Women have been impacted more negatively by the COVID-19 crisis than men, according to a McKinsey/LeanIn.Org study on women in the workplace published in September. Women are more likely than men to have been laid off or furloughed, the study found, and as the boundaries between work and home have blurred, more than 1 in 4 women have contemplated downshifting their careers or leaving the workplace entirely.

Compliance Week set out to see if comparable findings existed for women working in the compliance space as well as whether the opposite could be true: that perhaps men in compliance were feeling the pain of the pandemic more acutely than their female counterparts. Or maybe our research would find gender was not a determining factor at all; that men and women shared equal helpings of employee stress and burnout in 2020. Compliance Week and Skillsoft jointly launched a survey, “What’s your back-to-office plan, and does it work for you?” to explore all three possibilities.

CW polled 180 compliance, audit, and risk professionals, delving into the pressure points of the pandemic, from childcare and in-person schooling, to tackling competing responsibilities of home and work life.

Return-to-office barriers

The survey found a difference of opinion existed between men and women about what practical considerations would factor into the decision of when to shift from working from home to returning to the office (if at all). The point of difference revolved around the relative significance of childcare/in-person schooling.

With many schools shuttered to curb the spread of the virus, parents have had to juggle working from home while overseeing their children’s remote learning. Until schools reopen full-time, parents with K-12 aged children must enlist or hire help; invite newcomers into their “bubble”; supervise their kids’ schooling themselves; or some combination of the above. No option is ideal.

The cohort of individuals who identified as having at least one child under 18 (hereafter referenced as “active parents”) broke down by gender almost equally: 51 percent male to 49 percent female. Within the active parents cohort, 35 percent of men said childcare had no bearing on their return to office, compared to just 14 percent of women. Moreover, 46 percent of women in the active parents cohort said childcare factored significantly into their decision to return to the office, compared to just 11 percent of men.

“Having spoken with many parents and caregivers in the compliance field, there often isn’t a single contributor to hardships experienced during the COVID-19 crisis. Lack of childcare or safe school environments for children isn’t just a feeling; it is a reality that tests prioritization for many people,” says Lisa Beth Lentini Walker, CEO of consulting firm Lumen Worldwide Endeavors and mom of four children ranging from high school to daycare.

“Caregiving for children and relatives has traditionally fallen to mothers, and while things can and will change over time, based on this driver it appears the biggest challenge for mothers in the workplace with at least one child is that when childcare and schools are not available, the responsibility for ‘making up the difference’ falls disproportionately on women. This finding would be in line with other evidence that during this pandemic women are leaving the workplace not out of choice but out of necessity to make up for gaps in care and perhaps inflexibility of working conditions,” adds Lentini Walker.

Rather than feeling hamstrung by responsibilities on the home front, men were more likely to feel constrained by their employer’s protracted timetable for returning to office. The No. 1 barrier all male respondents cited as keeping them from the office was not childcare or personal safety but company policy (42 percent). Within the active parents cohort, most men (54 percent) indicated the same: company policy trumped all other factors.

In contrast, all female respondents most frequently cited personal safety in the office as the No. 1 barrier (35 percent), suggesting women were more likely to feel personally motivated to stay home rather than obligated to do so, like many of their male counterparts. Another significant finding was the predominant barrier cited by women within the active parents cohort was, in fact, childcare (37 percent), indicating women in the active parenting stage might’ve felt the tug of domestic responsibility more strongly than men, whereas men might’ve felt the tug of work responsibility more strongly than women.

At the same time, more men (51 percent) than women (37 percent) within the active parents cohort perceived parenting as somewhat equally shared with their partner. 

“In our house, my wife has been more responsible for schooling, while I’ve been more responsible for recess. We play to our strengths,” jokes Forrest Deegan, chief ethics and compliance officer at Abercrombie & Fitch Co. While Deegan has seen evidence of traditional gender dynamics playing out in the remote work environment, he echoes Lentini’s sentiment that every situation is different, and that companies need to be flexible and understanding about the unique needs of their employees.

“Employers’ understanding is critical for working family survival—I’m not going to use the word ‘success’—through this time,” Deegan says.

“As companies approach returning to the office, it’s important for them to understand they can’t flip a switch. Returning to work will happen in waves and iterations.  Companies should lead with flexibility. Authentic and clear communication is key. Companies can set guard rails for what the expectations are while continuing to acknowledge that the situation is evolving. Corporate transparency drives employee trust, which is more important than ever. If companies are flexible and … employees feel safe to raise their hands … they’ll have a better chance at success,” says Deegan.

Productivity and remote work difficulties

Overall, work productivity has remained high during the COVID-19 crisis, with more than three-quarters of all respondents (76 percent) reporting they were more or equally productive working from home versus in the office. Still, a comparative disparity existed between male and female respondents in terms of where they felt more productive.

Nearly half of all women (49 percent) reported they felt more productive working from home than in the office. For parents, the finding was more significant: 60 percent of women with at least one child under 18 reported feeling more productive working from home. At the same time, however, the No. 1 difficulty of remote work cited by women, both in the large group and in the active parents cohort, was “lack of separation between work and home life.”

Many men (37 percent) also reported they felt more productive working from home than in the office. However, within the active parents cohort, the story changed slightly. There arose an equal split between men who felt more productive working from home and men who felt less productive (35 percent each). All men, including those with at least one child under 18, most frequently cited “missing in-person interaction/collaboration” as the top difficulty of remote work.

Burnout and post-pandemic work schedules

The challenges of remote work during a pandemic have fostered a special variety of burnout—a cocktail of Zoom fatigue, cabin fever, and an inability to “switch off”—but not so much that most employees in the compliance space were considering a drastic career move.

Despite the unique challenges wrought by the pandemic, the vast majority of respondents (77 percent) were not considering a change in work status. Even within the active parents cohort, respondents remained unflappable: 77 percent of women and 73 percent of men vowed to stay put at their jobs.

Still, the pandemic is changing people’s perspectives, seemingly irrevocably. When compliance professionals thought about a post-pandemic work schedule, their vision looked different from what they had lived by before COVID-19. Prior to the pandemic, 77 percent of all respondents had worked in an office full-time. Now, more than half (56 percent) indicated a desire to work a hybrid schedule once the pandemic subsided: two or more days at home, the remainder in the office.

The shift in outlook was more pronounced in the active parents cohort: 77 percent of parents had worked full-time in an office pre-pandemic; now 63 percent envisioned a hybrid work schedule down the line. More specifically, 85 percent of active working moms had worked in an office pre-pandemic, and now 69 percent of them wanted the hybrid schedule post-pandemic. The shift was milder among active working dads: 68 percent had worked full-time in an office before COVID-19, and now 59 percent imagined they’d work a hybrid schedule post-pandemic.

Still, as Amee Sandhu, CEO of Lex Integra, writes in “Sending the Elevator Back Down” by Mary Shirley and Lisa Fine: “Burnout is real, and it can take a long time to recover from.” Sandhu’s advice for business leaders is to avoid contributing to burnout among their teams.

“Do you have a ‘face time’ policy in your workplace, or do you take a flexible approach and allow your team to govern their schedules and come and leave from work as they may need in order to take care of their health or families? Do you have updated work-from-home policies that benefit your employees? Do you lead by example and take time away from the office as you need?” Sandhu asks.

As we all look so very forward to post-pandemic life, it is important that business leaders consider the needs and priorities of their employees. For the most part, they have kept up their end of the bargain through the pandemic—88 percent of respondents feel their employers have supported them enough to be successful working remotely. When the COVID-19 crisis does end, as it eventually will, employees will have earned the right to a flexible work schedule, which so many of them envisage.