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Why Going Back Into the Office Might Not Be For Everyone


For the last year and a half, our world has transitioned to a remote lifestyle. We exercise in our living rooms, walk around the block to get our daily dose of sunshine, work from our beds and spend far too much time in our homes. You’d think that going back into your office and having that exciting change of pace and scenery would be positive but people have had different opinions. As a society we have adapted and adjusted to working from home and many have come to like it. It offers flexibility, time and opportunities to spend time with loved ones. Although working remotely has been a huge perk, some people are ready to go back into the office. But it begs the question – is going into an office five days-a-week really equitable? 

How do we view going back into the office in a feminist lens? Well there is a new way of life that offices have to take into consideration that we probably put on the back burner prior to the pandemic – such as providing childcare, mental health resources and accessibility for people with disabilities. Even though working in an office was the most prominent way we worked pre-pandemic, I ask the question: was this the best and most accessible way for all people to work? The answer will not shock you: no. No, it was not. Below are a few of my takes on the inaccessibility that going into an office five days a week can cause. 

Childcare

The age old dilemma. Do women sacrifice their careers in order to have children? This, of course, is a hyperbolic question…or is it? Women with a certain amount of privilege and/or strong support network can have thriving careers and choose to have children. I will say this though: it is much more difficult for women who have to make this decision and, yes, it can impact careers. “Why do you have a 5 year gap on your resume?” Sometimes, women want to stay with their child at home. Stay at home dads do this as well. To quote an amazing paper written by Nikita Kalluri, Colleen Kelly and Arvin Garg titled “Child Care During the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Bad Situation Made Worse

[t]he pandemic has brought to light the lack of safe, reliable, and affordable child care options. Even before the closure of many facilities, child care was plagued by long waitlists, ballooning costs, and safety concerns. Child care costs for preschool-aged children can rival college tuition, making high-quality child care nearly inaccessible for many families, especially those experiencing material hardships. With recent school closures due to COVID-19, even older children now require supervision throughout the day. As such, parents have been forced to consider child care arrangements that may not best align with the needs of their family. This includes taking parents (predominantly women who face the disproportionate burden) away from work or calling on family members and friends to oversee the care of their children, perhaps risking their health or the health of others. Simply put, safe and reliable child care is an essential for economic and social recovery and subsequent stability.

– Kalluri, Kelly & Garg, 2021

The CDC defines essential workers as those who “conduct a range of operations and services in industries that are essential to ensure the continuity of critical functions in the United States.” This includes professions such as nursing staff, personal care workers, grocery store workers, educational professionals, etc. According to the International Labor Organization personal care workers? 88% women. Cleaners and other helpers? 74% women. Teaching professionals? 68% women. The Pew Research Center found that among other key demographic groups, women, adults under 30, Black and Hispanic adults, and those who have not obtained a college degree were the most likely to say they have had trouble paying bills, their rent/mortgage, or for medical care during the pandemic. A UNICEF report done in 2020 estimates that over 35 million children under five years old are sometimes left without adult supervision, a factor linked to economic pressures on parents to work. Their solutions to this problem consists of four policies: 1) Paid Parental Leave; 2) Breastfeeding Support for lactating parents; 3) Access to affordable and good-quality childcare, and 4) Child Benefits (i.e. cash money.)

What has the U.S. done? We gave parents with children an advance on a tax credit for 2021 via the American Rescue Plan.

How do businesses demand parents return to work without addressing the elephant in the room? In some cases people have to navigate the competing forces. For our lower income brethren, do they have the privilege of an affordable, accessible childcare option? Do they have a support system that can help? Is there an option to work from home? Can your child entertain themselves long enough to let you get work done during the day? What happens when – not if – there’s a COVID case at school and you need to quarantine?

So.

Many.

Questions.

None with satisfactory answers. There are people who have come to the conclusion that it’s “easier” (that term is doing a lot of heavy lifting) to stay unemployed. Then they’re maligned by society as “welfare queens” or “leeches of the system”. You can’t win. Employers need to understand that these are the foundational questions impacting employees with children. The ground beneath employees with children is as firm as a sand castle at the edge of the beach before high tide, even more so if you’re a part time worker, or a worker in an “essential” field. With back to school looming and Delta Plus on the horizon, these questions will likely get more pointed, and the foundation more crumbly, which will require flexibility on behalf of employers regarding HOW employees continue to work. Here’s hoping we get it.

Mental Health

How in the “h” “e” double hockey sticks are we expected to change our whole entire work routine again? After almost a year and a half? We’ve grown accustomed to remote life. It was difficult enough to transition into working from home five days a week and now people are expected to go back like nothing happened? Worker’s anxieties are through the roof and it’s not just your imagination. A Kaiser Family Foundation report found that:

“Combined with the closure of schools, daycares, and public spaces, this has left many workers not only newly working from home but also facing new stresses, additional responsibilities at home, and a fading work-life balance. Still many others who lived alone shifted to working from home while also socially distancing in isolation, which is linked to poor mental health. [S]urvey’s conducted in summer 2020 found that many people working from home experienced burnout, and nearly half of adults working from home experienced stress, anxiety or depression.”

– Kamal, Panchal, and Garfield, 2020

Kamal, Panchal and Garfield go on to say that the pandemic has been disproportionately wearing on women in the workforce and has likely exacerbated existing gender disparities in career and financial opportunities and stability. A greater share of women than men reported symptoms of anxiety and/or depressive disorder. In other not surprising news, one in four women said they might either leave their job or cut down on their work, noting that working mothers, Black women and women in leadership roles (!!) are uniquely at risk of leaving their jobs or cutting back on work. When it comes to returning to work? News ain’t great there either. According to the Human Resource Executive, women are showing a 33% increase in feelings of anxiety, 25% increase in stress, and a 23% increase in depressed mood. In what’s perhaps in the running for the most obvious statement of the year “The pandemic isn’t over and the prospect of returning to work is stressful,” Katy Schneider Riddick, director of strategy and engagement at One Mind at Work, said last week during a webinar discussing the results of their survey. I could cite statistics forever, but here’s one that I think says it all – two-thirds of American workers say they feel somewhat or extremely anxious about returning to work. As of June 2021, there are 127.16 million full time employees, and 25.13 million part time employees in the United States.

Of the 152 million (give or take) workers in the United States, 100,320,000 MILLION PEOPLE feel somewhat or extremely anxious about returning to work.

If the transition to office life is going to be smooth, employers need to understand the emotional tax that it can take on their employees. Will remote work still be an option? Are you adopting a hybrid model? Will you still allow flexibility for certain scenarios? How will you assuage employees concerns about their health and safety? How are you ensuring that employees who are facing complicated and complex situations at home feel like they can stay employed? How are you supporting your people? These are the questions that employers need to ask themselves and recognize that the cost of promoting the way things were can lead to long-term consequences for their business model. And, as we know from the pandemic, the universe’s mental health has taken a serious hit. It’s important to acknowledge mental health at work and provide resources at the office as well. Whether it’s covering the cost of therapy, creating a “wellness space” where workers can get away or simply allowing employees to make decisions about whether or not they want to come in, mental health needs to be prioritized in this transition. 

Disability

It’s no secret that many offices are not completely accessible for workers who have disabilities. The National Governors Association, of all places, commissioned a report on the Governors’ Role in Promoting Disability Employment in COVID-19 Recovery Strategies. Traditionally, people with disabilities face persistently lower rates of employment and earn significantly lower wages compared to their peers without disabilities – which, let’s be clear, is super fucked up. To that end, people with disabilities were also more likely to be laid off during the pandemic. From March to April 2020 (aka 30 days) the number of employed, working-age people with disabilities fell by 20% or almost 1 million people and those who lose their jobs may be less likely to return based on experiences with other recessions.

Returning full time to the office is a potentially life or death choice for some folks who have disabilities. Adults with certain disabilities may have underlying medical conditions that may put them at increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19, and experts estimate that adults with intellectual disabilities are three times more likely to die of COVID-19 if infected. Imani Barbarin, aka one of the my favorite voices in the Disability Activism sphere, writes in her article “Normal” Never Worked For Disabled People — Why Would We Want To Return To It? that pre COVID-19 she could never ensure whether a prospective employer’s building was accessible, or that the company would agree to accommodations needed if she got the job. Babarin states that watching companies move to a mostly WFH model showed that companies were capable of providing accommodations, they just didn’t when she asked.

Working remotely has helped disabled people gain accommodations in the workplace in the past year, but according to the NCBI, only 54% of people with disabilities regularly access the internet, compared to 81% of those without disabilities. These are foundational problems with the infrastructure of this country, which is the topic for another time, but it’s important to draw parallels to how all of these issues are intersecting. One of the most illuminating statistics is that 99% of U.S.-based websites are inaccessible to users with disabilities, the corollary of this then is that the web-based services companies use for many of their administrative and client management tasks also have issues with accessibilities for their employees. When you consider applications like Zoom or Microsoft Teams – how many conversations have you participated in that have been captioned at your workplace? Do you even know how to turn those settings on?

Pulling this paragraph from Barbarin’s article because it explains the issue far better than I can:

Workplace inaccessibility both prior to and during the pandemic boils down to one glaring flaw: Society fails to recognize the capacity disabled people have to be leaders in our chosen careers. And because we’re rarely leaders, and accessibility is often seen as only a benefit to disabled workers, those who have influence are not consistently advocating for widespread change. Accessibility looks like flexible hours and offices, inclusive internet and meetings, and the opportunity to adjust whenever necessary. The pandemic proved that everyone benefits from having options, and as long as the job gets done, there’s always a way to make it happen. 

Mic drop.

Final Thoughts

Employers demanding one way to work, are missing the forest for the trees. The best workplaces, who get the most of their employees consider their employee as a whole person. Whether facing questions related to childcare, grappling with mental health and/or looking at who employees are dealing with disability, as employees we contain multitudes and are not automatons that can be shuffled in or out at an employers whim. For some people it may be great, for others it may not. But regardless, we have to lead with thoughtfulness and inclusion in all aspects of this transition.

Before I bring this to an end, I want to completely own that this article is written with my own privilege in mind. I have the option of working from home OR working in an office, but that’s not possible in all industries or for all people. I see those folks who can’t work remotely like medical professionals, teachers, grocery store staff, restaurant workers, etc. You are the real MVPs. What are your thoughts on returning to offices and how do you think employers can help make this transition as smooth as possible?

I want to give a huge thank you to Natalia Santana-Pollard who collaborated on this piece and compiled the data, articles and quotes. I appreciate your honest feedback and for all that you do as our editor.

Further Reading

How to Prepare Yourself for a Return to the Office
11 Essential Steps For Transitioning Your Team Back To In-Office Work
How the Coronavirus Outbreak Has – and Hasn’t – Changed the Way Americans Work
Yasi Agah is a San Francisco native who loves to read, write, roller-skate and listen to Blink 182. Her favorite genre is definitely memoirs. Becoming by Michelle Obama makes her tear up every time she reads it.

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