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Focusing on Women Is Crucial to the Return-to-Office Movement 

What will happen to the office? It’s the biggest question on the minds of anyone connected to the real estate industry, and after more than three years, there’s still no answer. Maybe because it’s the kind of question that requires a complicated answer. After all, it’s not a yes or no query, and it can be interpreted in a number of ways. But we are at least getting closer to a concrete reason as to why workers are not returning to offices as quickly and as frequently as many companies and office building owners hoped they would. 

One of the most recent insights into the fate of the office has been data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics on how often men and women work remotely and in person at the office. Based on the agency’s annual survey from 2022, 28 percent of men are working remotely for some or all of the work week, while 41 percent of women reported working remotely for some or all of the work days at home. 

This notable difference in remote work between men and women represents a new wrinkle in the return-to-office discussion. Some of the most popular reasons that have been floated for why workers don’t want to go back to the office full-time have been widely reported—wanting to avoid long commutes, desire for flexibility in schedules for better work/life balance, and seeking to live in a lower-cost area. And there’s plenty of data to back these theories up. But a further divide on remote versus in-office work between men and women is something that deserves more thought and consideration, given the impact on the office market.

The results of the annual labor statistics survey found that between 2021 and 2022, the share of men working from home at least some part of the time on an average day dropped to 28 percent last year, down from 35 percent the year before. For women, the difference was very slight. The share of women working at least partly at home fell from 41.5 percent to 41 percent. Overall, 34 percent of Americans surveyed said they worked at home some part of the time in 2022, a four percent drop from 38 percent in 2021.

So why are women working from home more than men? One potential reason is the gender disparity in household chores. According to a recent report from the Pew Research Center, despite growth in women’s contribution to household income in recent years, women continue to do more housework and childcare than men. The same survey found that on an average day, 22 percent of men did housework like cleaning or laundry, compared to 47 percent of women. “We’ve seen a narrowing of the gap over the years with men taking on more hours of housework and childcare as more women have gone into the workplace,” said Kim Parker, director of social trends research at Pew. “But that imbalance—we still see it today. It’s definitely not equal.”

Prioritizing household chores and childcare could very well be what’s leading women to prefer flexible and remote work schedules more than men. A 2022 study from YouGov found that 72 percent of women said they wanted a flexible working location, compared to 57 percent of men. The study also found that men were more likely than women to say that working full-time at the office was acceptable and that full-time remote work was unacceptable. And even for the women who do work at home, often, the experience is not the same as men’s. In a study focused on workers in China and South Korea by the Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business, researchers found that both husbands and wives completed more family-related tasks when working from home. But when wives worked from home, they completed more household tasks than husbands. “There are still some gendered differences in how (men and women) manage their job and family responsibilities,” said Jasmine Hu, the study’s lead author.

Talk of return-to-office wouldn’t be complete without talking about childcare, an issue that has had serious implications for office attendance. During the height of the pandemic, millions of Americans found themselves in the difficult position of both working and caring for children full-time. When workers began to return to the office, many found a challenging landscape for childcare, with a lack of options and high costs for care. It led to many women leaving the workforce altogether. One study found that 47 percent of working moms took unpaid sick leave from their jobs because their child’s school or daycare had closed. Difficulty finding childcare is an issue that predates the pandemic. In 2016, an estimated 2 million parents made career sacrifices because they had problems finding childcare, according to the Center for American Progress.

Amid all of this recent insight into gender disparity in work preferences, there have been efforts from the real estate industry to find solutions to the issue that will, hopefully, lead to more women coming back to the office. There has been a push for more childcare facilities in office buildings as a way to support working parents and provide a convenient childcare option. Architects and designers have put a focus on accessibility in the workplace, including elements of universal design that support workers who may have physical or mental disabilities. Designing specifically for women is also part of that focus. The brokerage firm Colliers International released a report earlier this year on how designing workplaces to be more inclusive and women-friendly can help support more women in the workforce in India, a country where the number of women graduates surpasses men, yet women’s workforce participation rate is just 20.5 percent. 

Unfortunately, some workplaces created specifically for women did not survive the pandemic. Among the most high-profile of those was The Wing, launched in 2016 as a private club just for women where they could work, relax, and network. Originally launched in Manhattan, at its height, the brand had 11 locations in two countries. In 2017, WeWork invested $28 million in The Wing, and in 2021, IWG (Regus’s partner company) bought a majority stake in the brand. But company leaders said last summer that the pandemic and worsening global economic conditions had forced them to shut down operations for good.

To better support women in the workplace, there are a lot of things both building owners and tenants can do. In creating an office layout, adding lactation spaces is one consideration. These facilities became mandatory for many employers across the country after President Biden signed into law the PUMP for Nursing Mothers Act. Providing a free supply of menstrual products in office bathrooms as well as baby-changing stations (and while we’re at it, why not include changing stations for men’s rooms as well?). 

Offices in close proximity to public transportation can be an important factor for women—studies have shown that women rely on public transit more than men and are also 17 percent more likely to die in a car crash. Keeping an eye on the thermostat can make a difference, too. Women also tend to be more sensitive to the temperature in an office setting, something that has been the subject of much discussion in recent years. Offering different kinds of workspaces within an office has been a huge trend lately as companies look to support hybrid work, and it’s something that is beneficial to women as well.

Of course, as the data makes clear, not all women are ambivalent about returning to the office. A lot of women are still working in the office either by choice or because they have a job where they have to be there. Regardless of an individual’s particular situation, it serves to improve conditions for everyone to encourage efforts to bring women back. Companies where women make up more than 30 percent of executive teams have been found to be more profitable than companies with a smaller representation of women, according to McKinsey research. The companies with the most representation were also more likely to outperform those with the least gender diversity.

More information is coming out via studies that are giving us an ever-more-detailed and granular look at who exactly is coming into the office, how often, and how that impacts the functioning of an office and an entire building. We may never know exactly why men are returning to their workplaces more often than women, but we have some solid theories. More attention is paid to the issue and to finding solutions that will serve to benefit not just women but the companies, colleagues, and the entire real estate community as well. After all, women make up more than half of the U.S. workforce and account for more college degrees than men. In 2022, the labor force participation rate among women was 56.8 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics report. As an industry and as a country, supporting the return-to-office movement means adapting to the specific needs of workers, including women. 

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