With a blurring of home and work boundaries as never before, the shift to working from home is bringing into sharp relief the wider social context of our lives. In our new normal we are now confronted with the usually less visible wider commitments and responsibilities we have outside of work.
Despite our isolation, the glimpses through online meetings into colleagues’ lives at home where we see cats on laps and catch sight of children presents a welcome, informal and relaxed form of contact. We can all relate to and empathise with the hastily muted mic and the by now familiar ‘please excuse me just a minute’ to deal with an unexpected domestic situation.
This blurring of the home/work boundary, however, is not only important for enabling greater appreciation and a more personal connection to each other. It also reveals the tensions of managing home and work, providing us with important learning that can help us in our drive towards gender equality at work.
Complex dynamics underpin the resilience of workplace gender inequalities in all forms of organisation including entrepreneurial business. Our recent review of gender challenges highlights the interplay of different dynamics in the UK workplace.
Gaps in status and pay interconnect to sustain inequalities, and this can be further fuelled by a policy-practice gap where well intentioned ‘neutral’ policies fail to take account of gendered social assumptions that can disadvantage women and men’s everyday practice at work.
Our experiences of homeworking under COVID-9 is bringing these dynamics clearly into view, with the removal of dedicated spaces, times and routines that comprise our usual regulated work environment.
At home, we may not have the extra room for a quiet office space and if we are caring for others, with lack of access to external support, it is unlikely we will be able to work regular hours (never
mind work the additional hours that are common to most professions).
The limitations presented by working from home are compounded for single parents or those with sole caring responsibilities, typically more likely to be women. For those living with other working adults, negotiating who gets to work where and when presents different complications.
With men more likely to be in higher status roles and attracting more pay, it can be more difficult to negotiate equal childcare duties. As women still take on the majority of domestic care including childcare and care of dependents their ability to manage both home and work becomes severely compromised.
Working from home under COVID-19 is also presenting a fresh set of problems for those with dependents if one partner is a key worker. Recent figures from the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimate that in the UK, 26% of all women are in key worker occupations compared with 18% of men. As key workers will be working outside of the home this encourages a rethink of traditional roles and how responsibilities are allocated
An important lesson from the shift to home based working under COVID-19 therefore is that it is unveiling the messy reality of juggling home and work. Revealing this messiness helps bring to light the complex dynamics that can maintain and challenge inequalities that affect our working lives.
Turning our gaze to our experiences of home-working under COVID-19 offers us a unique opportunity to learn from this new everyday to inform relevant and workable solutions in our efforts to develop a more inclusive new work normal.
Val Stead is a professor in leadership and management at Lancaster University Management School