Over the past year, millions of women globally have left the workplace due to job loss or child-care demands, resulting in at least $800 billion in lost income in 2020, according to Oxfam International.
As business leaders start to map out their plans for bringing employees back to the office, new data from Catalyst, a global nonprofit that focuses on building workplaces that are equitable for women, finds that long-term remote work options could be the key to retaining more women in the workplace.
Based on a survey of more than 7,400 employees worldwide, Catalyst found that women with child-care responsibilities are 32% less likely to report that they intend to leave their job if they have access to remote work, compared to women with child-care responsibilities who don't have access to remote work. Additionally, the report found that 30% of all employees say they are less likely to look for another job in the next year if they're able to work remotely.
"Having remote work access allows people to do their work in the best way possible for them at the best time possible given their schedules," says Tara Van Bommel, a statistician director at Catalyst. "I think especially for women, who during the pandemic have had to handle child care and schooling, it can give them the flexibility to balance both."
Chelena Pye, a single mom of five based in St. Louis, knows firsthand how a lack of remote work access can push some women out of the workplace, especially during the pandemic.
From March 2020 to June 2020, Pye, who worked as a patient care coordinator for a home health company, was able to work remotely because of the Covid-19 crisis. This flexibility, she says, allowed her to be present at home with her kids while schools remained closed. Then in June 2020, when her company called employees back into the office, Pye says she was forced to quit due to a lack of child care and workplace flexibility.
"It was kind of a wakeup call like, 'Okay, how are you going to make money?'" says Pye, whose five kids range from 3 years old to 12 years old. Immediately, she applied for unemployment benefits to help make ends meet and she started to make masks to sell as a side hustle. She also says the stimulus checks she received from the government helped her to stay on top of her bills, including medical expenses. Pye explains that of her oldest children, who are 12-year-old twins, one has asthma and the other recently received a kidney transplant.
Since leaving her job last June, Pye says she's been actively looking for jobs that will allow her to work remotely long-term and she's been working on a business plan to launch her own home health aide consulting company. Earlier this year, she says she was also fortunate enough to receive a year of child-care assistance for her younger kids through a Secret Deodorant and YWCA partnership that provides child-care relief and workforce development to over 100,000 moms across the country.
Like many mothers without workplace flexibility, she says this past year forced her to ask herself, "Is my job to earn money or raise my children?" A decision she says she never wants to have to make again.
While remote work may not be possible for all professionals, as many front-line workers are in jobs that require them to leave their homes, remote work should be made accessible to any employee who can effectively do their job from home, according to Van Bommel.
When employees, regardless of gender, have access to remote work, they are 63% more likely to report often or always being innovative, compared to those who don't have access to remote work, Catalyst data shows. Additionally, employees are 75% more likely to report often or always being engaged; 68% more likely to report high organizational commitment; and 93% more likely to report that they feel included.
Van Bommel, who authored Catalyst's report about workplace flexibility, says though these stats are promising, it's important to note that innovation, high engagement and organizational commitment can only exist if remote work is executed properly by employers.
"It's really important to have clear guidelines and norms for how to communicate and how to get work done," she says.
For example, if one employee is on the west coast and another employee is on the east coast, Van Bommel explains that there needs to be clear communication from company leaders that the west coast employee might not start the work day until noon east coast time. This way, she says, if the two employees are working on an assignment together then there is clear expectation for when they can hop on the phone or video to collaborate.
In the case of a hybrid work model, where employees are in-office a few days a week and working from home a few days a week, Van Bommel says that taking a "remote-first approach" is still really important.
"This means that we all operate like everyone is remotely, regardless of whether I'm in the office and you're at home," she says. For instance, if there is an in-office conversation about a project and one employee involved in that project is working remotely that day, Van Bommel says the manager of the project should step in and say, "Let's get on a quick call and bring in [X] because we'll want to have this conversation together." Keeping that remote-first approach, she says, will ensure that employees working remotely still have access to equal recognition for their work.
Lauren Pasquarella Daley, senior director for women and the future of work at Catalyst, adds that encouraging remote work will not only make workplaces more equitable for women, but it will also create space for everyone "regardless of your gender, or even your responsibilities... to tap into self-care, caregiving responsibilities and more."
Moving forward, she says, company leaders need to create an environment where "people don't feel like they have to choose between remote or the office and that they don't fear perhaps negative career consequences because of their choice." This way, she says, people are really able to "advance and thrive in their careers and at home."