To refer to COVID-19 as a disruption is an understatement. It has wreaked havoc on our economy, health care and education, not to mention the literal death toll — at the time of this writing more than 40,000 Americans have died. Something else that has been disrupted, I hope for the better, is our attitude about working from home.
It was never my plan to specialize in the concept of “work-life balance,” or what we now call “work-life integration.” But when I was a doctoral student at the University of Minnesota nearly 20 years ago, I was asked to teach a semester-long course on work and family relationships. Did I mention that I had four small children at the time? I was literally living the subject matter I was teaching, trying to be there for my kids while also making progress on my degree. The concept of “telework theory” became a central part of my research.
The stereotypical “ideal worker” is the first one in the office and the last one out. They do not leave to attend a parent/teacher conference or take time off to care for an elderly parent. Women, whether they work full time or not, continue to carry the bulk of the unpaid care work. And women have been some of the most vocal proponents of working from home, advocating for a flexibility that would allow them to better fulfill their competing work loads.
In 2003 I wrote an article that refuted the notion that allowing employees to work from home was more costly and less efficient. In fact, telecommuting not only can reduce the costs for both employer and employee but those who telecommute may actually work more hours than those who stay at the office, are more loyal to the company, and reduce absenteeism by 30%.
And yet, for decades many companies and organizations have held the line that “face time” was the best way to run a business, denied flexible options to employees and/or punished those who worked from home.
Enter the coronavirus, which has disrupted almost every aspect of our work lives.
Suddenly, companies that claimed that things could only get done in person are using Zoom or other options and are finding that many workers are actually more productive than before. We may be wearing pajama bottoms and muting our mics to holler at our kids to get back to their chores or schoolwork, but we are getting stuff done. And most of the women who are doing their jobs remotely continue doing the home jobs traditionally assigned to them: cooking, cleaning and childcare.
Now I am not advocating for a universal shift to working from home. Everyone out there with a school-aged kid has a newfound appreciation for educators. But I hope that a silver lining to this pandemic is that employers will learn that many aspects of a job can be accomplished outside of an office. Not only can flexible programs and resources improve the quality of work and home life for employees, but they also benefit the organization’s financial bottom line. And that’s a disruption we can embrace.
Dr. Susan R. Madsen is the Orin R. Woodbury Professor of Leadership & Ethics in the Woodbury School of Business at Utah Valley University and the founding director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project.