Overnight, millions of employees across the world shifted to mandatory “teleworking”, or remote work, to reduce the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, while allowing businesses and organisations to remain afloat.
Covid-19 has given teleworking a tremendous impetus everywhere – and it may be here to stay once the pandemic subsides. As such, it is important that policymakers understand how to ensure decent and productive working conditions for all those who telework. Particularly, how to ensure that women and, more generally, workers with family responsibilities, benefit equally in terms of career progression, health outcomes and work-life balance.
Teleworking offers plenty of advantages, including time and money savings in terms of commuting; greater flexibility and autonomy in the organisation of work and the scheduling of private life; and potentially greater opportunities to update and upgrade skills. Teleworking is also typically depicted as an ally of working parents, especially mothers, and a means to advance gender equality in employment. But is this true?
Even before the pandemic, some of the downsides of teleworking were the long hours of work, insufficient rest breaks and tensions between work and private life. Women, while appreciating the possibility of working from home, were more likely than their male peers to also report that they felt isolated.
The differentiated gender impacts of teleworking
This situation seems to have deteriorated with the pandemic. If not adequately managed, the blurring of physical and organisational boundaries between work and home – especially when telework is performed on a continued basis – can have a negative impact on an individual’s mental and physical health and intensify work-family tensions.
Social isolation and the increase in domestic chores and home-schooling imposed by the lockdown, added a further strain on families. It is not surprising, therefore, that one in five workers who were teleworking and living with children under 12 within the EU reported problems in concentrating on their job all or most of the time. Among these workers, women shoulder the brunt of this additional pressure.
A few studies assessing the impact of teleworking on workers’ health outcomes during the early phases of the pandemic report that mothers experience higher psychological distress compared with women without children and with all men. Mothers, especially single mothers, may find it harder to meet tight deadlines or attend meetings at hours when they have to feed young kids or help them in home-schooling. As a result, they may work until very late to meet such deadlines, while worrying about dismissal, with the risk of developing sleep disorders, anxiety and, eventually, burnout. The risk of dismissal is higher for mothers of young children holding temporary contracts.
However, more senior women professionals are also not spared similar challenges. In a McKinsey and LeanIn survey of North American female employees, one in four women, including senior-level women, said they were thinking about reducing or leaving paid work due to the pandemic, citing company inflexibility, caring responsibilities and stress as causes. Another factor is protecting the time and energy of the partner who earns a higher pay in the couple.
Towards transformational and gender-equal teleworking
It is clear that the pandemic has not challenged the skewed distribution of unpaid care work towards women. Even before the Covid-19 outbreak, women carried out more than three-quarters of the total daily time spent in unpaid care work across the world. Since the beginning of the pandemic, 28 per cent of women have reported an increase in the intensity of their domestic work relative to 16 per cent of men.
As long as the uneven distribution of unpaid care work at home is not resolved, women will continue to be seen and treated as “secondary” earners by their partners, employers and co-workers. Teleworking is an important means to help mothers, and parents more generally, to juggle work and family, but it will not be truly transformative unless there is a deliberate decision to promote flexible working with gender equality.
So, what to do?
If people who telework are to concentrate on their work without constant interruptions to attend to family demands or housework, then access to affordable, reliable and high-quality childcare and elderly care is essential. The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the pre-existing childcare crisis, adding urgency to the case for further investments in the care sector to also improve the safety and working conditions of care workers, the majority of whom are women. During the pandemic, vouchers to obtain babysitting or domestic work services to help families cope with the additional care-related demands have been introduced as temporary relief measures in a number of countries.
Maternity, paternity and parental leave need to be designed in ways that challenge the view that looking after the house and family is a “woman’s job”. At present, in most countries, it is mainly women who take up such leave. The right incentives need to be built into these laws, such as making parental leave non-transferable, to increase men’s uptake. It is encouraging that during the pandemic many countries have broadened, temporarily, the circumstances under which paid parental leave is granted or have introduced unpaid leave for childcare as part of job retention schemes.
The right of employees to disconnect from their work and to not answer emails outside of normal working hours (or to at least not be rewarded for doing so), needs to be recognised. This is another important means to prevent anxiety and burnout, allow for work-life balance and encourage family co-responsibility.
Within organisations, it means specifying normal working hours and periods of rest and availability, which are broader than typical working times. The use of “core working hours”, which focus on the number of hours worked, rather than when they are worked, is another means to grant parents, particularly mothers, heightened flexibility. If you still need to be on call for a typical “9 to 5”, the benefits of working remotely are significantly reduced. In parallel, each employee also needs to adopt his or her own boundary management strategy, and training can help in this regard.
Managers should be assisted in overseeing a dispersed workforce and shift away from “management by control” to “management by results”. Setting more realistic expectations; re-evaluating performance criteria – for instance, not criticising employees for working outside of core hours; communicating clearly about duties and tasks; regularly assessing employees’ workloads; providing technical or logistical support as required; and facilitating co-worker networking, are all key dimensions of managing by results.
Finally, teleworking − whether voluntary or compulsory − should never undermine employees’ career advancements or training opportunities.
Manuela Tomei is the Conditions of Work and Employment Programme Director at the International Labour Organisation.