From Morgan Stanley’s CEO’s Labor Day return to the office mandate earlier this summer to Apple’s hybrid pilot program requiring most employees to report in-person at least three days a week starting this month, will September prove to be the month when people physically show up to an office? We will find out soon enough if this informal, looming deadline will meet original expectations set at the beginning of the summer. Even more important than the timing is the reality that the current virtual-hybrid-in-person work environment has the potential for demographic disparities in the workplace, with the potential to seriously disadvantage working mothers who may be more inclined to choose a remote work option over an in-office setting.

A recent BBC article noted that the results of a UK-based poll of managers, leaders, and employees found noteworthy gender differences in a desire to return to work. 69% of mothers reported that they’d like to work from home at least once a week after the pandemic, versus just 56% of fathers. While this may not seem like a huge difference, it indicates that the existing disparities in workplace representation will be further perpetuated by the shift to hybrid working. Similarly, a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research of more than 30,000 Americans found that women want more remote work days than men, 49% of the time versus 43% of the time. 

While remote work has created a work-life balance for many working mothers, research has proven that remote employees are often at a disadvantage when it comes to career opportunities and advancement when compared to in-office colleagues. How can companies avoid creating a situation that will not create more of a demographic disparity for working mothers than what already exists? It’s critical that companies make accommodations and take action before it’s too late. Luckily, there is a lot that can be done. 

  • If returning to the office is a priority, set aside resources to provide on-site childcare for working parents. Don’t make parents choose between their kids and their careers. Pre-COVID, women spent an estimated 26 hours on childcare compared to men’s 20 hours. While both numbers have increased, the burden has not been equally felt. Last fall, Pew research found that teleworking moms were twice as likely to report that they had a lot of childcare responsibilities to perform during their workdays. 
  • Putting programs in place to build culture, check in with employees, and ensure access to senior leadership and promotional opportunities is also a great place to start. Changes in workplace demographics will have ripple effects for years. Managing a dually in-person and remote workforce is likely an issue we’ll be grappling with for some time. There is already a general perception that employees who want to work in person in the office are more committed, despite research that suggests that remote workers are more engaged
  • Make sure that the absence of women in the office does not discourage those who try to return in person. In 2019, McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace report noted that 20% of women reported that they were commonly the only person of their gender in the room at work. For women in sectors like engineering, technology, and security, that number is even higher. Women who report experiencing “onlyness” at their jobs have lower retention, are more likely to experience harassment and discrimination, and report having their judgement and expertise questioned more often. Even small changes in representation in the workplace could have disastrous results, further pushing women out of leadership, industries, and the workplace as a whole. 

Workers in person have undeniable advantages — from access to senior management that returned to the office, to chances to get in on important work, to the casual workplace networking that occurs in elevators, before meetings, and over coffee. If senior management chooses to return to in-person work, employees who choose the same will likely have more opportunities for networking and advancement. 

A hybrid work environment shouldn’t cost working mothers advancement in their careers. It’s important for companies to acknowledge that parents have a lot on their plates right now and provide flexibility and leniency to those caring for family at home. Company support, understanding, and flexibility will likely be the difference between women who stay in the workforce, and those who leave. If women must choose to stay remote, quit the workforce, or downshift their careers to accommodate increasing workloads at home, we face the prospect of undoing decades of progress for women in the workplace.