DENVER — With a heavy bout of snow in the forecast for Wednesday, school districts and daycares across the Denver metro area decided to close, leaving parents scrambling to find childcare arrangements so that they could go to work.
Since the pandemic, though, remote work has become an increasingly popular option and employers have proven it can be effective for productivity.
If there’s one thing Emilie Aries knows, it’s how difficult it can be to strike a work-life balance as the mother of a toddler and the CEO of her own company.
“I had this conversation with my husband this morning, we looked at each other and said, 'If childcare falls through today, which looks rather likely given the snow on the ground, what are we going to do?' I think this relates back to how parents share child-rearing responsibilities, and particularly how women shoulder the mass responsibility or the overwhelming amount of childcare and house care duties,” she said.
Aries is the founder of Bossed Up, a Denver-based leadership development and career services company that specializes in women in the workplace.
While she does advocate for at least some in-person work for the sake of collaboration and team building, Aries says she’s learned that remote work offers much-needed flexibility for employees.
“COVID made it really clear that for many sectors, not all sectors, but for many industries, we can be extremely engaged and productive while working remotely. The key is for managers to really understand and define clearly what success looks like,” she said.
With snow in mind on Wednesday, Bossed Up, like a lot of Denver-based companies, made the decision to keep their staff off the slick roads and working from home.
Remote work also offers the benefit of helping companies with equity, diversity and inclusion, particularly for female employees and those with mobility challenges.
A recent study from McKinsey and Company found that women with remote or flexible work options were overall happier with their jobs, less likely to report burnout and less likely to leave their jobs.
That same survey found only one in 10 women want to work mostly on-site and many women pointed to remote or hybrid work options as one of their top reasons for joining or staying with an organization. Those women also reported experiencing fewer microaggressions overall.
Of the companies the study looked at, only 7% had plans to scale back their remote or hybrid work for employees over the next year and 32% said those options were likely to expand.
Downsides of remote work
While remote work can offer more flexibility for employees and cut down on cars on the road during dangerous drives as well as less pollution overall, there are some downsides.
“Part of that is how do you build a culture? How do you build a community if you're not together,” said Dr. Kerry Mitchell, an assistant teaching professor of HR and business communication at the University of Denver.
Generally, Mitchell says employers have found that younger workers, particularly from Gen Z and those coming out of college recently want to work in an office setting for the sake of learning and collaboration.
Meanwhile, she says older employees who have been in the workplace for a while have reported being happier at home with their families where they don’t have to commute.
Another possible downside of making remote and hybrid work permanent is the potential to get passed up for a promotion by another employee who works in-person full-time.
“There’s definitely some what we're calling like a recency bias or proximity bias in organizations where we tend to think those who we see and who were around are the ones who are doing all the work,” Mitchell said. “If you're thinking about a promotion, or you're thinking about something and you just saw someone at the watercooler, they might pop into your mind. So, if you're not there, you might not think of those people as easily.”
That type of bias is not always intentional on the employers’ part, and more companies with remote work are recognizing this as an issue and working to address it.
A third potential downfall might be the expectation by employers that even when a child is sick or home for a snow day, employees are expected to work. This can be a challenge for women in particular and can cause distractions for employees and a lower quality of work.
“You run into that issue of if you're working from home because there's a snow day and your kids are home, can you still be on video meetings or Zoom chats? Are the kids distracting,” Mitchell said.
Finally, while studies have shown that employees are more productive with remote work since there is no drive time, often it can result in workers being too connected to work.
“That's been one of the biggest I'd say downfalls is that some people say they actually work too much. They don't know when to stop working,” Mitchell said.
The business perspective
Over the past couple of years, Tony Gagliardi, the Colorado state director for the National Federation of Independent Business, says employers have learned a lot about remote work.
“COVID really did cause a lot of changes in the workplace. And we represent small businesses, primarily, our average member has between five and nine employees. And it demanded flexibility,” Gagliardi said.
Unlike days of the past when employees who couldn’t arrange for childcare on snow days would have to call in, remote options give many the opportunity to keep working, increasing productivity overall and costing companies less money.
A recent survey from the U.S. Census Bureau found that between 2019 and 2021, the number of people working from home tripled from 5.7% to 17.9%.
That same survey found that Colorado was one of the four top states during that time to allow work from home (23.7%) along with Washington, the District of Colombia, Maryland and Massachusetts.
More people working from home also resulted in the average commute time for those who do report to their workplace decreasing by two minutes.
With low unemployment, Gagliardi says many employers are struggling to find workers to fill their open positions. Currently, Colorado’s unemployment rate is 3.5%.
Because of this, some businesses are raising their salaries and also offering more flexible work options to try to recruit and retain talent.
“Our members are still having extreme difficulties in finding applicants for the open jobs that are available. About 55% of our owners reported trying to hire and 93% of those reported few or no applicants. And so, it's made it difficult. So what this means is, if I want employees, I need to work with them, I need to make the workplace and make my business a place that they want to work at and that comes with flexibility,” Gagliardi said.
On snowy days when school districts and daycares close, parents can be left scrambling for childcare or need to call out from work. For better or worse, remote work offers flexibility and has revolutionized the way employees across the country get their work done.
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