Zoe Neave says her colleagues have become used to her having a child on her lap during video meetings, or cooking dinner while taking part in a meeting.
The head of digital production at ASB has been working from home a lot of the past two years, as the pandemic pushed New Zealanders out of the office and, in Neave’s case, to the kitchen table.
As well as adjusting to a shift to remote working, she’s also become a solo mother in that time, to two children aged 6 and 8.
“If you had told me two years ago that I would be working from home all day every day and attempting to teach, feed and placate the children I would have thought that was unrealistic,” she says.
But it’s become normal and now she can see benefits to the arrangement, too. “For the first week of the first lockdown I was putting on lipstick and a blazer but people just want to see the real you.”
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A big part of the adjustment has been cutting herself some slack, she says, not expecting to be able to homeschool the children for six hours each day and work full-time. “You can’t do it all… it’s mental wellbeing that’s the most important at the end of the day.”
Working from home when schools are open is a completely different experience to when schools are closed.
Then, working from home provides an easier way to juggle her work and family commitments.
“I’m able to do a load of washing, cook dinner on a call… but I do miss seeing my colleagues at the office.”
She says it can be hard to compartmentalise work, too. “I am hiding in my bedroom [on this call] and I can see a million things I need to do, dust the mirror, vacuum… I’m thinking about the homework the kids should be doing. I don’t know if it’s just women but there’s that expectation that we take the role of mothers very seriously and find it a bit harder to switch off.
“You have this thing, I’m a working woman and this is my role when I am in the office and when I get home I’m a mum but when you’re working from home the two clash. I’m lucky … my boss will always say ‘family first, the best thing to do is be a mum and look after yourself and your kids so you can bring your best self to work’.”
A new report by NZIER for ASB showed many New Zealanders were experiencing the mixed blessings that Neave highlighted when working from home – particularly when homeschooling was in the mix.
It found that, even before the pandemic, organisations were moving towards offering more remote working or hybrid options and that had accelerated.
One in five New Zealanders could work from home as much as they wanted and nearly half said the ability to work from home was either important, very important or essential.
Both men and women had a positive experience of working from home during lockdowns and said they had a better work-life balance, avoided commutes and there were cost benefits.
But women also reported picked up a significant portion of the lockdown burden, when many families were not only working from home but managing all their childcare and education there, too.
More than 50 per cent of men said homeschooling was done mostly by their partners. Another 10 per cent said it was done solely by a partner.
“Flexible working is a vital part of creating a compelling proposition for our people, but it also comes with challenges that need to be better understood so that these options are genuinely creating benefits for everyone,” said ASB chief executive Vittoria Shortt.
“Covid has created a challenge for families, with parents required to home school their children during lockdowns on top of their normal work life which is an unrealistic expectation.
”We can see from the research that this is a responsibility women tend to pick up more, with 56 per cent saying they do most or all of the home schooling. Only 22 per cent of respondents felt the homeschooling load was shared fairly. We are likely to see this continue in the near-term as families isolate due to Covid.
“Our study makes it clear that although flexible working has many benefits, it also highlights the difference between what men and women are expected to do around the home, particularly with kids being at home more. With women still taking on responsibility for the bulk of domestic chores, the risk is that they are being disadvantaged both at work and in the home, trying to juggle two roles.”
The report also found that when women worked from home, they were less likely to have the right set-up and were disadvantaged when their partners also worked from home.
Women were more likely to say they did not have all the equipment they needed to work comfortably and effectively. When there was a study or office in the house, men were more likely to occupy it while women worked from the kitchen table. A third of men and 23 per cent of women said they had a better set-up for working from home than their partners did.
Union worker Kim Moss said she would normally pick up more of the household work when she worked from home but her husband was now doing more too because he too was at home.
“If I wasn’t working from home it would definitely be mainly me, though. It makes a different having extra time at home since we both gain an hour each per day not having to drive to our offices… my mental load is still higher, though.”
She says overall she prefers working from home because it means more time with the children.
“I can fold washing in between meetings or prep dinner before they’re back from daycare so they have more attention from me. Setup-wise it’s worse, same with being isolated from colleagues. But family first and it’s a more positive experience for my family commitment.”
Shortt said employers needed to support staff with the right equipment and setup where they could so they were comfortable working from home.
“While we can’t change household division of labour for childcare and housework, we can shine a light on this challenge and support our people with active conversation.”
But researcher Jess Berentson-Shaw, of The Workshop, said division of labour concerns might be more within employers’ control than many realised.
“There are lots of policies that could, for example, encourage men in heterosexual relationships to do the caring for children from when they are born. If men start off doing care for babies and households they are least understand all the labour involved.”
Workplace policies like more leave for both parents, more part-time roles at all levels and active reward for people who took time off to parent, such as counting caring work as a competency for leaders would help, she said. It would also require a change in thinking.
“We currently tend to think about care for children being women’s work. Until we address those mindsets about what ‘men are born to do’ and what ‘women are born to do’ alongside these policies it will be hard to shape change with policies alone, they won’t stick.”
According to the research, male managers were more likely than their female counterparts to prefer their staff be physically present in the workplace and this was often due to a lack of confidence managing remote workers.
Women were more likely to be disadvantaged by workplace cultures where employees were valued for arriving early and working late, and taking few breaks.
The report also showed a reluctance to take sick days when working from home.
A fifth of respondents said it was hard to justify taking a day off when they were already at home.
“Two key issues really come out of the research as critical concerns, particularly for women, and that is work-life balance and work-life separation. Leaders can help facilitate a shift in thinking and provide support to ensure they are doing all they can to mitigate this.
“Leaders need to be clearer on what they need from their people with respect to remote and on-site working and encourage active management of work-life boundaries. Just because a day is not bookended by a commute to and from work or having a laptop at home, does not mean the workday starts at 6am and finishes whenever the last person logs off. Maintaining work-life separation is so critical for our wellbeing,” Shortt said.
“There are many benefits to working from home and when done well, it’s a win-win situation, however we need to ensure we are doing all we can to avoid the downsides that can come with this.”
As for Neave, she says she’s pleased that her kids have seen her in roles they would never have had the opportunity to witness if she was not working from home. “I like that it’s this blurred line of maternal soft gentle love carried into a workforce of strong, inspiring and powerful women.
“And also…. It’s ok to hide in the bathroom for ‘me time’, and my best tip is to create a snack box that your little ones can reach easily, load it up with all sorts and it’s a free-for-all that saves you from the ‘Mum, I’m a bit hungry’ 500 times a day.”
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