For workplace researcher Jennifer Magnolfi Astill, one surprise to come from the pandemic-induced remote working phenomenon is the “extreme humanizing” of work relationships. As she said in an interview with Dropbox, “Prior to the pandemic, even the most informal and friendly work cultures…drew a fine line between personal/family life and work/office life.” But the forced merging of living and working environments has thinned this line, creating a broadly shared and newly public experience of the intermingling of work and family life.
In some respects, this represents a return to our roots as humans. For millennia, the livelihood of human communities was fully integrated into familial and community relationships. Friends and neighbors, parents and children, grandparents and cousins worked together in the fields, forests, and shops. Adults apprenticed adolescents in the trades the community needed in order to flourish. Economic life was multi-generational.
The industrial revolution changed all that, instituting a system of collaborative labor that resulted in workers pursuing their livelihoods away from the comforts of home. First in factories, then in offices, the notion of the “workplace” emerged, drawing the fine but very real line between personal and work life. Thus, the model of one (usually male) family breadwinner commuting back and forth to work while another (usually female) caretaker stays with the children has only been around for a couple of centuries. It is anything but traditional. Instead, it is an artifact of new ways of people working together at scale.
Some of Magnolfi Astill’s own work points to the importance of high-performing workplaces for fostering the kind of relationship building and knowledge sharing that drives the post-industrial economy. It’s why some CEOs are so anxious for their employees to return to the office—something the commercial real estate industry is banking on. One big obstacle to this envisaged return is the care of children.
The Female Brain Drain
It has been difficult enough for parents to manage caring for and educating their children while trying to work from home. With many schools still employing a remote or hybrid operating model, pressure to return to the office puts these parents in an even tighter bind. In response, it is mostly women who have taken up the “traditional” role of caring for children during the pandemic, often choosing to give up their jobs in the process. As NPR has reported, three women have left the workforce for every two men since March. In September (the beginning of the new school year), fourtimes as many women as men left the workforce.
There is nothing wrong in itself with parents wishing to take a step back from their careers to focus on their children–so long as it is truly a choice among good options. But it is another thing when mothers feel backed into this choice due to lack of support. For employers, the prospect of their organizations encountering such a female brain drain should sound alarm bells and trigger new ideas about how to prevent it.
Here is where Magnolfi Astill’s concept of “extreme humanizing” could offer an insightful key. One of the lighter and arguably positive aspects of remote work has been the normalization of brief interruptions by children. Three years ago, a BBC reporter’s kids made global headlines when they crashed a video interview; today, no one bats an eye when a child makes a brief appearance. We’re used to it. What if that same patience stayed with us when we went back to offices? Or, stated another way: What if we got used to kids being around while we earned our living, just like they were for thousands of years?
The presence of a childcare facility located in a corporate office or commercial building is not new. We’ve written before about some of the innovations and challenges faced by employers whose vision of talent includes mothers. Since the pandemic started, we’ve written about WorkSuites, a coworking provider that has begun offering “Zoom rooms” for kids to do remote learning. Some companies, such as real estate giant SL Green, have taken this concept a step further, providing space for their employees’ children in the office and hiring tutors to supervise them.
As with many COVID-releated actions, it remains to be seen whether this will be a permanent innovation. But it is not unheard of. Several years ago, the software company Wildbit occupied a family-integrated office featuring places for the children of employees to hang out or play together while their parents worked. The office included a mezzanine level that helped control any potentially disruptive noise. But as you might expect, the space is the easy part. Wildbit’s entire culture is oriented toward being friendly and welcoming to families, with an emphasis on avoiding both late nights and working on weekends. According to CEO Natalie Nagele, the company no longer has the office at all, opting for a fully remote work model as the ultimate accommodation to families.
Will it one day soon be expected to find second graders playing with puzzles and coloring books in a conference room while their moms and dads are on conference calls? Will we get used to seeing teenagers doing homework (or even playing Fortnite!) in designated spaces while their parents collaborate down the hall? Will it become commonplace for families to have lunch together near the office? Or will these first furtive efforts fade away, short-term solutions to the temporary problems that interrupted our “normal” lives?
The answer depends on how buildings and employers respond to an extremely humanized set of occupants. It may be that more and more of them will follow the lead of places like WorkSuite and Wildbit, seeking to attract and retain talented parents by offering them more flexibility to have their kids close at hand.