Working From Home During the Pandemic
By Laiken Shaw, September 20, 2020
The following guest blog was written by Laiken Shaw, a student at Pepperdine University
I am sure there is no need for me to explain that the coronavirus pandemic has taken a hard toll on businesses everywhere. With so many companies being forced to adjust to a virtual work environment, there have been mixed levels of productiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction across the board. Whether a business is able to handle this adjustment successfully, and can continue operations somewhat normally, truly depends on the nature of the business, the company’s culture and values, and how well management prepared its employees for the shift.
Despite the many setbacks that corporate companies have faced amidst the chaos, businesses have generally adhered to their ethical duty to keep their employees, and the public, safe from the virus to the best of their ability by making the switch to working from home. However, the adjustment to working from home has had unfortunate and unintentional consequences in regard to gender equality and modern feminism, as women are encouraged to assume the role of the stereotyped homemaker in the absence of in-person work at the office. As Helen Lewis points out, the pandemic affects men and women differently.
There has been talk about many companies continuing with the work from home lifestyle as a means to create safer environments, more flexible schedules, and increased job satisfaction for their employees, yet this choice may also promote a lack of equity.
So, while businesses have upheld their responsibility to serve the public in terms of safety, what are their ethical responsibilities in terms of opening their doors back up so that the feminist ideals we’ve worked hard to create are not forgotten amidst the chaos? What do businesses need to understand about the disadvantages of working at home for women, and what are businesses’ responsibilities to its employees and society in these cases?
I have seen many social influencers and celebrities promoting the idea that “we’re all in this together,” and that the pandemic is a “great equalizer” that affects everyone despite our differences including Jilly Boyce Kay. However, I think we are all realizing more and more that this is not the case. In reality, while the sickness stemming from the virus may not discriminate based on social status, gender, race, geographical locations, etc., the quality of life experienced during the lockdown does discriminate. While it may be easy for a celebrity who lives in a Malibu mansion to quarantine at home with their full-size gym, personal theater, and abundance of help with childcare and shopping, this is not the average experience.
“Safer at home mandates” are important for protecting society’s most vulnerable, and they are entirely necessary in order to prevent the increasing spread of the virus. However, the idea of home being the safest place is not true for everyone, and the symptoms of the mandates have even been harmful in regard to the way we view family structures and women’s roles in society according to Kay.
The adjustments families have had to make in order to adhere to quarantine procedures has had major consequences for modern feminism, as women are encouraged to revert to taking on the role of the stereotypical homemakers- a role that feminists have been working to break down for years. While both a husband and wife may be working from home, most of the domestic duties fall disproportionately on women, especially when it comes to caretaking and teaching children their online school lessons. Prior to social distancing guidelines and quarantine mandates, childcare was split between schools, day cares, grandparents, nannies, and friends; however, with the current lack of outside options, parents, particularly mothers, must take on all of the childcare responsibilities 24/7. Not only childcare, but also care for elderly family members who can no longer have in-home nurses and the increase in cooking at home has disproportionately impacted women and given them more daily responsibilities that their husbands may not be aware of.
If all of these extra responsibilities are put on women at home, how can a company expect women’s job performances to remain consistent when the playing field between men and women is even more skewed than usual?
To make matters worse, the lockdowns have allowed for a global surge in domestic violence cases, particularly for women according to Rukmini S. Part of this is due to the lack of supervision while families are quarantined in their homes together with little outside contact, and in addition, for some men, the stress and tensions caused by the lockdowns and uncertainty results in violence. For women in these circumstances, their ability to work from home successfully should be the last concern on their minds. However, due to the increase in layoffs, women in abusive situations may have to worry about their job security if their working at home performance is not ideal. Furthermore, if they are subject to a job loss, the ability to obtain the resources to support themselves, and get out of a terrible environment, may decrease. If women are victims of abuse and are living in a hostile environment at home, of course they will not want to continue with the working from home approach once conditions go back to normal.
How can businesses balance their responsibility to protect the safety of their employees from the virus and their safety and comfort at home, while also aligning their actions with the value of gender equality?
So, there is a dilemma at hand. It seems to me that businesses are supposed to open their offices (after the virus is no longer a threat) so that they can eliminate the obvious disadvantages for women, not to mention people of color and low-income families, in order to fight the increase of gender-based injustices. But on the other hand, businesses should keep a work from home environment in order to increase job satisfaction for employees seeking flexible hours and maybe even to fulfill their responsibility to the environment since less people are commuting to work.
As much as I would love to think every business can create a hybrid approach in order to satisfy everyone’s specific needs, I don’t think a large corporation can easily let everyone work from wherever they want whenever they want- it’s not that simple for businesses that require manual office work and schedules that must be adhered to, or small companies that cannot afford to keep paying for resources that are not being utilized. So how should a business go about making this decision?
I think each company must first take a look at its corporate social responsibility (CSR), and determine where they feel their duties lie in order to make an informed decision about where and how to resume business after the pandemic subsides.
Corporate social responsibility models tell us that businesses have a responsibility to do more than simply act lawfully- they have an ethical duty to prevent harm from affecting society and to promote the public’s best interest.
There are two different models of CSR, the first being economic, which says that a business has a social responsibility to “fulfill economic functions,” which includes providing products and services for consumers, revenue for suppliers, earnings for investors, and income for employees. Mintz and Morris point out in the fifth edition of their accounting ethics textbook that there is a second approach that is called the stakeholder model, which explains that businesses are meant to create value, in a variety of ways for a variety of people, while recognizing that each decision made will have a cost on someone else.
So, a business must decide whether they feel their responsibility lies in the economic interests of the public or the overall well-being of society. If they identify with the economic model, perhaps working at home will better fulfill this role because they can lessen their rent expenses and make more money for stockholders- or maybe working in the office means that more products can be made and services can be fulfilled more efficiently, thus providing for the needs of consumers.
If a business feels that their responsibilities are to society’s well-being, then perhaps they feel the need to bring people back to the office so that they can lessen the rise of patriarchal household habits and create an equal ground for women, thus promoting their value and support for feminism and equity.
There does not seem to be one right answer to me, and luckily the reality is not black and white. My point is that companies need to think about where their responsibilities lie and how their decision can serve the best interests of our changing society by promoting equality (whether they feel that comes from working at home or in the office) rather than purely serving their own interests. Businesses must be fully aware of how their decisions impact their duty to support gender equality and social justice in order to fully understand how their employees will respond to the changing work environment.
Figure 1: Chalikopoulou, Efi, “A Working Mom’s Quarantine Life,” The Washington Post, May 6, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/2020/05/06/coronavirus-pandemic-working-moms-quarantine-life/?arc404=true
Figure 2: Hill, Biff. How to Be the Perfect 1950s Housewife. Old House Books, 2016.
Figure 3: GreenFleet
Guest blog of Laiken Shaw posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on September 22, 2020. You can sign up for Steve's newsletter and learn more about Dr. Mintz’s activities at: https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter .