Nobody wants to get back to the office quite like white dudes. White dudes in finance, white dudes in media, even white dudes in politics who famously work from home—at some point over the past two years, they’ve all decried remote work and urged us to step back into the fluorescents.
Let me just say this to get ahead of the inevitable trolls: No, #NotAllWhiteDudes are pushing this return. In fact, just over 30% of white men want to get back to the office full time, making them a minority, and an extremely vocal one at that.
And yes, this merry band isn’t all white or all dudes. New York City Mayor Eric Adams and Washingtonian Media chief executive Cathy Merrill have both waded into the discourse (with the latter’s Washington Post op-ed on the subject prompting a brief strike from her employees and a public apology). But the same study that found that about a third of white men wanted to go back full time also found that only around 22% of women (Black and white) and only about 16% of Black men wanted the same.
Anecdotally, my girlfriends and the mothers I’ve met through Marshall Plan for Moms, the movement we built to support moms through the pandemic, aren’t exactly itching to go back to their cubicles either. For most of us, and especially working moms, remote work has brought a level of flexibility and self-determination to our lives that we can’t afford to give up.
Our employers can’t afford to give it up either—in addition to allowing us moms to balance care work and professional work more efficiently, remote work sparks creativity and even raises profits. And despite our bosses touting the benefits of building better “company culture” in-person, studies show flexible working arrangements can increase our sense of belonging—particularly among Black workers.
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And yet, since basically the start of the pandemic, the linoleum-lovers have put us through the same tired “when can we get back to the office?” conversation on a Groundhog Day-like loop.
All the while, we’ve ignored the far more important conversation: Is there an office that working moms would actually be excited to return to? And if so, why aren’t men fighting for it?
In a word: comfort. The workplace, in a dream world, would be a comfortable setting for professional development, social connection, and efficient work. Of course, for men, especially white men, it’s always been just that.
The office—in the traditional, Mad Men sense–was designed to be the workplace of breadwinners: a place where men pulled in the money while their wives stayed home doing all the work to maintain their home and family (for free, obviously). It was the American postwar iteration of separate spheres ideology, the era’s way of giving men comfortable distance from their needy, messy, somehow-always-sticky kids. And like sweet potato puree on a working mom’s blazer, it’s stuck around.
Not only do men have it easier in these antiquated gender roles—their absenteeism is rewarded by their workplaces. Today, dads get to enjoy a “fatherhood premium” when they return to work after have kids: whereas working moms are penalized after giving birth, dads are more likely to avoid layoffs and get raises, regardless of how much parenting they actually pick up at home.
Along the way, the office has become even better tailored to meet men’s comfort at our expense. The temperature is set low to optimize for the added warmth of their fancy little suits and logo-stitched Patagonias. At one point, WeWork offered its community members kegs and ping-pong tables but had to be called out publicly about its lack of lactation rooms. And, of course, unlike us, men don’t have to wear ankle-breaking heels in the name of “professional attire.”
It’s not just about physical comfort either. The standard of “professionalism” is based on white male sociality, hence the “boys’ club” mentality that allows many white guys to climb the professional ladder just by hanging out and being themselves. It’s why, in pre-COVID times, women in male-dominated fields would check stats from the previous night’s big game on our way to work so we could be included in lunch conversations or pretend to have client meetings instead of admitting our nannies called in sick.
It’s no wonder that—amid all the fear, confusion, and anxiety of the pandemic’s early months—I felt so relieved to be able to work from home, and even a little excited, too.
Even though I worked in an office full of women—and therefore have long since retired the “desk parka” I wore in corporate law firms in my mid-20s—here was the chance to reclaim any mom’s most valuable resource: time. Rather than spend an hour a day commuting, I could have leisurely mornings coloring with my kids. Instead of getting home and starting dinner when said kids were already hangry, I could put up a pot of something while finishing my afternoon calls. And when it got hard, I could always lean on my husband, who could finally lend the support he was always too busy with work to offer.
Of course, those coulds never materialized—for me, or for anyone I knew.
When millions of moms and dads alike started working from home, women continued to do the majority of the care work, including 33% of married working moms who identified themselves as their children’s sole care provider. With managing my sons’ remote learning added to my plate, going to the office felt impossible, even selfish; my husband, however, believed being at home was a distraction from his “real” work.
So, the two of us created a system: from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m., he’d get some time to himself to sleep or work or catch up on Netflix while I got Cheerios poured and laundry started. Then he’d get the 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. shift: baths and pajamas. At first, I’d retreat to our room when the clock struck six, but no matter what volume I put my headphones on, I could hear my husband calling for me from the living room. “Could you just change the baby’s diaper?” “…get a bottle going?” “…see what that sound is outside?”
Eventually, I learned that the only way to avoid being summoned during my precious hours of “me time” was to simply not be home.
And I began to understand the masculine urge to go to the office.
But not the office as we know it. That office is built for the logistical, social, even physical comforts of a far more homogenous workforce than the one we have today. That’s why we need to start thinking about how we can build a new one.
A workplace designed with moms in mind would prioritize flexibility and give individual workers’ control over their time. It would grant people the opportunity to work from home when they need to, a set of core collaboration hours in which to take advantage of their teams, and more flexible hours that allow them to fit asynchronous work into their own schedules.
It would provide childcare support, either in the form of backup care, on-site facilities, or direct financial support to help working parents cover costs and keep their jobs as they balance the tasks of growing a career and growing a family.
It would address its biases: assuring that performance evaluations account for output over face time, not passing over remote workers for promotions they deserve; encouraging people of all genders to take parental leave and not punishing those who do; and rooting out the myriad forms of discrimination that keep employees from achieving their highest potential.
And yes, we can keep some relics of the offices of yesteryear. Those who work in person can still enjoy slightly stale granola bars in the break room or talk about the weather on the elevator ride back up from lunch or point at their buddy and say, “Good game, right?” while walking by his desk (to get another granola bar). Reimagining the workplace isn’t about the end of collegiality and comfort. If all goes well, for many, it will be the beginning.
In the coming weeks and months, many white men will continue telling us we should all just go back to how things were before the pandemic. But it’s our job to make sure that if we do “go back,” full-time or otherwise, we go back to offices we actually want to be in—just as much as these guys want to be at Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Price.
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