Working Parents   //   March 21, 2024

‘It’s being presented as binary’: Debunking myths around the return to office

This article is part of a series examining the various ways that the overhaul of organizations’ working models around the world, triggered by the coronavirus pandemic, is affecting working parents with desk-based jobs, and how their relationships between their kids and jobs have changed since the pandemic years. More from the series →

When Maria (not her real name) was told last December that her flexible working agreement was being canceled by her new boss, without discussion, she was left in an impossible position. With two daughters under the age of 5, and a husband also working full-time, she had to decide whether the childcare costs she’d have to accrue as a result, were worth it. She had no choice but to look for a new job. Last week she accepted a role as a research and innovation manager at another company. 

It was a bitter pill to swallow after seven years of working for that company under two bosses (male and female) who were totally open to flexible working. But once they both left, Maria’s new boss ripped up that contract on day one. Her message was simple: deal with it, or leave. Overnight, “it became a toxic, hostile environment,” Maria recounted. 

Despite the progress made toward more flexible working over the last few years, there are some worrying signs that the rigid pre-pandemic structure for how people should work is beginning to creep back in. Earlier this year firms like UBS and Boeing recalled people back into the office five days a week. Other companies — including JP Morgan and Google — have made it clear that their RTO mandates are not optional. And Dell joined the ranks of stricter mandates this week, announcing it will exclude workers who don’t return to the office for at least three days a week, from promotions.

But for working parents, it can mean the difference between working and not working. “Parents face totally unreasonable choices,” said Victoria Usher, CEO of London-based PR firm GingerMay. “When they’re often at a key stage in their career they can be seen as ‘not committed’ if they have to leave work to pick up children. It’s only when you become a parent that you realize how archaic the system is. That was alleviated in Covid but now I really worry it will go back to what it was before.”

Here are some misconceptions about working parents’ desire to return to the office:

Myth: Parents aren’t willing to work with employers to stay in their jobs

The issue for Maria — like it is for many other moms who are issued late RTO mandates – was childcare. “It’s not always that easy to call upon your parents — grandparents still work, and my wraparound care isn’t that easy,” said Maria, who asked to speak anonymously as she is still transitioning from her former employer. “Not only is it expensive, but when they’re school age there’s limited space [in before and after-school classes] and it goes fast because most parents work,” she said.

Rachel James, CMO at human resource services firm Applaud HR has been in a similar boat. In a previous role she was told she could work from home three days a week after she passed her six-month probation. But the company later rescinded the flexible work option. “This small change for them resulted in a huge ripple effect for me including an extra nursery day cost per week, an increase in train fare even reconsidering if I had bought my house in the right location for that frequency of commute,” she said. Like Maria, it resulted in her moving roles to a company that valued flexibility more highly. 

While some organizations offered some lead time before mandating days back in the office, others have been clumsy with no real notice period given. That’s left individuals scrambling to make changes to lives that have been adapted to work around schedules that have been in place for several years. Others have even had to relocate. And the average cost of daycare has skyrocketed since the pandemic, with some parents we spoke to saying it’s the equivalent of having a second mortgage, to have two kids in daycare.

“When businesses ask working parents to switch that around, there are costs that have to be incurred, support networks that need to be activated and undoubtedly this causes resentment to breed,” added James. 

“This small change for them, resulted in a huge ripple effect for me including an extra nursery day cost per week, an increase in train fare even reconsidering if I had bought my house in the right location for that frequency of commute,”
Rachel James, CMO at human resource services firm Applaud HR.

Myth: Parents don’t want to return to the office

The ability to work flexibly around daily parental tasks like school drop-off times, after-school clubs, and kids falling sick, has been a long time coming. It’s created a much-needed lifeline for parents already struggling with soaring the cost of living, and childcare.

And while a rigid RTO mandate is not regarded by (let’s face it by anyone) as an appealing method for getting people back in the office on the employer’s terms, it doesn’t mean working parents don’t want to be in the office, when it makes sense for them to be. It’s not a binary matter of whether they go into the office, or not.

The reality is that there is a contingent of people who want and need to work remotely. That may be due to caregiving reasons, or it may be due to disabilities that make it difficult for them to commute or be in an office environment. Another contingent wants to be in the office full-time, for whatever their personal preferences are around how they work. The biggest contingent wants both — and that includes working parents.

“This is not a ‘do we come back into the office or do we not’ situation. It’s being presented as binary, but there is general consensus that being together for moments that matter is important.”
Neda Shemluck, managing director, and U.S. financial services industry DEI leader, Deloitte Consulting.

“This is not a ‘do we come back into the office or do we not’ situation,” said Neda Shemluck, managing director, Deloitte Consulting, where she is in charge of DEI for U.S. financial services industry, and mother of three boys. “It’s being presented as binary, but there is general consensus that being together for moments that matter is important. And being thoughtful and mindful about what those moments are: where your team is together, when your company comes together, is critical.” 

But, a large number of companies are still fixating on simply getting people back in, not on what they do while they’re there. Enter the standoff among employees.

A product director at a tech firm, who has a 10-month-old and asked to remain anonymous so he could speak candidly, said that the culture at the startup where he works has an “unwritten rule” where senior staff are expected to take on additional responsibilities and work beyond official working hours. “Since joining my new company, there is a mandate to work from the office two days a week but I end up doing online calls in the office,” he said. “It therefore seems unnecessary to work from the office if my working pattern hasn’t changed.” Mental fatigue from excessive back-to-back meetings and very little time to do desk work spills over to a stressful personal life, he added.

Progress has been made, for sure. Many companies have put more thought into how teams come together, whether that’s hosting well-planned offsites, running a core-week structure, or simply empowering team leaders to determine what works best for productivity and engagement. But it’s far from universal. “That’s where there’s been the biggest gap we see increasingly in global teams. People come into the office to sit on Zoom and in an office by themselves, that is not a good use of time. And so you see a lot of dissatisfaction with that type of arrangement,” said Shemluck.

Other parents we spoke to for this article said they find that the more equal balance of parental duties afforded them by flexible working, takes the strain off their relationships with their partners. One working mom with four kids and a senior job at an ad agency, said she needs to be in the office for her own sanity, to get some distance, and ensure she gets the energy needed to do her job well.

“There is one major change [to people’s post-pandemic mentality] that companies need to factor in,” said Shemluck. “They need the flexibility to decide when that happens, and the employer needs to intentionally plan the times when people are in the office, to make it worth everyone’s time and avoid building resentment.”