IIT’S A universally recognized truth that women carry a heavier burden than men when it comes to childcare and household chores. This has become even truer over the course of the pandemic work-from-home experience and is expected to continue into the likely hybrid future of partial-distance work. It’s tempting for some women to move away from the office again, if their business allows it, so that they can devote time otherwise wasted traveling or chatting in the office on more urgent family matters. According to a study by Nicholas Bloom of Stanford University and colleagues, 32% of American women with a university education and children want to work remotely full-time, compared to 23% of comparable men.
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Such decisions are quite understandable, especially because in addition to having more responsibilities at home, the plight of working women is not a picnic either. Female executives often end up playing the conventional male and female roles, leading the pack while nurturing those who remain. It can be tedious to have multiple things at once.
Understandable, but still regrettable. Some reasons for this are trivial. Your columnist, female guest Bartleby, finds the office a welcome break from the endless chores of housekeeping and parenting. Other reasons are mercenaries. A pre-pandemic work-life balance study suggested that women were more likely than men to experience a “flexibility stigma”.
In the wake of covid-19, flexible working arrangements are less stigmatized (for now). A recent UK government report warned that their adoption can be unequal between the sexes. If more women work from home and take on an even greater share of family responsibilities, the result may be an ever-widening gender pay gap and an ever-tougher glass ceiling.
There’s another more elusive reason why women who don’t return to the office are missing something. Not all workplaces are as informal as The Economist‘s (with his tongue-in-cheek humor and talks about muscle tone and QE, alcohol consumption and equity risk premium). Yet even in more boring corporate environments, walking down a hallway, washing your hands in the bathroom, or brewing another cup of coffee in the kitchen, you’re only seconds away. ‘a conversation or a joke. This can, admittedly in an unreliable and difficult to measure way, stimulate spontaneity and lead to new ideas.
Compared to that, virtual collaboration is like evaporated milk with 60% of its water removed: safer, especially up to the job but a sterile version of face-to-face interaction that leaves an unsatisfying aftertaste. Physical proximity carries higher risks (formerly death or injury by an enemy, now face-to-face snub, more painful than a nasty tweet, or covid-19 infection). It also brings higher rewards including emotional ones which are no less important than the pragmatic kind.
Although times have changed, many workers, including Bartleby, find themselves sympathizing with Irina, one of the titular “Three Sisters” in Anton Chekhov’s 1900 play. Locked with her two siblings in the countryside , she longs for Moscow – not just its dynamism and worldliness, but the opportunity it offers for work. His frenzied desire to work reflects an attempt to escape the boredom of domestic service and invest life with meaning by imposing a framework and a sense of responsibility. Many modern executives, men and women alike, would recognize Chekhov’s belief that being prevented from working is a curse, not a blessing. The same is true of being safe from the office, despite its myriad of complications.
There are downsides to being a clinically effective flexiworker. They include letting go of daily jokes and the feeling of bonding with colleagues, many of whom double as friends. Women determined not to waste a single minute when they could be multitasking will give up more than just career advancement, important as that is. They also let go of a sense of connection with others. Hyper-efficiency and distance mean less possibilities for interpersonal tension but also less gratuitous joy, which is difficult to replicate on Zoom.
These brief moments of joy are an integral part of professional life. It is nowhere and everywhere, like seeing the Virgin Mary in a burnt toast. It is to be cherished precisely because it does not last. Bartleby recommends wasting precious minutes, here and there, on camaraderie and unnecessary joy. The cost, in the tedious aspects of office life, is tolerable. The returns, both emotional and practical, can be immense.
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This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition under the headline “Why Women Need the Office”