgan thinks it’s positive that men are increasingly being seen working from home, where kids and household noises might pop up in the background of conference calls.
“Simply seeing men in this environment can go a long ways towards helping dads be more involved dads and help women be more involved employees,” Morgan said. Although, she doesn’t want people to see working at home as a replacement for childcare.
Morgan’s hope is that eventually child care won’t be seen as a “women’s issue” but as a “people’s issue” instead.