Convenience or dystopia? Work-from-home blend is here to stay.

Why We Wrote This

The pandemic prompted a massive shift toward working from home ​– and early indicators suggest the trend will persist beyond the pandemic. The result is a blend of at-home activities that could redefine work-life balance.  

Craig Mitchelldyer/AP
Kim Borton (left) works from home while her children Logan (center) and Katie work on an art project in Beaverton, Oregon, on March 17, 2020. Ms. Borton, working for a sportswear company, is among legions of U.S. workers who have had to juggle remote work plus stepped-up caregiving during the pandemic.

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The work-from-home phenomenon has been on the rise since at least the 1970s, when a NASA engineer coined the term “telecommuting.” But this year, it’s taken a huge leap. 

Before the pandemic, about 15% of employees worked at least part of the week from home; by April, half were working full time there. That jump makes 2020 potentially pivotal. Many employees are happy to ditch the daily commute, and many companies are looking at paring back office space. That means homes will become family and work centers, where families juggle multiple responsibilities and work-life balance faces new challenges. 

Women, who do the bulk of housework and child care, are bearing the brunt of the new work-at-home paradigm. Will families figure out new ways of integrating work and family? Will companies help their workers adapt – or force them to work longer hours? 

“It’s too early to tell how that will evolve,” says management expert Jeff Greenhaus. But “people are going to look back in history at 2020 and it is going to be a watershed moment of how work and family are structured.”

This summer, in preparation for an important Zoom teleconference meeting, Ben Snyder put his toddler down early for a nap, hoping he’d sleep through the event. He didn’t. 

Instead, five minutes into it, his son burst into the room, asking, “Daddy, what are you doing?”

“It was embarrassing,” says the sociology professor at Williams College, who is working from home for the first time. But “everyone at this point is, ‘Oh yeah, we know what it is.’” 

It’s a scene that’s been repeated over and over in the spring and summer of coronavirus. Homes once empty during the workday as two-earner families dropped off their children to school or preschool are suddenly bursting with activity as families juggle multiple responsibilities, from inboxes to remote learning. And any semblance of work-life balance has flown out the window.

On the eve of Labor Day weekend, specialists like Professor Snyder who study the evolution of work have a message for Americans: Adapt, because the challenge won’t end with the pandemic. The United States appears to be at one of those tipping points where the old ways of dividing work and family, office time and leisure, are giving way to a new and uncertain era.

“It’s too early to tell how that will evolve,” says Jeff Greenhaus, professor emeritus of management at Drexel University in Philadelphia. But “people are going to look back in history at 2020 and it is going to be a watershed moment of how work and family are structured.”

The stress on family life has flared into public discussion everywhere from parent groups to labor unions. In response to a question at a Monitor-hosted breakfast with reporters this week, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka called for “better child care options for people that work ... and a different flexibility in the workplace.” 

Of course, the work-from-home phenomenon is hardly new, stretching back to pre-civilization humans who planted crops outside their dwellings. In its latest incarnation, as a backlash to the modern office, it’s been on the rise since at least the 1970s, when a NASA engineer coined the term “telecommuting” to describe his remote work. Before the pandemic, an estimated 15% of employees were working from home part of or all the time. By April, according to one study, just under half of U.S. employees were working exclusively from home.

Less stress in the car ... more at home

It is that sudden jump that makes 2020 potentially pivotal. Evidence is piling up that employees and companies are not going back, because the new normal has attractions for both.

Many workers like not having to drive to an office every day, saving them, on average, just under an hour each day in commuting time, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Two-thirds of U.S. workers surveyed in July told tax-and-audit firm KPMG that they wanted to work from home at least some of the time and reported higher satisfaction and engagement with their employer. Some managers, meanwhile, see a bump in productivity or the opportunity to cut costs by reducing office space.

Michael Bonfigli /The Christian Science Monitor/File
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka speaks to reporters at a Monitor breakfast in Washington on Aug. 1, 2018. In a virtual breakfast held this week, just before Labor Day weekend, he said an "inequality of power" between workers and employers needs to be addressed.

As early as April, a survey by research and advisory firm Gartner found that three-fourths of chief financial officers expected to make at least some of their employees full-time remote. In July, the Partnership for New York City found that some 1 in 4 financial and professional services companies planned to reduce their office space by at least 20%.

But remote workers also report they’re working longer hours and have more stress. The same KPMG survey that found workers want to work from home also found that three-quarters of them said the demands of work had gone up. Just under half said their mental health had declined.

“You feel like you’re digging a hole that you will never be able to get out of,” says Heather Williams, a senior policy researcher at RAND Corp. and mother to a 3-year-old daughter who didn’t attend preschool this summer. “What people didn’t understand is that I have few uninterrupted blocks of time in my day – the blocks of time that I might need to be able to think.” So when a manager scheduled an online meeting just to check in with everyone, that represented a major commitment of precious time, she adds.

Women shouldering the load

Women bear the biggest burden of the new work-at-home paradigm. For all the talk about gender equality in housework and child care, the research still shows women responsible for the bulk of it, says Bobbi Thomason, assistant professor of applied behavioral science at Pepperdine University’s business school in Malibu, California. A study published in March found that, prior to the pandemic, wives were spending nearly twice as many hours on child care as their husbands. With many school districts now going to hybrid or all-virtual classes this fall, the added chore of supervising children’s education at home is stretching many mothers to the limit.

Professor Thomason sees it in the decline of submissions to academic journals by female professors. Ms. Williams sees it in the shift to part-time status by many top-performing female colleagues. (The two co-wrote a Harvard Business Review article in April on what the work-life balance would look like after the pandemic.) Traditionally, the move to part-time work holds back careers.

The burden is especially difficult for minority women, Professor Thomason adds. “Black women are more likely to be the breadwinner in their homes and more likely than white women to be the head of households.”

The strains on families extend to the millions of workers who must be on-site to do their job – from firefighters to factory workers – and who are tapping grandparents or other helpers to monitor stuck-at-home children.

But experts say it’s the new horde of teleworkers who, in the coming months and beyond, could be crucial in setting the tone for the era and pushing it toward a more integrated and satisfying life rather than a 24/7 working dystopia. 

“For managers who have been reared in an environment where they’ve been able to see people, to ensure that people are at their tasks, it’s a whole new world,” says Stew Friedman, author of the 2008 book “Total Leadership” and an organizational psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. It’s new for families, too. “The home is no longer just a place to do all those things with your family. It’s also a place where you work and supervise your children’s education. That requires that people who are living together develop new models about how to communicate with each other in terms of what they need to do.”

Workers on unequal footing with employers?

Will families figure it out? Will companies and managers address the new challenges for their homebound workers, allowing flextime during the day, offering resources for the home office, and perhaps most importantly, giving extra time off for their stressed employees? Or will they stick to traditional office norms while at the same time forcing workers to work from home full time?

“If it plays out the way most social developments play out, the best parts of working from home – those privileges – will be laid out for workers who are elite workers,” says Professor Snyder of Williams. “And less appealing types of remote work will be likely to land on those who are struggling economically.”

“When most people talk about inequality, they talk about inequality of wealth,” said Mr. Trumka of the AFL-CIO labor federation Thursday. (It was the first Monitor breakfast ever conducted through Zoom.) “But there are two other inequalities that they don’t talk about that are equally important. One is inequality of opportunity and we’re beginning to talk about that now with structural racism. ... But the one that we don’t talk about so much is inequality of power. Corporations are too strong and they get stronger all the time. ... You can never correct inequality of wealth or inequality of opportunity until you correct inequality of power.”

Organized labor can readjust power at the negotiating table, although it’s not clear how well unions, which typically represent on-site workers, can organize the work-at-home force, even if it does become disgruntled.

“Compassion is what seems to me is what’s needed more than anything,” says Professor Friedman of Wharton. “That’s what 'Total Leadership' is all about: how you can make change happen that’s good for you and the people around you. That requires that you see the world through their eyes.” [Editor's note: The quote was changed to make direct reference to Mr. Friedman's book.]

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our pandemic coverage is free. No paywall.

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