Career & Finance

The Impact of Return-to-Office Mandates on Moms—And How to Advocate for Flexibility

return to office mandates"
return to office mandates
Source: ColorJoy Stock
Source: ColorJoy Stock

Like many in the workforce, I’ve been working remotely since the dawn of the pandemic. And the week the world shut down, I was 24 weeks pregnant with my first child. While terrified of what was in store in the weeks and months ahead, I was selfishly grateful for sweatpants that flexed with my growing belly and the proximity of a bathroom for my frequent visits.

Now, four years later, I’m fortunate that I’ve been and continue to be able to work remotely. Swapping time spent getting ready with household tasks and trading my evening commute with playtime with my son has been instrumental in my success as a first-time mom. Sure, I’ve had to trade water cooler conversation for talk of monster trucks and dinosaurs, but I’m forever grateful for the flexibility remote work has afforded me. That’s why every time I learn about a company’s return-to-office (RTO) mandates, I cringe.

Why companies are implementing RTO mandates

I’m irritated that some companies are disguising return-to-office mandates as an opportunity to improve company culture when, if they were being transparent, it’s because they’re paying for an expensive office space that’s sat near empty since 2020. I grieve for the time parents are losing with their children to meet an arbitrary number of days in the office but are required to adhere to it if they want to support their family without the stress of looking for a new job.

This is not to say I don’t understand the value of in-person work and team collaboration. I absolutely do. There are times I genuinely miss the camaraderie you form with coworkers with whom you spend the majority of your waking time. I also understand the luxury of working from home when so many professions don’t have the option of working from anywhere but their workplace, such as teachers, doctors, and hospitality and retail workers. There are certainly pros for in-office work, but at what cost? 

How employee priorities and values have shifted

For many, priorities have shifted since 2020. The ability to work from home has allowed employees the freedom and flexibility to identify and focus on what matters most to them. For some, that’s their families, for others, their health, and for others, their hobbies. And for those with children, remote work has been a game changer in a world where paid family leave isn’t readily available, childcare is outrageously expensive, and the societal odds are often stacked against us. 

So where does that leave us? The way I see it, return-to-office mandates are how companies are showing their employees and the world their priorities, values, and the company culture they’re looking to foster. And as employees, it’s up to us to decide if our priorities and values align with them, and if they don’t, decide what we’re going to do about it.

What moms are saying about return-to-office mandates

But I’m only one mom, and that’s just my two cents. To learn what other mothers think about return-to-office mandates, I turned to you, The Everymom. Here’s what you had to say.

The struggle is real

One mom of a 4-year-old and a 6-year-old who works in corporate finance shares, “I’ve been back in the office three days a week for almost a year now. My biggest question is: How did the previous generation do it with five days a week and eight hours a day in the office? It seems impossible to me.” She stresses the importance of both roles in her life, the role of a mother and the role of an employee, but notes how especially difficult return-to-office mandates are for parents with young children: “Part of the challenge as mid-career individuals is that our immediate bosses usually have much older kids (i.e., college-age). So they don’t necessarily relate to the daily struggle.”

I’m never going back

While on maternity leave with her first child, Dana’s employer required employees to return to the office. Three months later, she left for a fully remote position. “When they asked what they could do to keep me, I asked for a salary match and to be remote again (or even guaranteed limited days in office), they said they couldn’t do either,” Dana detailed.

As a mother of a 2-year-old son and a 6-month-old daughter and as a senior marketing director for a major retailer, Dana shares that she feels like she can’t succeed at work and be the parent she wants to be if she’s required to work in an office environment. “I’ve been able to almost exclusively nurse my second child because I’m home and have that flexibility. I can make more meetings because I don’t have downtime moving around the office or commuting. I’m never going back!”

Two days a week in the office is reasonable

Tonya, a mother of a 7-year-old son and senior manager of global sales enablement, has been required to return to office 40 percent of the time, which equates to two days a week in office. “I like the fact that it forces me to get out of the house to put real clothes on and be out in the world,” she said. “Two days a week is completely reasonable.”

“I like the fact that it forces me to get out of the house to put real clothes on and be out in the world.”

Tonya previously had the opportunity to work from home when her child was young, and she said the additional time she was able to spend with her son transformed their relationship. “Returning to the office quickly changed that dynamic, and it was a very hard pill to revisit and swallow.” And while she understands the values of in-office time, as a natural introvert, she shares that she’s ready to be back home after her second day in the office each week.

It affects job searches

Bri, a mom of 3-year-old twin boys, works in marketing and product management. Until two months ago when she changed jobs, she worked five days a week in an office. Except for a few bouts of work-from-home during the peak of the pandemic, she was exclusively in the office. “Last year, I decided to leave my job and seek a new role. One of the contributing factors was seeking out more flexibility and remote work, in addition to new career opportunities,” Bri shared. “I joined the job market ‘too late’ to land a full-time remote job as most companies had already implemented some form of hybrid work policy. This meant I had to focus my job search on local companies or national companies with a hub in my city.”

“I decided to leave my job and seek a new role. One of the contributing factors was seeking out more flexibility and remote work, in addition to new career opportunities.”

When she landed a new job, the work arrangement was hybrid, which she notes is a win for her as a working parent. A critical factor in her decision was proximity to home, ideally less than 10 miles. “This closeness to home is key for me as a working parent because it removes stress and wasted time driving back and forth as my kids are in childcare around the corner from home,” she said. Working close to home, either in an office or literally at home, allows her to be a better employee because it makes the work situation less stressful. “Wasting efforts on long commutes is a way of the past to me, and I’m not willing to do it,” Bri added.

There’s limited room for negotiation

One mom of a 16-year-old shared that she was hired into her most recent role two years ago as a remote worker on a remote team. She’s now being asked to return to office full-time with only a one-month notice. “I’ve been home-based or hybrid since before I was pregnant—I didn’t make it this far to be around for my kid to NOT get them through high school,” she stated. She shared that the company’s reasoning was to improve team collaboration and culture, but refused to negotiate terms or review compensation. 

Working from home is life-changing

Chris Lovell, a mother of two school-aged children and HR Professional and Career Expert at SoFi shared that at the beginning of the pandemic, she was working a hybrid schedule. She received a promotion mid-pandemic and moved into a fully remote role, with the understanding that she may be required to return to office in the future. “Working fully remotely transformed my entire life and significantly decreased my stress levels as an employee and a mother,” Chris shared. “I no longer had to commute and could quickly take my children to school or daycare and return home to work.” She is now required to work in the office one day per week.

Chris is a huge fan of remote work, especially for families needing the arrangements to care for children or loved ones. But she does recognize that there are pros to returning to the office, even if it isn’t full-time. “For me,” Chris explained, “these include a quiet, distraction-free workspace and the ability to connect with coworkers.” And while she hasn’t had to switch jobs because of a return-to-office mandate, it would definitely make her pause if she was required to be in the office five days a week. “I would seriously consider finding a new job if required to return to the office full-time because it would not be sustainable for my family,” Chris said. 

What the data is saying about return-to-office mandates

That’s just a glimpse into what a few mothers had to say, but what does the data show? “Return-to-office mandates have not been popular among employees in general,” Toni Frana, career expert for MyPerfectResume and FlexJobs, shared. “In fact, we know from a FlexJobs recent Remote Work Report that 73 percent of women and 63 percent of men prefer 100 percent remote work opportunities. Furthermore, 84 percent of women feel that working remotely leads to better mental health, and also women feel they are more productive as remote workers.” 

When we dig further into the FlexJobs Remote Work Report, which includes input from the experiences and opinions of over 4,200 working professionals, the numbers show the following:

  • 64 percent of women said their overall job satisfaction is greatest when working fully remote
  • 62 percent of women stated they are “most productive” when they work fully remote
  • 81 percent of women “strongly agreed” they enjoy working remotely 

“For working moms in particular, the push to return to office can cause a lot of stress because when moms have remote options, it gives more flexibility and control over busy schedules,” Frana explained. Anecdotally, we know this to be true, and the numbers substantiate it.

return to office mandates
Source: ColorJoy Stock

How to negotiate flexibility if you’re required to return to office

So, the consensus shows that women, especially those who are mothers, prefer to work remotely. And yet, employers are requiring their employees to forgo the flexibility remote work affords in lieu of alleged improvement to culture, collaboration, and productivity. In a world where many of us have proven we can perform our jobs the same, if not better, while working remotely, we’re still finding ourselves having to negotiate a work arrangement that works for us. As an HR Professional and Career Expert at SoFi, I asked Chris Lovell for her tips for negotiating with your employer if you’re impacted by a return-to-office mandate. She shared these four tips.

1. Be specific with your request

“Prepare your request beforehand and present a specific proposal to your manager,” Lovell recommended. Consider the specifics, such as if you will need to work remotely on certain days of the week or during a specific time period, like during your child’s break from school.

2. Prepare your case

“Don’t be afraid to flex your past accomplishments and show off your ability to work well independently,” Lovell explained. “Provide evidence that you are reliable and can be trusted to complete your work, even while at home.”

3. Anticipate questions

“This can be the hardest part of negotiating, but know that questions or initial pushback can be expected,” Lovell shared. Her remedy is to prepare responses to questions or concerns you anticipate management may have. 

4. Get it in writing

Once you have your conversations and come to an agreement, it’s in your best interest to document it. “Even if you have a face-to-face discussion,” Lovell says, “be sure to send your request and get the response in writing!”

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