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Men disproportionately benefit from on-site work, says Lean In

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The return to office — or RTO — conversation is often painted as a gender issue. But one exec at Lean In, the company founded by women-in-the-workplace advocate Sheryl Sandberg, expressed her belief that the usefulness of flexible working transcends gender, too.

Flexibility benefits women greatly

Early on in the pandemic, researchers and work experts noted that remote work — and later hybrid work — benefited women. Due to traditional gender roles and the split of household work, women were the ones often asking, “Who will look after the kids?” Women also often shouldered the responsibility of caregiving for elderly parents and the like.

By 2022, more than half of workers felt their organization had supported them regarding childcare concerns by implementing hybrid work, according to a report by workspace provider IWG. About 7 in 10 HR professionals in the same survey said time their co-workers previously used for commuting was used on caregiving responsibilities instead.

In the latter half of the year, caregiver matching platform Care.com and benefits site Mother Honestly published a joint survey of 1,000 employee caregivers and 500 benefits professionals in which workers affirmed that remote work greatly improved their quality of life. (At the time, an exec at Care.com told HR Dive that flexibility had “leveled the playing field” between men and women.)

Reframe: Men benefit greatly from on-site work

In a still from AMC show Mad Men, which aired from 2007 to 2015, colleagues drink together.

AMC / AMC Networks

 

In conversation with HR Dive, Caroline Fairchild, editor-in-chief at Lean In and the organization’s VP of education, highlighted not so much that women disproportionately desire or benefit from flexibility. 

Instead, she pointed to data — shared in the joint Lean In and McKinsey report, Women in the Workplace 2023 — indicating that men are benefiting “disproportionately” from working on site. 

“That makes sense if you think about how the office construct was originally created,” Fairchild said.

Think Mad Men. “There are still veins and strains of that, unfortunately, that we’re seeing in the dataset,” Fairchild said.

Men were more likely to say that they knew about the decisions affecting them and their workload when they go into the office. “They are more likely to say that they feel connected to the organization’s mission when they work on site,” Fairchild added. “They’re more likely to say that they’re getting the mentorship that they need when they go on site — which as we know, is critical to career progression.”

This finding is notable, given the report revealed that women who work remotely or hybrid are just as ambitious as the men (and women) who work on-site: 80% of remote women and 83% of hybrid women told McKinsey and Lean In that they are “interested in getting promoted to the next level.” Meanwhile, 79% of men who work on site said the same — on par with women who work in person as well.

Still, flexibility doesn’t just benefit women workers. Fairchild said it’s a “myth” that “it’s mostly women who want and benefit from flexible work.” Researchers

“We asked employees in our survey to rank flexibility against tried-and-true company benefits,” Fairchild said, such as physical and mental healthcare, and parental leave. Flexibility was often ranked higher; Fairchild said it’s proof of how much worker expectations have shifted since the pandemic.

Best practice: Make RTO tenable for all

Remote work is far from an infallible setup; loneliness and other mental health concerns have been top of mind. Leaders and managers — sometimes, even workers — have also touted the ease of collaboration in real life, as opposed to via video call.

But if an employer is calling for RTO, the question of equity remains, experts have said.

One of the bigger challenges of the hybrid workplace is proximity bias. With roots in and similarities to recency bias, proximity bias occurs when managers first consider in-person workers for promotions, while passing over remote workers for similar opportunities. 

A point of conversation included Dell; starting in May 2024, workers will either be classified as “remote” or “hybrid,” and Dell made no bones about the fact remote workers will not get promotions. “This is going to continue to be a pretty big topic,” Fairchild said.

“Employees in the vast majority of corporate America are working hybrid at this point. Companies need to ensure that whether you’re on site [full-time] or you’re hybrid [that] the benefits of going into the office are felt similarly by all employees,” she said.

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