This is a seminal time for working women. But we must move fast to keep choice in the workplace

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Author Jane Ryan reflects on the future of working from home for working women, by examining presenteeism's past. 


Sitting in a supermarket car park I overheard two women discussing their return to work.

‘I can’t imagine how I’m going to go back to normal in work.’

‘Maybe we’d just stay at home?’ said the other woman. ‘My youngest did the garden during the lockdown with me and said ‘now I know why Dad stays in the office during the week. There’s too much to do at home.’’

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Both women laughed, but it was tight with resignation.

‘I don’t want to go back into the office, I’ve been more productive at home.’

I sneaked a peek at their downcast shrugs of acceptance.

For some unknown reason their acceptance hurt me and I wanted to help. To start a discussion on choice in the workplace. I hold a belief that this is a seminal time for working women who are struggling with life balance, be that managing children, a marriage, a home or trying to get some quality time in their own lives. But this window is closing fast. We need to act. So I posted my thoughts on LinkedIn, wanting to spark a debate that would be taken up by other people. I entitled the post Presenteeism is still killing home working. Should we return to our old routines? Is it time for a hybrid model?

Tumbleweed. No one posted or liked it.

 

Leave bedtime to the wives

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Women wanting to stand up and shout in support of homeworking but were too afraid their managers would see their support and tacitly mark them down when things return to ‘normal’.

I know many people viewed it, the number is annotated on the bottom of your post. Along with a snazzy little graph, letting you know your post is on the up and up. But no comments. It wasn’t from lack of contacts, after twenty years in industry I’ve plenty of connections. However, my private inbox was like something from an agony aunt column and any amount of requests to connect. There was a theme. Women wanting to stand up and shout in support of homeworking but were too afraid their managers would see their support and tacitly mark them down when things return to ‘normal’.

These women, about 100 from my own network and third party contacts, are all in corporate jobs. Middle to senior management with families and commutes. They’d worked for years to gain a solid salary with bonuses, many for US corporations and all for multinationals – am I painting the picture with bold enough colours? – working for a male dominated board of directors who thrive on presenteeism.

‘If you’re not in the office, under my nose, you’re not working,’ said a relocated VP of operations based in Sandyford to a room full of managers – myself included. The not-so-muted-message being have breakfast, lunch and dinner in the office canteen. Many of which are pretty impressive – mine was – with zesty fruit and expensive cheeses routinely laid out with a side of Starbucks.

I worked with many male peers who stayed in the office until 7pm, not because they were busy on projects or managing staff – unlike muggins here – but because they wanted to leave their children’s teatime and bed routine to their wives. I was the wife and if I hadn’t had live-in childcare there’s no way I could have stayed as late as I did in the office. Of course that meant I bought and feed into the culture of presenteeism. But it’s not a new thing.

Presenteeism

Presenteeism was first coined in the 1950s. ‘It refers to an employee’s outstanding performance at work. (Canfield and Soash 1955). In the 1970s presenteeism was taken as the opposite of absenteeism. It’s still sounding positive, isn’t’ it?

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During the 2000s The institute of Employment Studies in Britain commissioned a report concluding presenteeism is damaging for employees health, morale and productivity. But it’s taken nearly five decades to get to this, and some organisations are still run on overtime and presenteeism. If you work for an American multinational headquartered in the West Coast, chances are you’ll routinely have conference calls at 8pm your time, 4pm their time. In my experience, particularly if you are part of the extended leadership team, you’re expected to take these calls in your office.

The dynamics of the work environment has exerted enormous pressure on working women as they need to cope with virtually two full time jobs – one at the office and the other at home (Sundaresan 2014). This problem isn’t new, hasn’t been solved and didn’t look like abating. The strain on everyone by twenty-first century organisations’ desire to increase productivity and engendering a divisive culture of personal competitiveness seemed unstoppable.

Until Covid ground the world to a halt.

There’s any amount of research that confirms what you feel instinctively about productivity. If you’re running a home and children alongside a full time job, imagine if you could cut out the commute? You’d crease your productivity goals and your time management would soar. Women who balance home and work aren’t in the office for the idle chit chat. They simply don’t have that luxury. The reality of living with presenteeism for many women is work burnout or failure to achieve their potential.

 

The last time a seismic change of this magnitude occurred for women was during World War II. The image of Rosie the Riveter depicting a confident-looking woman wearing coveralls and a red bandana and flexing her muscles under the headline, “We Can Do It!” remains one of the best-known icons of World War II.

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I believe the aftermath of Covid could be even more significant, but working women must set the agenda.

Ireland was no different, thousands of women left domestic life to work in munitions and other factories. Many Irish women left their families to work in Britain, sending back money and returning to Ireland on rare visits (Redmond, 2016). When the men came home, women were no longer prepared to go back to the hearth as they had after World War I. Although change after wars is generally not as ground-breaking as popularly believed (Higonnet 1987), there was meaningful change with millions of married women staying in the workforce after World War II.

Perhaps now, women will no longer be prepared to juggle office based careers and home, when they’ve proved working remotely, is better. The aftermath of World War II was seen as a significant step in female liberation (Golden, 1989). I believe the aftermath of Covid could be even more significant, but working women must set the agenda.

Strong, informed women

Of course working from home is not for every woman, but it should be seen as a valid choice and not one that will impact your career advancement. Irish attitudes are particularly behind the remote working curve of our European counterparts, prior to Covid only 37% of Irish workers had authorisation and access to the tools to work from home (Rioch, 2018).

Working remotely poses unspoken challenges, the need for real and meaningful management. Intelligent and insightful key performance indicators or a balanced scorecard, preliminary goat setting – or my personal favourite, an agile subordinate goal objective. You can insert whatever management speak is presently in vogue in your workplace. Managing performance isn’t difficult, once you have leaders who understand what the business needs, can relay it and are prepared to measure performance. It’s not rocket science, despite what expensive management consultants would have you believe.

If working women can choose to work from home, the Irish economy and the Government will be the real winners

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Working women paying mortgages, childcare and schooling costs arrive on the job motivated. When a woman takes a step down to part time work or has to take years out to raise a family, the country’s workforce loses valuable intellectual property. If working women can choose to work from home, the Irish economy and the Government will be the real winners.

A smarter work force, attracting a higher calibre of foreign direct investment and more tax euros. And what fulfillment for women who can achieve their potential both at work and at home without flogging themselves to death? Imagine women who were empowered to say ‘I can be more productive from home and enhance my role. How #wellnessatwork would that be? Government policy needs to lead this change, to encourage and enable women to stay at home and work. Unless some strata of society fears strong, informed women?

Read more: Remote working is about to become our new normal. Let's keep it that way

Read more: Since working from home I am more productive and focused, and I am not alone

Read more: How to create a home office in a small space (and with limited levels of concentration)

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