Although the COVID-19 pandemic has made many employers see the advantage of remote work and its value, as COVID-19 cases and the number of COVID-19 related death have fallen, employers waver over whether or not remote work should persist in the wake of the pandemic. For example, Visa’s CEO, Al Kelly, recently encouraged workers to go back to offices. More and more Americans are headed back to work in offices.
Those who oppose fully remote work argue it makes building and sustaining corporate culture difficult. However, what the last two years have shown is that the traditional methods used to build corporate culture before the pandemic do not work well for many workers, especially women.
In fact, remote work can build a more gender-equal culture that makes it easier for women to succeed in work.
Remote work has the potential to reduce gender gaps in wages and promotions by reducing after-work socialization that is typically more beneficial to male employees. Offices are fundamentally social places, where employees discuss both work and non-work-related topics with their managers and co-workers throughout the day and often at after-work events. Through these social interactions, employees often cultivate social capital and form bonds with each other. Yet these social interactions can be skewed along gender lines, potentially excluding women at work. In many organizations, men tend to maintain their dominance by excluding women from male networks and from the social interactions that would be beneficial to women’s career development. One key study on this concept shows that about 81 percent of women surveyed say that they feel excluded from relationship-building at work. Many also feel excluded from after-work hours socializing. In addition, before the pandemic, many women, particularly mothers, regularly miss off-work social activities because of the disproportionate domestic duties they fulfill for their families.
Conversely, remote work allows women to more easily participate in after-work socialization from home, allowing women to gain benefits in wages and promotions as well. Research finds that the advantages drawn from male employees socializing with their male managers during smoke breaks increase the gender gap within pay grades by 40 percent and explains one-third of the gender gap in promotions. Remote work has reduced this male-to-male advantage that happens in the physical workspace.
Remote work can potentially ward off office romances and prevent sexual harassment from arising by drawing physical boundaries between female employees and their male coworkers. Propinquity, namely proximity, is one of the biggest factors that foster interpersonal attraction between coworkers and often leads to romance. However, in cases of sexual harassment, male employees harm the productivity and social wellbeing of their female co-workers. Working from home can reduce this problem, especially in male-dominated fields. When employees are far-flung and working remotely, they are unable to interact in a shared physical work environment, making it more difficult to build interpersonal attraction and have office romances. As such, it sets up barriers to help women avoid sexual harassment and microaggressions.
Modern technologies for remote work can eliminate some disadvantages women face in the workplace. Video conferencing platforms like Zoom help level the playing field because it equalizes the experience. Regardless of your title or position, everyone is in the same size box. It also empowers women to speak up. For example, on Zoom, women can speak up more easily by changing their volume while men’s voices are typically louder in person. If women are not comfortable talking, they can type their comments in the chat. Research finds that one of the reasons behind women’s discomfort with speaking up and feeling shut out in meetings is that they are more than twice as likely to be interrupted than their male counterparts are. In contrast, women are far less likely to be interrupted by male colleagues on Zoom. Remote work reveals how we can promote gender equality and ensure women’s voices are heard in the newly built digital world. Women can use it to drive change and redefine their own culture of interaction and socialization in the new era of work.
To be sure, building a new corporate culture can be challenging when in-person connections are absent.
Despite those challenges, remote work provides a great opportunity for employers to revolutionize how people work. They can allow for increased flexibility as well as resetting certain aspects of corporate culture, given that the pre-pandemic ways of working and managing appear to be unsustainable. More importantly, this may also be a great opportunity for women leaders and employees to take advantage of the momentum reinvigorated by remote work and steer the culture in their own way. Through remote work, gender equality can be boosted, making it easier for women to succeed in work.
Emma Zang, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of sociology and biostatistics at Yale University, where her research interests include health and aging, marriage and family, and inequality. She is a Public Voices Fellow of the OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @DrEmmaZang.