NWhite dudes are the ones who want to return to work. 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.
To avoid the inevitable trolls, let me say that #NotAllWhiteDudes is pushing for this return. In reality, less than 30% of white males want to go back to work, so they are a small minority. And one that is vocal.
And yes, this merry band isn’t AllWhite 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 PostAn op-ed she wrote on the topic prompted a short strike among her employees, and an apology. The same study which found about 33% of white men wanting to return full-time also showed that 22% (Black women and 16%) of Black men desired the same.
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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. Most of us are happy with our lives. Particularly 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 canIncrease our sense of belonging—particularly among Black workers.
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?
Comfort is a key word. In a perfect world, the workplace would offer a safe environment for personal development and social interaction, as well as efficient work. Men can also enjoy this environment. Particularly white men, it’s always been just that.
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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 Be rewardedThey are influenced by their work environments. 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.
The office evolved along the way. Even better tailored to meet men’s comfort at our expense. To maximize the warmth from their stylish suits and Patagonias with logo-stitched Patagonias, they are kept at a low temperature. WeWork provided kegs for community members and even ping-pong tables, but it was exposed publicly as lacking lactation room facilities. 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.
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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. Instead of spending an hour per day driving, I could spend a leisurely morning coloring with my children. Instead of going home to make dinner, when the kids are already hungry, I could cook a meal while taking care of my calls. When it was getting difficult, my husband could help. He could be there for me even though he was too busy working.
Naturally, there are those who do not. 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?”
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Eventually, I learned that the only way to avoid being summoned during my precious hours of “me time” was to simply not be home.
This made me understand my masculine desire to be at work.
This isn’t the office that we have come to know. This office was designed to provide the physical, logistical and social comforts for a much larger workforce than we currently have. 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. This would allow people to work remotely when needed, have a core team to help them, and flexible working hours to accommodate asynchronous work.
The program would offer childcare support in the form either of on-site or backup care. It also provides financial assistance to working parents who need it. This will help them balance their work and family life.
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This would correct its biases. It would ensure that performance appraisals take into account output, and that remote workers are not overlooked for promotion. Encourage all genders to use parental leave.
Yes, it is possible to keep some of the office relics from years ago. 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. It will all be a beginning, if everything goes according to plan.
Many white men in the future will tell us to go back to the way things were prior 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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